Thursday, July 18, 2013

"...purporting to be accessible, it is in fact haughty and condescending"

Here is another excerpt from an interview with poet Geoffrey Hill at The Paris Review:
HILL

[...]

I’ll go further and say that I think men and women who write poetry or write music or paint are finally responsible for what they do. They are entitled to praise for any success they achieve and they should not complain of just criticism. I do stress that, just criticism. I do not think that poems and paintings and string quartets are created by currents of history. At the same time I think these individual men and women who are ultimately solely responsible for what they write and what they do as artists are very powerfully affected by contingent circumstance.

INTERVIEWER
Could you also call it autobiography in the end?

HILL
Not necessarily, no, because autobiography is always apologetic—apologetic from apologia. I mean that we are affected every moment of our lives by pressures for which a not wholly satisfactory analogy is the pressure of the air around us. I can’t conceive of the discovery and development of a personal voice that is totally or even largely unaware that its existence is threatened the whole time by those things in discourse or communication that are alien to its own being. One shapes the personal voice in some way. One either does or one doesn’t. And I would distinguish the first-rate artist from the others by precisely this ability. He or she is first-rate to the extent of having realized, often with very great difficulty, the personal note amid the acoustical din that surrounds us all. And the lesser artist is so because he is less able to hear and to elicit the voice of the authentic self from the many voices of the not-self and, indeed, from the many voices of our time, which are themselves drastically inauthentic.

Obviously in having this sense of things I show myself to be not entirely in sympathy with the thought of John Locke, where (in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding) you do get a sense that the function of language is to be an unembarrassing ancillary a, to the concept and b, to the conduct of business. The tamer and more restrained language is, the better it is for the purpose and function of civil society. I think that the field of modern communications would like to think that it is neo-Lockean, but in fact, at its worst it has none of the limited but definite virtues that Locke had. It is reductive, and yet chaotic. Or, let us say, reductive, oversimplified, and yet violently confrontational. Such simplification of language—what one might call a kind of mass-demotic—is gripped by its own oxymoron; purporting to be accessible, it is in fact haughty and condescending, because it will not respect the intelligence of those from whom it demands a response.

INTERVIEWER
I suppose you could say that that, then, is one of the problems of those critics who have a problem with what they call the difficulty of your work: they’re assuming a readership that is having the same difficulty that they themselves are having.

HILL
The first obligation for any real critic is to be self-critical rather than self-satisfied. But reviewers will say things that are equivalent to either “this man is completely out of touch with his time,” or “we have grown cloth ears,” which seems to be a question of real significance; but having made the point, only one side of the issue is taken up, which is that the poet clearly has lost touch with his time. And the promise held out for further investigation of the alternative—“or we have grown cloth ears”—is not taken up at all. That seems to me to indicate a considerable degree of self-satisfaction and humorlessness.

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Resisting tyrannical simplification

The following comes from an excellent interview with the poet Geoffrey Hill at The Paris Review (the interview is from 2000; I recently came across the link via the apparently dormant Poetix):
INTERVIEWER
What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.

HILL
Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.

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