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Identity Politics and Political Thought:

After the hectic electoral campaigning in 2014 the polity has become so polarized that even intellectuals have taken sides rather than thought about what is happening in politics. Why has political identity rather than thought become so important today?
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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
(Arundhati Roy)
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Home > Archive > Article: Jorge Luis Borges
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Formalities Preserve Us

Hans V MathewsPhalanx Spacer
A great poem is an annunciation Geoffrey Hill said, (pronouncing ex cathedra out of Oxford or no, I do not know), an annunciation or an epiphany: and the truly common reader, so he had declared more than once, is a natural aristocrat of the spirit. Dicta so challenging would deter a fervent admirer even, one thinks, from attempting to interpret his work: however the words they brandish were taken. But there are always fools to leap; and, being no less a fool myself maybe, I have urged that Phalanx publish a reading of Pisgah, a poem out of the collection Canaan, which had been sent in unsolicited. The poem itself is easily found on the Web -- the string "pisgah geoffrey hill" will bring it up -- and the link to the piece is supplied below. The reader who is acquainted with how literary professionals go about their business, nowadays at least, will find the writing there idiosyncratic, and mannered, and lacking in method altogether. Its only virtue is that the author contrives to praise, in his own way, a passage of verse that even well-disposed critics seem to find less than satisfactory: or so I gather from a recent enough essay titled “Transaction and Transcendence: Geoffrey Hill’s Vision of Canaan” (by Rachel Buxton, published in The Cambridge Quarterly, in 2005) which looks closely at Pisgah in taking stock of Canaan as a whole. I seem to remember, from my own very haphazard reading of commentary on Hill, that the poem was once regarded as central to the collection --which itself was thought central to Hill's oeuvre, so I recall-- but nothing is said of the poem in a later and seemingly comprehensive consideration I have managed to acquire, Geoffrey Hill and His Contexts, (put out in 2011 by the house of Peter Lang, as Volume 6 of their series Modern Poetry) though “the watershed of Canaan” receives enough mention there. The demands of editorial diligence did not press me to further effort, I must confess, and it is with considerable misgiving that I have pressed for the publication of an essay so little researched, as one says nowadays, not in any usual way at least: though to be fair to its author I should record that he adverts at some length to a dispute between Peter McDonald, a noted admirer of Hill's poetry, and Craig Raine, one of the poet's most hostile critics. One thing more needs noting: our interpreter seems singular, only, when he declares that

“I am not able, and would remain unable I think, even were I willing, to hear the speaking voice of Pisgah personified anyhow, in any assignable person or persona: and I shall insist that the poem may be understood, at all, only when its reader concedes that he may make its speaker out only as much and as little, at once, as his unhearing auditor within the poem does: only by enduring, preserved by formalities, the nearness of a voice he cannot assign to any daily person, nonetheless, or to any recognizable persona.”

But there seems to be consensus enough, among critics partial to Hill at least, that “in much of Hill’s poetry up to and including Canaan the word ‘I’ does not appear, or if it does it clearly refers to someone other than the poet” (quoted from Geoffrey Hill by Andrew Micheal Roberts, Tavistock, Northcote House, 2004) -- and that seems to excuse the extravagance of our interpreter, at least, however further he has chancily gone (and I'll risk saying now that Rachel Buxton found the close of Pisgah weak precisely because she took its speaker to be ‘an assignable person’, if not the poet himself, and because, wilfully or not, she took the poem to be just such a “filtering of emotion or opinion through a kind of mellifluous medium” that Hill himself had abjured, explicitly, having said that a great poem was an annunciation or an epiphany --- and Pisgah is a great poem, I think, "epiphanous" enough, in its own way, if not epiphany quite.)

I am ashamed and grieve, having seen you then,
those many times, as now
                you turn to speak
with someone standing deeper in the shade;
or fork a row, or pace to the top end
where the steep garden overlooks the house;
around you the cane loggias, tent poles, trellises,
the flitter of sweet peas caught in their strings,
the scarlet runners, blossom that seem to burn
an incandescent aura towards evening.
This half-puzzled, awkward surprise is yours;
you cannot hear me or quite make me out.
Formalities preserve us:
perhaps I too am a shade.

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Complete Story: Formalities Preserve Us

Hans V Mathews is one of Editors of Phalanx

Courtesy: Geoffrey Hill

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