Friday, September 23, 2016

Discussing Geoffrey Hill's Poem "The White Ship"

Guest post by Ruth Harlow

"The White Ship" is seemingly about a naval tragedy in 1120, when William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I of England, died during a storm. There are various theories about why this ship sank. Those who drowned included Adelin,  his half-sister Matilda, and his half-brother Richard. Adelin's death led to a succession crisis and a period of civil war in England known as the Anarchy.

Many of the early lines appear to be rather straightforward in telling about the naval tragedy; however, the last lines have puzzled me and intrigued me, as I believe they are meant to tell us more. The punctuation is especially noteworthy.
Silences all who would interfere; 
Retains, still what it might give
As casually as it took away:
Creatures passed through the wet sieve
Without enrichment or decay.
What are your thoughts?

* * *

Note from Dawn: I will be on the road this weekend, so you may or may not hear from me before Monday. In the meantime, Hill readers can focus on commenting on Ruth's post.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


I slept till 8 this morning, which is bizarrely late for me, but I was fighting with a dream that I could not shake. It was one of those dreams that the dreamer believes is true, and in this case I was being confronted by Mary, who runs the town transfer station, about throwing piles of garbage into the road in front of my house instead of bagging it up and bringing it to the dump. I knew I was guilty, I knew I had done it, I couldn't explain why, and now I was a public pariah, and in my dream I was horrified at myself and deeply, deeply ashamed. Even now I am still so entrapped in that scenario that I can almost remember emptying all my trash onto the pavement.

Now, in the forgiving sunlight, I could let myself assume that all that shame and garbage were symbols for some interior distress. Or I could assume that the garbage imagery is related to all the stuff I'm shedding as I get ready to leave this house. Or I could assume that my dream was some version of my anger and helplessness as I read about the continuing violence against black Americans; the poisoning of young Muslim men; truckloads of food for starving Syrians being deliberately destroyed in airstrikes; the insouciant inanity of that gargoyle who thinks he wants to be president.

I sit here in my placid kitchen, and I think about the young woman's body, found a few hundred yards from her house in Fairfield, Maine, and her husband, arrested yesterday for her murder . . . a husband who earlier in the week had been giving television interviews about how much he missed her: "O please come home, honey!"

I feel sick.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Geoffrey Hill readers: Our next poem will be "The White Ship," and in a few days Ruth will offer some opening thoughts and questions about the piece.

* * *

I find that I can't stop thinking about the phrase from the John Fowles passage I posted yesterday. "Solitary obstinacy" is such an exact description of what it feels like to be an aging person who keeps doggedly trying to make art.

* * *

Yesterday I printed out a sheaf of post-Chestnut Ridge poems and began reading through them. I may or may not have a complete manuscript. But I have something, and oddly it seems to require very little editing.

* * *

"By all means let us appease the terse gods."

--Geoffrey Hill, from "Ode on the Loss of the 'Titanic'"

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

[There is a pretense] that genius, making it, is arrived at by overnight experiment, histrionics, instead of endless years of solitary obstinacy.

--John Fowles, "The Ebony Tower"

* * *

What has twisted us around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away?

--Rainer Maria Rilke, "The Eighth Elegy," trans. Stephen Mitchell

Monday, September 19, 2016

Lately I've had some correspondence with a friend about a few political/representational issues that have arisen in the Maine poetry world. In the course of that correspondence, she referred to me (kindly, without pejorative intent) as a member of the state's poetry establishment. I was startled by the label, and immediately uneasy, and without further examination I forced myself to slot the phrase into the back parlor of my mind, where it would, I hoped, dissolve into dust. I have enough other things keeping me up at nights. I did not want to think about this label.

But this morning I find that I am still thinking about it, which means, I guess, that I need to address it forthrightly. What does it mean to be part of a literary establishment? Am I overreacting? Does it simply mean that I've published books? Does it mean I've become predictable, arrogant, and old? Establishment can sometimes be synonymous with the academy. Clearly, that's not true in my case . . . unless the academy implies a serious engagement with the past, which I also don't think is true, not at this point in time. Then again, as a self-taught engager with the past, do I seem to be wrapping myself in the mantle of snobbish oldster? Does my Virginia Woolf nose imply a Woolfian aloofness? Am I an inverse hipster?

Let me say up front that my friend probably only meant "writers in Maine know who you are." And she is right; I think many of them do. My reaction to the term is simply my reaction to the term. But having spent 20 years feeling like a badger in my den, the mere idea of being part of the establishment (whatever it means) is shocking to me, and not in a good way.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

I was on the road all day yesterday: I left here at 7:30 a.m. to drive south to Portland, where I looked at houses for much of the day, then drove north to Dover-Foxcroft for a gig, and then finally crawled home at 11 p.m.

I can't say that I fell in love with anything in Portland, though I did see one place that might be tolerable.

I hope we won't get ourselves boxed into buying a house that's just tolerable.

Friday, September 16, 2016

I had such a pleasant evening in Waterville--sitting around a restaurant table with poets and novelists and academics and local government officials, all personable and intelligent and eager to be friendly. Every once in a while, I remember that a social life might not be a bad thing.

Now, this morning, back in my hermitage, I note that the temperature came close to a frost last night. Even through my warm red bathrobe, I feel the chill of the unheated house. Summer is over.

Yesterday the Frost Place publicly announced my big news: Kerrin McCadden will be joining me as the new associate director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. She worked with us last year as a guest faculty member, and I think she'll be a wonderful addition to the staff. Not only is she an accomplished poet, but she's also been a full-time teacher for many years, which will add a whole new coloration to the work we do as directors. I'm excited about the change, even as I'm sentimental about saying goodbye to Teresa Carson. But Teresa loves Kerrin as a successor, and the program, I think, will continue to grow and thrive.

So time skitters on, and the leaves redden and sift down through the cool air. I am thinking about cooking borscht tonight, even though I'll be the only one at the table to admire its jeweled shimmer in a white bowl. But a solitary pleasure is still pleasure.