post from the past (two or three years back)
I recommend Laurie Smith's essay from 2002, "Subduing the reader," in Magma magazine:
:—Here's his penultimate paragraph:
One can dismiss [Geoffrey Hill's] Speech! Speech! as the last gasp of Pound's influence, but in every generation there are poets who try to tell us that the present is worthless compared to the past, though they rarely have the talent of Pound or Hill. A current example is the American poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg who is much admired by the New Republican Right and, surprisingly, by Bloodaxe Books. We need always to be alert to writers who claim that good poetry must be difficult, accessible only to the educated few, and see this claim for what it is - fascist.
After reading the Smith piece, you might look at two replies (neither of which directly address his final sentence above) appearing in the next issue, Magma 24, especially the one by Robert Potts. (all these are online at the Magma site)
Potts quotes Hill:
"In my view, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. If you write as if you had to placate or in any way entice their lack of interest, then I think you are making condescending assumptions about people. I mean people are not fools. But so much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools. And that particular aspect, and the aspect of the forgetting of a tradition, go together …”
It's one of the conflicts poets struggle with:
if we are, in Smith's words, "difficult, accessible only to the educated few," as HighModernists like Eliot/Stevens/et al and the AvantGarde (lango/post-avant/cambridge/etcet) tend to be—
if that is our esthetic, shouldn't we expect to face and to deserve the condemnation of "fascist"—
In our defence we can (and do, endlessly) offer variations on Hill's words above to justify our narcissistic solipsistic intramuralistic verse, but . . .
My personal problem is that, while intellectually and theoretically I'm on Smith's side of the argument as opposed to Potts and Hill—
philosophically, politically I'm opposed to elistist verse of whatever stripe (Academic=Avantgarde)—
In theory I'm in favor of those poets (the ones Hill is too chickenshit or rather too arrogant to name the names of: what he condescendingly calls "the populist poetry of today" )—
in theory I favor these Accessible poets, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Sharon Olds, Philip Levine, et al, because their work strives to refute the fascist esthetic that says, to quote Smith, "that good poetry must be difficult, accessible only to the educated few."
(What's worse is when 'fascist' (using Smith's term for the sake of hyperbole) poets write verse which is difficult, accessible only to the educated few——and then issue loud manifestos proclaiming the opposite, boasting that their autotelic practices will overthrow the hegemony of bourgeois discourse and bring about a socialist revolution)—
My problem is that while in theory I support Smith as opposed to Potts,
in practice I often fail to achieve what I profess. I don't (or don't always) practice what I preach.
I try to: whenever I start a poem,
my intent is never to write something which is "difficult, accessible only to the educated few," and yet, unfortunately, disastrously, all too often I wind up
with a tattered mess which is so convoluted and clotted and dense with allusiveness and so perverse in its obliquity
that it fails my intent and reveals in its sprawled condition a tragic falling off from the moral highgound of my ostensible allegiance.
(If my failure to maintain the courage of my convictions, my cowardice, invalidates my position, so be it—)
The Smith-Potts debate in Magma followed a piece in the Guardian by Potts condemning the judges of the TS Eliot Prize for choosing Anne Carson over Geoffrey Hill (you can find all this online). . .
The Guardian published 3 replies to Potts. I quote the one by Peter Forbes:
Robert Potts raises big, timely issues in his attack on the Eliot Prize for missing the best book. He is one of the most independent poetry critics around today, and his dissent from the log-rolling praise heaped on the Eliot winner, Anne Carson, is justified and brave. But why, casting about for something solid after having been let down by reading Anne Carson, he should light upon Geoffrey Hill, of all people, I don't understand.
Geoffrey Hill is perhaps Eliot's truest disciple, and he shares many of Eliot's faults, plus, as Larkin might have said: "some extra, just for you". Potts praises Hill's "learning" and castigates poets who claim that he is too difficult. But there is no such thing as "learning" in the abstract. What is Hill saying, what are his arguments?
Hill's prime intellectual obsession is with a kind of Englishness, ecclesiastical and rooted in the Tudor period. With the best will in the world, his monkish preoccupations are not likely to resonate with many serious people living today. Speech! Speech! has much in common with the letters of obsessive cranks: the enemy is constantly harassed in capital letters; for the writer everything seems to add up, but to the reader the connections are arbitrary. Why claim for Speech! Speech! that it is poetry when there is a more plausible reading: that it is a series of notes-to-self penned by someone in the throes of a great intellectual confusion? One section has Hill bragging that he can outrap the rappers. This is pathetic. Old men who quarrel with the innovations and fashions of their late years always cut a sorry figure.
(I didn't intend to quote the whole reply of Forbes, but it was just too yummy not to. )