“Europe muddles her dreaming, is loud
And critical beneath the varied domes
Resonant with tribute and with commerce.”
Not a response to the referendum result but Geoffrey Hill’s words from “Of Commerce and Society” published in 1959.
Geoffrey Hill died a few days ago on 30 June. He was one of the Great Names of twentieth century English poetry. I have some of his work in anthologies, and reading “Genesis”, “A Prayer to the Sun”, “Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings” and excerpts from “Mercian Hymns” I encountered work that was stern and unflinching, poems which matched the violence of the present with the violence of the past (“By blood we live”), and included God for good measure:
“Jehovah’s touchy methods, that create
The connoisseur of blood, the smitten man.”
But I felt a neighbourliness towards him when I learnt that he came from Bromsgrove, only a few miles from where I grew up in the Midlands. In “Mercian Hymns” he wrote of his grandmother who worked from childhood in a nail-maker’s workshop. Nail-making was a traditional and hard Black Country cottage industry. “It is one thing to celebrate the ‘quick forge’, another to cradle a face hare-lipped by the searing wire.” Hill’s imagination seized on Offa, King of Mercia, evidence of whose reign can still be found in his great defence along the Welsh border.
From the Welsh border to the Scottish border
Carol Ann Duffy’s work could not be more different from Hill’s (a few years ago there was a bit of a spat between them). On Tuesday night I heard her read in Carlisle Cathedral along with Gillian Clarke, Jackie Kay, Imtiaz Dharker and specially invited local poet, Jacob Polley, on the Laureates’ Shore to Shore tour, in collaboration with independent bookshops (Bookends for the Carlisle reading). Between each poet John Sampson provided cheerful fanfares and melodies on a variety of wind instruments.
Jackie Kay commented on how quiet we all were – we were listening, that’s why! But several of the poems took on a sombre post-referendum atmosphere so I think we were a bit subdued too. Jacob Polley read “The Ruin”, his translation of an unfinished Anglo-Saxon poem (“We don’t know what it says at the end”), and “The News” which began “Rooks don’t care”.
A more intimate occasion was Jacci Bulman’s Cumbrian launch of her first collection A Whole Day Through from Waking in Penrith on Friday night. Jacci’s poems spring directly from her own experience. Here’s a little flavour –
“In the midst of playing
at getting life right
I spend the afternoon
for a phone call.”
Waiting for a significant phone call and all that “playing/at getting life right” implies – we can identify with those things. It was lovely to be at the launch and see Jacci supported by family and friends.
What a lot of different poetry in one week – and I’m still trying to cling on to my inner serenity from Bardsey Island.