The Orchards of Syon a Decade Later

by Mike Walker

Geoffrey Hill is one of those names in contemporary English-language poetry that passes our lips without thinking when we consider our current poetry that has ample roots in historical forms and scholarship. He is one of those rare poets today who, whether we like him or not, read him or not, is carrying forth not only the modern tradition of Eliot but the traditions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and their literatures. His own poetry is informed and bolstered by fact that he is an academic, and not of the MFA creative writing program sort but one who teaches old-school English literature the old fashioned way at an old-enough institution—Boston University—and who recently was elected to the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford, one of that hallowed institution’s most-respected of honors. His most recent book of original poetry, Clavics, was released in 2011 and a sweeping anthology of his work, Collected Poems 1952-2012, is due for publication in 2013. He is, no doubt, a made man in poetry—some would even probably apply the term “elder statesman” either in honest respect or as a sign of his place in history and the passing of time away from the type of poetics Hill favors, but without doubt he’s made a deep mark in the poetry of our time.

Come 2012—a year that is only a shy month away—Hill’s 2002 book of poems, The Orchards of Syon, will be a full decade old. The Orchards of Syon was one of those landmark volumes, one that came forth in the same year and even the same season as Jorie Graham’s book Never. It was published in a time when America was still trying to define its position post 9/11 and a time also when the arts were at once seen as less than crucial to society and more vital than ever. Thus, Hill’s book would be one of those to carry values of the recent past into a new decade marked by fear, by war, by a new sense of urgency that some would contend we—Americans, Brits, Westerners—had not felt since the heyday of the Cold War. Hill, for his part, draws on everything from his childhood in rural England to Dante to World War I’s horrors: he pulls together an adroit, powerful, and consummate fabric of literary and historical references but threads it all into a cohesive whole via the yarn of personal experience:

And here—and there too—I
wish greatly to believe: that Bromsgrove
was, and is, Goldengrove; that the Orchards
of Syon stand as I once glimpsed them.
But there we are: the heartland remains
heartless – that’s the strange beauty of it.

There is something quite warming and even tonic about such words; Hill probably was unaware when he began these poems that they would be not only desired for their qualities of solace in time of grief and fear but necessary in the world in 2002. To the roll and green of the English countryside—written about time and again and by the giants like Clare and Wordsworth—he brings a contemporary view but one that is based in the tautologies of the classical world, the Miltonian grandeur and Romantic complexity of description, the lustre of the Victorians and the bittersweet tale of modern European history. Hill understands how poetry in the English language evolved since the influence of the chansons du geste through Spencer’s metonymy and metaphor up via Eliot to where we are today, and every word of it at times it seems is somehow repeated in his own work. He’s not, as some critics would claim, a deep-dyed Tory but yes, it’s clear he’s read Thucydides. He sees and hears history resoundingly and if he is conservative, well, what other choice has he? Steeped in the traditions of high culture, the British victory of the second World War, the highs and lows of the old-world nation-state through two centuries, those words from every dusty volume of Cicero—what choice has he?

Though there are ample voices of old dead white guys here and there in Hill’s poetics, it is a woman—albeit a dead white one—who at times steps forth from the shadows to make her influence most known: Emily Dickinson, that most elusive and sublime of American poets, is clearly an influence on Hill. The following is pure Dickinsonian speech though adapted for contemporary context and devoid of the coy, cunning, shy nature Dickinson offered up—Hill needs not those trappings in these frank days, not when he’s a man expected to write poems for a living:

            Now you also,
sine nomine, if that is what you are,
earthy-etherial, I desire you
to fathom what I mean. What do I mean?

