Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Discussing Geoffrey Hill's Poem "Genesis"

Guest post by Thomas Juvan

The coincidence of Geoffrey Hill’s death this summer with Dawn’s call for suggestions for a poet to read together was irresistible for me. I’ve dipped in and out of his work for years now, and the results have been equally bewildering and marvelous, so I jumped at the idea of a group reading in which to sustain some of my attention on some of Hill’s poems and to bounce ideas off the members of this lovely and thoughtful group of readers and writers. Approaching a poet as allusive and formidably learned as Geoffrey Hill is always intimidating to me (I lapse back into panicked academic mode), but one of the helpful by-products of my own time at the Frost Place under Dawn’s and Baron’s guidance there has been a greater willingness on my part to proceed from the ground floor and open up the poem with less worry about “getting it right” (thank you, Dawn and Baron!). So thanks to you all for joining in to explore Hill’s work together!

I thought it appropriate to begin with “Genesis,” the first poem in Hill’s first book, For the Unfallen. After all, it even announces itself as a beginning! I think it’s interesting, too, as a poem in which Hill uses the first person, which his poems often seem to avoid. He’s often engaging with historical figures or is speaking from a kind of quasi-omniscient, metaphysical point of view, which I think some can find a bit too grandiose or overweening.

But it’s also a poem that raises a question I often ask myself when reading poems: Why do poets break poems into sections? To get the discussion rolling, I’d ask you to think about this question in relation to “Genesis,” and also perhaps to reflect on your own writing as poets. What seems to be the sense of the divisions in “Genesis”? Do you divide poems into parts? What’s your motive in doing so, and does that shed light on why and how Hill is dividing up the parts of “Genesis”?

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Note from Dawn: With Tom's questions in mind, we'll take a few days to read and mull over the poem. In the meantime, do leave comments here as you begin to develop your own questions and ideas.


Dawn Potter said...

I think Tom's question about the divisions in the poem is really interesting. Although the poem itself follows the biblical creation story, the poem's section breaks do not follow the "on the first day," "on the second day" pattern of the traditional narrative; nor do they seem to compress the story into another predictable pattern. Rather, the poet deliberately chose a sort of "narrative enjambment"--combining or breaking elements of the biblical pattern in ways that startle the reader.

I don't have an explanation for his reasoning, but I suspect that it works in tandem with his end-rhyme strategy, which also varies from section to section. Given that the speaker of the poem seems to be God, I wonder if God may also be in the process of creating formal poetic structure, even as he is creating the earth.

Ruth said...

The idea of the speaker as God as a poet is apt. Poetry tries to have us understand life much as the parables try to teach. They do it by example, rather than direct didactics. In contrast to the creation story in the Biblical book of Genesis, this poem gives us the darker side too: "dead weight of the land; The osprey plunge with triggered claw,
Feathering blood along the shore,To lay the living sinew bare; With spurs I plucked the horse’s blood" are but a few examples.
Is anyone esle noticing the rhymne scheme and how it seems to change verse by verse...or this just my weird understanding?

Dawn Potter said...

Yes, Ruth, that's what I was trying to say about the rhymes in my previous comment, but I think I wasn't very clear.

Ruth said...

Mostly likely I didn't understand what you were saying!!!! Now as I go back to reread your comment, I see it. I noticed, and this may be another idea that I failed to understand, that I could read the lines with the end rhymes as couplets.

Upon the dead weight of the land;
The rivers spawned their sand.

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

Tom said...

I think it's interesting that you're both seeing the speaker as God -- I assumed that the I was distinct from God ("...crying the miracles of God"). But the idea that the speaker is somehow engaged in creating (and recreating)poetic form seems to resonate with my sense that the the speaker is creating in imitation of God. Each stanza seems to go through steps of creation or reaction to what's created (the triggered claw, etc).

But I can't help fixating on the way the first line begins with "Against", the way that word emphasizes a countering movement of the I that seems as much a resistance as a celebration of the works of God. I just looked up "cry" in the OED and noticed that it can also mean a begging or entreating (eg to "cry quarter"). So could the speaker be as much pleading the miracles as going about God's business? The relation of the speaker to creation is ambivalent at best, certainly by sections II and III.

But Dawn's idea of each section being a kind of new creation ("genesis"?) of poetic form, like a new experiment, seems really fruitful to consider as the varied responses of the poet/speaker to the world and creation--each is a new attempt at a response/form.
I'm wondering if this resonates with you all as poets yourselves--if you do break a poem into sections, do you think of each section as a new facet of the stone, so to speak, rather than a link in a chain? I'd love to hear more from you active poets if you use sections in your own work or not and why.

Tom said...

And of "crying" could also suggest tears! It's an interesting verb to have chosen in light of the developments of the poem.

Tom said...

Perhaps writing is an imitative struggle with creation.

Dawn Potter said...

