Geoffrey Hill is one of the best poets currently writing in English. Since the fifties he has produced a body of work that is both inspired and inspiring yet many readers are deterred from reading his work because of his reputation for difficulty.
This reputation stems from Hill's references to fairly obscure people, equally obscure texts and an insistence on 'adapting' syntax to his own needs. He has given a number of reasons over the years for writing in this way: he doesn't want to insult the intelligence of his readers; life is difficult and complex and he tries to reflect this in his work; he often doen't know what a poem may mean.
To read Hill is an enervating and infuriating process. He uses a variety of forms and styles to say the most astonishing things, commenting on everything from the nature of grace to Jimi Hendrix.His poetry is complex because he has complex things to say. In a recent interview he expressed the view that all of his work is, at root, concerned with the fate of his soul. A consistent thread running through his output is the ongoing interest in martyrs and their fate(s). He has also written that one of the basic functions of the poem is to 'memorialise' the dead. One of his finest and most humane poems is the one written in memory of Gillian Rose, the social theorist.
Sir Geoffrey has explained his interest in martyrs as stemming from his personal admiration of these people who chose to sacrice themselves, often by means of torture and execution, rather than to give up their beliefs. I'm of the view that there's also there is also a connection being made about the nature of a death having influence over how the soul is judged.
Writing verse has always been a struggle for Hill and readers need to participate in that struggle with him to get the most from his work. Those who do this will find it impossible not to feel some affection for Geoffrey Hill. The infuriation comes from the almost casual aside that, when investigated, throws up a whole range of issues that can distract from the core of the work. 'Triumph of Love' refers twice to Thomas Bradwardine and this turns out to be an intricate argument about the 'New Pelagian' controversy in the 14th century. The reader then has to decide how far to pursue this rather than just reading the poem. 'The Orchards of Sion' contains several references to 'Atemwende' (breathturn) by Paul Celan or the use Celan made of this term in his 'Meridian' address. Either way, this does feel more than a little gratuitous.
Hill's religious beliefs (very High Anglican) and political views (he has described himself as a 'hierarchical Tory') are idiosyncratic but you don't need to share these in order to get a lot from his work, his poetry is immensely varied in form and subject matter (he is also our most accomplished nature poet). One of the key features of Hill's politics is his patriotism and his nostalgia for a Britain that never actually existed. His Toryism doesn't sit well with his anger at the poverty of his grandparents which demostrates a keen solidarity with those who are impoverished by the forces of Capital.
Hill is very, very serious about poetry but this cannot be separated from his faith. He has written that the poet should look to create a shock of semantic and ethical recognition at the same time. To his credit, most of Hill's work achieves this difficult task.
It is a mistake to be drawn into the early/late Hill debate. This is supposedly characterised by a drop in quality after Hill sought treatment for a mental health problem. This is not the case, there are successful poems on either side of the chronological fence just as there are poems that don't 'work' quite as well.
However, some of us are concerned that a recent increase in 'productivity' has resulted in a drop in quality. It is reasonable to suggest that 'Oraclau', 'Clavics' and 'Odi Brabare' aren't (by Hill's standards) very good at all although I would argue that 'Clavics' is much more successful than the other two.
Hill's references to obscure figures can be daunting but are usually resolved by use of the web to track down meaning and context. It is not usuallly neccessary to become completely familiar with the the work or person alluded to but some insight is often helpful. For example, there is a reference to Gabriel Marcel that I followed only as far as knowing that he was a French Existenialist Christian. It wasn't until a later reference appeared that I looked at what the main tenets of Marcel's thinking were. This made the two poems much easier to grasp but has also given me a broader context for the later work.
I started with 'Scenes from Comus' and became intrigued because it's a serious and dense sequence that made me smile a lot. It is often overlooked but it is written with enormous flair and confidence by a poet at the height of his powers. At the time (2005) I was disilusioned with the state of contemporary poetry, convinced that it was both mediocre and inward lookng. My mind was changed by Comus and this was more than confirmed by the rest of Hill's work.
Another starting point is the brilliant 'Mercian Hymns' which is ostensibly about Offa (king of Mercia during the early Middle Ages) but also encompasses Englishness and considerations of political power and authority. It's also eminently readable. One of the technical accomplishments of the sequence is the way that it moves from the eighth to the twentieth century and back again in a way that makes readerly 'sense'.
'Triumph of Love' is probably Hill's most experimental work which examines the horrors of the twentieth century and asks questions about cultural surival, the nature of morality and the workings of grace, to name but a few of the many themes. Hill throws himself into this sequence and recounts aspects of his childhood and also includes reasonably abusive responses to three of his critics. It is also the only work that I know of that manages to include Gracie Fields and Michel Foucault in (almost) the same breath. It also helps to know that Gracie Fields was the name of a paddle steamer that was used in the evacution of British soldiers from Dunkirk in 1940- although this isn't as important as finding out about the thought of Marcel. The title of the sequence refers to how we have survived given the very real horrors of the twentieth century.