Shaggy Fellows

David Norbrook

  • A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After by David Perkins
    Harvard, 694 pp, £19.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 674 39946 3
  • Collected Poems by Geoffrey Hill
    Penguin, 207 pp, £3.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 14 008383 9
  • The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill by Henry Hart
    Southern Illinois, 305 pp, $24.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 8093 1236 0

‘In the gloom, gold gathers the light against it.’ In choosing this line from Pound’s 11th Canto as one of the epigraphs to his Collected Poems, Geoffrey Hill concentrates our attention on one of the central problems posed by Pound’s poetry and explored by his own. Beauty is no absolute guarantee of truth or morality; art may illuminate or corrupt. As David Perkins points out in Modernism and After, Pound is incomparable amongst modern poets for the rhythmic subtlety of his evocation of sensuous beauty, of the play of light and shade. For Perkins, this lyricism is the redeeming feature of his poetry. He deplores Pound’s fascistic and anti-semitic politics, but he feels able to abstract the beauty from the politics. ‘Evaluation,’ he says, ‘is always personal’; he enjoys the lyrical passages, and for him these outweigh the political unpleasantness.

Separations of political from literary issues are frequent in Perkins’s massive book, the second volume of a continuing encyclopedic survey of modern American and British poetry. It is difficult to review such a book without producing a catalogue of inclusions and omissions. The scope of the inclusions is certainly impressive, with attention given to black and woman writers and to a broader range of British writing than might have been expected from an American critic: there can be few readers who will not find ways into new poetic territory from this enthusiastically written book. Perkins is at times forced into self-parody: ‘Except for her poetry and madness, Anne Sexton (1928-74), née Harvey, lived as a suburban housewife.’ But he does his best to enliven things with biographical vignettes. The revelation that John Ashbery was a radio Quiz Kid at the age of 14 does nothing to undermine my prejudices against his work, but the ever-catholic Perkins gives a sympathetic introduction. How far, though, is the book a history? By continual cross-cutting, Perkins gives an idea of the interactions of different literary schools. However, he provides little sense of the external relationships of these schools, or of the interactions between poetry and the public world, and he is suspicious of poets who seek explicit political involvement. The suspicion seems to be deeper when it comes to anti-Vietnam war poets such as Bly and Levertov: Pound gets off relatively lightly.

Sifting out the good, lyrical bits of the Cantos from the bad, political bits is no way to come properly to terms with Pound’s poetry. The desire ‘to dream the Republic’ is central to the Cantos, and informs its rhetoric. Gold is at once an instrument of usurious decadence, a false, parasitical, fecally dark supplement to natural light, and an emblem of a pristine order in which linguistic and monetary value were natural rather than arbitrary signs; Pound’s poetry of light tries, in the face of its own artifice, to recapture that order, to vindicate its organic unity against the capitalist, democratic, pluralistic proliferation of arbitrary representations which he denounced as ‘Jewsury’. If the anti-semitism is structural rather than incidental, the critical problem becomes intense – for those, at least, who find the poetry compelling, yet are unable to resort to the bland evasions of personal taste. The problem of the Pisan Cantos is that stated in Walter Benjamin’s dictum: ‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ Pound’s paradise, like many utopias, is a hell for the excluded; Milton long ago raised the possibility that the songs of the fallen angels, which ‘suspended Hell’, might be indistinguishable from the songs of the saved.

Or might, as Geoffrey Hill puts it, ‘harmonise strangely with the divine/Love’. The publication of Hill’s Collected Poems illustrates how consistently he has worried at the problem of how far poetic beauty can ‘suspend’ or redeem the weight of moral and political judgment. The question that has polarised his critics is whether Hill’s poetry offers a solution or is part of the problem. Perkins, whose book will delight those who complain that critics don’t offer value-judgments any more, ranks Hill as one of the three best living British poets (as an index of Perkins’s preferences, the other two are Thom Gunn and C.H. Sisson). In the opposing camp, Tom Paulin provoked an indignant response in this journal in 1985 when he indicted Hill for his reactionary and derivative ‘kitsch feudalism’. Hill’s admirers responded with extreme defensiveness, representing Paulin’s intrusion of politics into the realm of culture as outrageous vandalism, and arguing that, since he speaks with an Irish accent, he has no right to pronounce upon English poetry. But can a better case be made for Hill?

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