So sine nomine and sans tache, Hill has already implored our attention while confusing the dickens out of us—and this is still very early into the book, folks. His poetry is known to be “difficult” but once again like Graham, this is both the effort of critics and I think by now the effort of Hill himself to live up to certain expectations. The same way you wait for high notes on a Mariah Carey song simply because she’s known for such, you wait for the latin, the odd historical references, and the careful way with obtuse language that are by now hallmarks of Hill. If he left these out, if he aimed for clear prose, we’d all feel rather let down. Still, Hill’s choice of words is at times overwrought while in others places simply too trite or expected: a lot of things are described as “ash grey” or like-minded words that remind us only of what we already know: he’s still talking about England and wants to underscore the effect of the wars post-industrial growth, and urban sprawl upon the pastoral countryside he recalls from his youth.

There are two things I find highly worthy in Hill’s work here, though, and it’s not that he has written the type of poetry that probably helps the editors of the New Criterion sleep better at night, knowing that all postmodern poetry isn’t confessional or too-earnestly experimental. Firstly, yes, Hill writes a rare form of poetry for these days—a poetry that is concerned with place, with history, with the personal but at a rather impersonal level. Hill restores to the canon via these orchards the valid need for poetry to be “about” things instead of being about people or one’s self. Sure, other poets—many other poets—still write about a morning’s chill or an old woman they always see at the post office, but Hill approaches each and every topic with a real attention to word-craft: his works bespeak his efforts, and stand out as what laymen expect of poetry—to be poetic, stately, even verbose. His poems look even in simple serif font like calligraphy due to his skill and choice of words. The second task Hill accomplishes in this collection—and one he makes most clear here over all his other volumes of poetry—is that he provides an experience that seems perfectly literary and not given over to any other media. In an age that is, even moreso now than in 2002, all about adaptation and multimedia, Hill proves poetry to be better at taking on a landscape than a camera’s lens or page of watercolor paper at times. Pound knew this, Milton knew this, but even in Pound’s day the lines between media were pretty clear—today, should we write a poem or do a video, or something else? Hill proved, in 2002, that poetry would never become outdated or secondary to other mechanisms of expression by, wonderfully enough, writing poetry that one could at first glance declare old—even outdated.

Don’t think for a second that Hill isn’t aware of what he’s doing—though again, he could not have been as aware in 2002 as he should be now in retrospect. He provides us with his own view on the utility of poetry:

                               I ask you:
what are poems for? They are to console us
with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.

Well yes, “perfect pitch”: that is pretty much the feeling you get from these poems. We needed poems to console us in 2002, and many were written for that specific post-9/11 purpose, but poems that were innocent of the most recent disaster they’d desire to console us of might in fact be the best poems to apply for that grim job. The Orchards of Syon skirt all over history and often trudge alongside pain and suffering in no small part because so much of what we record as worthwhile in history is the wars, the natural disasters, the rulers overthrown, the kings who died only to have their brothers fight it out as to who got what in their kingdoms. I read this book in 2002 and I at once found it highly useful in realizing something every politician should have seen with clarity: 9/11 wasn’t some horrible entry into a new chapter of history, but simply the type of event that sadly is commonplace throughout history and only made worse by the ability of technology to scrip terror in large print. Hill, though he certainly did not plan on it, becomes a master of providing us with empathy for when and where we need it yet also a stern teacher who can undercut our sorrow in this book.

It is easy enough to mine history and literature—especially the classics—for literary metaphors and iconography, and it’s a trend we see in plenty of contemporary poets. However, Hill’s approach goes far beyond this, it returns us to a type of poetry that takes us back to everything from Thomas Chatterton’s youthful attempts to create the persona of Thomas Rowley to John Clare writing about his own nature-filled childhood as Hill would centuries later under very different circumstances but under the same oblative auspices. Hill’s Orchards of Syon have without doubt stood the test of a decade and I suspect will easily stand the test of many more. Reading it now, I had the same feeling of unique greatness I felt years ago when in a dusty and quiet university library on a misty morning I first encountered John Matthias’ Bucyrus: two very different books of poetry, but much alike in their abilities to isolate the reader from his world for an hour or two and make him reconsider it anew.

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