Thursday, March 26, 2009


From the Wikipedia page on English poet Geoffrey Hill (b. 1932):
In an interview in The Paris Review (2000), which published Hill's early poem 'Genesis' when he was still at Oxford, Hill defended the right of poets to difficulty as a form of resistance to the demeaning simplifications imposed by 'maestros of the world'. Hill also argued that to be difficult is to be democratic, equating the demand for simplicity with the demands of tyrants.

(Of course, this could be an inaccurate paraphrase of whatever he said in the interview. Still. The idea fascinates.)

My 2 cents: I know I can't live without the apparent obscurities of Dylan Thomas and Hart Crane, the luminous intricacies of Wallace Stevens, and at one time was even seduced by the somewhat surreal (some would say meaningless) verse of John Ashbery. But when does obscurity become an evasion? I hear Miss Marianne Moore chiding, "Nor can we dignify confusion by calling it baroque." There is, of course, a difference between obscurity and confusion: something very meaningful can be obscure at a first glance.

Geoffrey Hill is no idler or surrealist. As Donald Hall noted with admiring bewilderment in the 1970s, Hill was still writing devotional sonnets when everyone else was letting it all hang out. Hill's writing has weight, and is not (at least in the poems I half-remember) as obscure as the work of the others I've mentioned.

So: how much obscurity does a poet have a right to? Should we ask the surrealists, the Language poets, the ghost of Gertrude Stein?

I guess what puzzles me about the paraphrase of Hill's words (and I hope Wikipedia is being true to what he said) is the bit about obscurity being democratic. Obscurity is certainly libertarian; I don't know about democratic.

As usual, I find myself a bit confused. Anyone out there with a helpful thought or two?