Friday, May 27, 2011

"The grading and measuring of words"

One is initially inclined to read this as irritating condescension on Geoffrey Hill's part:
Hill spoke deliberately slowly so I can’t miss or mistake a word. He is also very considerate: when naming critics or texts he offers to spell them, then checks that I have caught up with him before beginning a new train of thought. At times, however, he sounds as though dictating to a machine: ‘As I said at my lecture it is only Ruskinian Tories who would sound at all like old fashioned Marxists, period. I read and re-read Ruskin- comma- particularly- and now I’m going to spell something for you: “F-o-r-s”, new word, “C-l-a-v-i-g-e-r-a” ’. He often asks me to repeat his answers back to him, insisting that I change a word or watching as I scribble out one phrase and replace it with another. Half way through our meeting he asks if I intend to write up the interview as a question and answer or to paraphrase him: when I admit I am undecided he responds that he will not consent to its publication if it is paraphrased. He agrees that the interview can be accompanied by an introduction and in exchange I promise to quote him directly.
(from an Oxford Student interview). Read on, however, and the situation becomes clearer:
You have famously defended the right of art to be ‘difficult’: would you therefore defend the right of poetry to be elitist?
We have to define what we mean by elitist: considerable confusion will arise unless we can get clear in our heads what ‘elitist’ means. If ‘elitist’ means belonging to some threatened hierarchy of the intelligence then I think that the poet has an obligation to attune her poetry in that direction. There is a largely unknown order of human beings who believe in that impossible thing: intrinsic value. One must work as if intrinsic value were a reality, even though I myself know no way of demonstrating its real existence.
What if we say that ‘elite’ means university educated?
Well I can’t assume that it does. Wordsworth was a hierarchist of the imagination and the unlettered man or woman can be as much a part of his world as Wordsworth himself. 
How is one to paraphrase this? What does it even mean? My best guess is that Hill means something like this: just as Wordsworth, a hierarchist of the imagination, classified the world into things that were imaginatively valuable, like his peasants, and things that were not (like Johnson's prose); so "the poet" ought to be a hierarchist of the intelligence, to order things by their intrinsic intellectual value, and to "attune" her work toward things that possess such value. (To ignore fashion and "relevance," to know how to "leave out" and keep valuable distinctions from collapsing,...) He cannot mean too sharp a distinction between intelligence and imagination or the second answer would be a non sequitur. He might also be using hierarchy to mean rank-in-a-hierarchy, which gives you the more conventional position that the poet should write for an audience of peers, but makes the Wordsworth remark less intelligible. In any case this is the sort of answer you would have to spell out; one feels the bafflement that led the interviewer to paraphrase the first answer as an evasive yes, though I am sure that it isn't that: elitism in the conventional sense is not a charge Hill would "evade." (Though he is surprisingly -- and hilariously -- cagey through the rest of the interview...)

Hill's critical habits are perhaps a useful guide to what one should expect here; one is not aware of any critics who operate more completely at the level of the (usually overexamined) word, for instance in this essay on Dryden in The Enemy's Country. This remark from the essay is perhaps relevant:
Quotidian language, both casual and curial, is itself highly charged, but charged with the enormous power of the contingent and circumstantial, "a confused mass of thoughts", a multitudinous meaning amid which the creative judgment must labor to choose and reject. There are meanings which are self-evidently wrong ("reserate" is not the Latin for "shut the door") but the "meaning" of a poem, its constitution, the composition of its elements, is not so readily extractable from the constituted solecisms of the age; and though the grading and measuring of words presupposes the ability to recognize ambiguities, there are some ambiguities so deeply impacted with habit, custom, procedure that the "recognition" is in effect the acknowledgment of irreducible bafflement.

(Btw I love "grading" in this context.)


Jenny Davidson said...

I am too lazy or perhaps just disinclined to go and read the whole interview, but I would wonder whether it isn't 'hierarch' more in the sense of prelate (it might even actually be a mistranscription), so that he is setting Wordsworth up as the charismatic authority in some sort of group encounter with the imagination in which not everyone can possibly be the same kind of authority/have the same kind of special status that W. does?

("Graded" is indeed very good!)

Zed said...

"Disinclination" is fair (I am fond of Hill's work for the plenitude of "graded"-like moments but confess that his sensibility is none of mine), and it is clear that some notion of prelate-like authority is implied, but where I'm stuck is understanding WHAT authority is being claimed by Hill, on what grounds. The direction of the Wordsworth ref. is clear, but I am puzzled re what Hill thinks confers status -- after all, being a peasant on a hill is crap unless you're sighted, even if you're the "woman, with her garments vexed and tossed / by the strong wind," and I don't understand what he thinks any of this has to do w/ his own practice or w/ the question of whether poetry should be elitist. Maybe it is just an evasion...

zbs said...

Hill's remarks seem perfectly intelligible for me, if predictably tautological. He is taking the oft-abused license of the artist to attempt to reconfigure the questions to the "view from the inside," so:

1. The poet is compelled to follow artistic instinct, if this results in work that requires prerequisites, so be it. This is justified by faith in "intrinsic value," which he half-heartedly demeans.

2. The following question, as I think you suggest, demonstrates the interviewer's probably not up to the task. Hill doesn't seem to take it seriously. Because Wordsworth (of all people!) is a "hierarchist of the imagination," which sounds to me like a fancy way of saying "artist." I also like "unlettered," and the rest of Hill's self-dramatization as a casual archaist.

I think your distinction takes too much from this—"peers" in particular I think would violate GH's "from the inside" manner.

Dude is hilarious, also, later referring to Carol Anne Duffy, he says "I'm not naming names. If their decision is the right one, their work will endure;" which I think takes "intrinsic value" and ups the ante with some omniscient force. He also names names later.

In its circular way though I think he's right about much else, which sadly isn't very illuminating here, since the interviewer apparently wants an account of his ballot behavior.

Zed said...

I think I was just trying to read his remarks in a way that answered both questions, but this seems quite impossible to do. Anyway Hill seems to have chosen his words carefully so I'd like to understand what precisely he wanted them to mean. Is "a threatened hierarchy" (a) a threatened rank in a stable hierarchy or (b) a threatened hierarchical structure, i.e., distinctions the validity of which is either subjective or dissolving, or (c) a vanishing priesthood? What does it mean to "attune one's poetry" toward this threatened hierarchy? On readings (a) and (c) the point is one shouldn't sell one's work; on (b) it is that one should avoid falling into the primal soup of everyday language. Both are plausible w/ Hill. I don't think he is half-heartedly demeaning value; he's just refusing to argue for it. I agree that Hill's remark about Wordsworth probably has nothing to do with the second question, but imagine hierarchist (or hierarch) means _something_ specific, and has some traceable link to the first answer. One natural reading is to take W. as being a sort of medium, but it is not clear what a medium of the intelligence might be. Another reading that seems possible is my original one, which is to say that W. was a "hierarchist" as in willing and able to separate out the things that attracted his primary imagination: i.e., that peasants happened to appeal to W. just as books happen to appeal to Hill. This probably comes closest to addressing the interviewer's Q. because the point is that poetry needn't be obscure as a rule, Hill's poetry just happens to be so because that's what appeals to him.

I agree that some of the answers are hilarious. However the archaism is not an act!