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Hill Climbing

The major English poet Geoffrey Hill is well-known for arguing that confessional poems of the quotidian fail to reach the immense heights of more imaginative, less-self-centred, poetry. From this position (which I have simplified for the sake of debate) then follows a dismissal of nearly all the poets, poems and poetry since 1945, including Larkin's, Plath's, Lowell's, etc.

It is good for great poets to have their own guiding lights, their own poetics, but is not so good for other readers and poets to believe them when they claim theirs is the chosen path.  Poets do not make good messiahs. The best thing that poets give us (usually) is their poetry, not their criticism - and we are best to go by that.  Empson and Jarrell may be the exceptions here.

In the case of Hill, it is hard to locate his idea of the imagination in his work, which is almost never quite as grandly imaginative in the way that say Milton's was.  Hill is a rhetorical poet more like Pope, or Dryden than he might care to admit.  He bases many of his poems on history, theology, and myth, and inter-textually relates his poetry to a certain Tradition of Anglo-centric feeling and thinking.  His poetry about WWII, or the Holocaust, or Anglicanism, for example, are triggered by real events, issues and ideas.  They are perhaps not directly personal, but they are only impersonal on a very basic level.  The choice of theme and subject a poet makes is always a signature, and is a self-revelation.

If a poet writes about being raped or punched, that is no less vital a trigger, than if they write about reading about a German priest dying in the 1940s.  One may be more removed emotionally, but that is hard to prove.  Both subjects are at one remove from the poem which is generated.

The idea that poetry is nowadays quotidian in concern may be the case, but the lofty and distant and unusual are not always the most compelling literary themes.  Much of the greatest poetry, from Chaucer, to Donne to Eliot, is concerned with human circumstances in relation to society - desire, love, fear of death, religious consolation, grief, elation - and emotionality, combined with intellect, is not owned only by those who compose imaginatively and without direct recourse to self.  Coleridge's famous Xanadu is a rare example of a poem seemingly removed from the common realm entirely, but it is hardly removed from Coleridge's drug dreams.

It may be tedious to read about a poet's love affairs, groin operations, drunken sprees, divorces, back injuries and travel; but too much War of the Roses, WWI, Troy and allusion to Comus can also become stale. As Larkin proved, great poems can come from smaller things (though arguably Larkin's major poems are on the major rhetorical themes).

I remain unconvinced that poems written from direct experience and the personal realm are necessarily going to be weaker.  They may be less magisterial.  They may be less theoretical.  And less abstract. And less Marxist. But some very poor and pompous poetry can be made from theory, ideas and ideologies, as well as the classics.
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