on 22 July 2012
The poet Lachlan Mackinnon, reviewing this book for The Independent 3 June 2011, famously described it as 'twaddle'. A handful of serious reviews available on line disagree with Mackinnon.
Apart from the question of their prose sense, the actual form of the poems - each page an 'altar' with, below it, 'angel wings' drawn from George Herbert - objectifies Hill's 'meanings' and 'purposes', impossible and exasperating though they seem at first to almost everyone. As with difficult music, understanding begins to emerge on rereading, re-listening.
I found a way into Clavics in Hill's more recent 'Odi Barbare', much more approachable, an easier and more immediately rewarding read. Currently (22 July 2012) not available new from Amazon, presumably it soon will be. Meanwhile it is easy and cheap to obtain new direct from the publisher Clutag Press as advertised on line. Again the actual form of the poems is a delight in itself, this time in Sapphics, the verse form favoured by Sappho in Greek and admired and imitated by Catullus in latin: basically three lines of eleven syllables followed by a catch line of five. Hill quotes an example by Sidney as epigraph. The form is also notable in English for 'The Temporary the All', the poem with which Thomas Hardy chose to open his first book of verse, Wessex Poems (1898, when he was 58) first stanza:
Change and chancefulness in my flowering youthtime,
Set me sun by sun near to one unchosen;
Wrought us fellowly, and despite divergence,
Friends interblent us.
Geoffrey Hill is rarely odder than this, one of Hardy's most personal and greatest poems. It may be, or it seems to me, Hill has had Hardy in mind in this Odi Barbare, particularly Hardy's late poems of lost love. This is the second stanza of Hill's fourth poem:
How the sea-lightning with a flash at hazard
Cleft the lanterned yard into pelting angles
Had we been there, had you turned towards me,
By this remembered...
the love theme, of many, develops through the collection: first stanza Poem 28
Broken that first kiss by the race to shelter,
Scratchy brisk rain irritable as tinder
Hearing light thrum faintly the chords of laurel
Taller than we were.
The excellence of Odi Barbare should mean that it sells out quickly. Best buy it in hard cover first edition while it is a bargain! I had decided against buying Clavics when it came out in 2011. This new book made me revise my opinion. I have now bought it from Amazon, delighted with it. Difficult certainly, but there are ways in, deeply rewarded.
on 27 November 2011
This beautifully produced volume is hard going but repays the effort. It's written in a form used by the metaphysical poet George Herbert and references the English civil war. It's fiersomely clever, dense and passionate. Hill's status as a great poet hardly needs confirming, but in case you were wondering this volume provides solid evidence of his stature.