I'm intrigued by the idea of "ambivalence to creation." That also seems very much an ars poetica echo . . . the way in which a maker resists the duty, even the desire, to create, even as she is making something.

Tom said...

Writing then becomes an imitative struggle with creation.

Carlene said...

Well then.
I apologize for being late to the party (work and grad class exigencies).

Regarding "Genesis"...
I first thought, O, this poem is going to be broken into sections that mirror the 7 days of creation.
Then I started really considering speaker: I agree, the problem of speaker is a puzzle. I don't see the speaker as God; the first stanza would belie that idea when it says, "I strode/ Crying the miracles of God." Unless, of course, the speaker is invoking the 3rd person "We" kind of thing. But yet. Yeah, the "I" in the poem is creating: "I brought the sea to bear...."
So, that leaves us puzzled. Who is the "I" and what role does he/she play? Clearly, this Creator (if not THE Creator) is responsible for the natural world, partly as generative, but also as observer: "I stood and saw/ The osprey...."
The next puzzlement is the question, to whom is the speaker issuing a warning when he/she says "'Beware/ The soft-voiced owl....'"
I wonder if there's the possibility of the speaker being an Adam-like creation/creator? But then, in refutation of that idea is section III, where the speaker renounces "This fierce and unregenerate clay." The reference to clay leads me to Adam, but "unregenerate" seems to negate the Adam as progenitor paradigm.
Section V also lends credence to the idea that the speaker is not God: " I rode/ In haste about the works of God" clearly indicates that there is differentiation between speaker/creation/creator and The Creator.

That all being said, I am drawn to the language, the fierce and unrelenting quality of the images. Tracking these, one can follow this arc: muscularity, generative, violent/procreative, beautiful violence (ex. "Feathering blood along the shore...), danger/beware, no new Adam, death/dust/Adam, self-immolation and regeneration, no hope (here, in section IV, I hear echoes of Eliot), sacrifice ("There is no bloodless myth will hold"), and finally the weightiness of Earth. I sense a sort of species-guilt--against God, against nature.

Does this poem ask us to consider the obligations of Dominion as outlined in the Biblical Genesis? What is our role, as co-creators, if we are in fact such?

The initial question regarding segmenting poems comes to mind. If a stanza is a "little room" in which an idea or image lives, then would a poem segment then be a house of thought?

Dawn Potter said...

So, circling back to Tom's original question: why might Hill have chosen to construct these particular (in Carlene's term) "houses of thought"? To stay with the construction metaphor: are they sturdy? are they frail? are they weatherproof? are they livable? are they infested with rats?

Tom said...

Here are some belated thoughts in response to everything said:

It seems that each stanza enacts a kind of creative response on the part of the poet to the God-created world. In the 1st stanza, the poet creates as a kind of imitation of God. It is intriguing that the fruits of creation (the salmon) is here "pig-headed" and ramming, just as the poet/speaker strides against "burly air", so that already creativity is a kind of struggle. The 2nd stanza marks that struggle as a bloody violence, against which the poet/speaker cries out, and then in stanza 3 attempts a kind of creative mythology free from the confines of the God-given (and mortal) world (a rebellious creation?). What is given is "clay", mortal, so that the poet/speaker tries to conjure up that immortality in Leviatan, albatross, and phoenix. But that is a "lost" effort (the "pointless sea" seems indicative of that sterility of creation as a spurious fantasy of immortality. And so at the end of the 4th stanzathe poet/speaker turns back to the world, bloddy and mortal as it is. It's interesting that the beginning of stanza 3 "renounces" "unregenerate clay", only to end stanza 4 with "blood's pain" that points ahead to the 5th stanza's regeneration of the Christian redemption through Christ's bloody sacrifice. Sacrifice as the condition of mortal clay. But the image of the sea's "rough pelt" (which I love) suggests that living, animal quality of the element that redeems it even as it drowns? I 'm not sure.
I'm not sure if I'm really doing more than summarizing the movement of the poem--the question of each stanza as its own structure seems to not really fit with this sequence I've mapped out since each stanza is not really independent. I do think it is interesting that there is no (7th) day of rest for this poet-speaker! (the moral: poet's never take a day off.)

And the weird ending image of the earth rolling over bones just now brought to mind the end of Wordsworth's "A Slumber did my spirit seal" -- anyone else hear that?

Tom said...

Then again, considering each stanza as a created thing (or a "house of thought"), is it that each stanza's fruit is only born ( whole other metaphorical strand here...) in the subsequent stanza. Each stanza is a created thing, but unlike the architectural "room" of the stanza, each stanza is something more living, organic, capable of birthing consequences that must be grappled with in the subsequent stanzas? The poem is not then a neighborhood of houses, standing autonomous, (or each abandoned for the new, improved, better crafted model), but a generative chain or sequence, each inheriting the legacy of its predecessor. Hmm....