Monday, February 13, 2012
designed to be seen in relation
I was reading Ruskin's Fors Clavigera when I came across Giotto's Charity, like this, in the Ninth Letter, "and make the field gain on the street, not the street on the field; and bid the light break into the smoke-clouds, and bear it in their hands, up to these loathsome city walls, the gifts of Giotto's Charity, corn and flowers." Of course I was rivetted immediately, as you are too, I know, because Proust read Ruskin, translated him as well, critiqued him in the preface that has been published separately as On Reading, and he uses Giotto's Charity in Swann's Way, Swann himself giving that nickname to a kitchen maid who wears "ample smocks" which "recalled the cloaks in which Giotto shrouds some of the allegorical figures in his paintings." Well, how goes it with Giotto’s Charity? he says to the Narrator, in Moncrieff's Englishing.
And, so, because I have a human mind and because that mind likes to link thing to thing and make what seem like logical deductions at the time (following the same neat and weblike system as more obvious logical deductions, such as, for example, the one you'd come to if you saw a body hit the pavement ahead of you, then looked up and spotted an open window) -- because my mind likes to deduce, and I can't say the same for yours, since it would be presumptuous, you being you and not me, so I shouldn't -- and perhaps I shouldn't even say this about me, but that's another deduction, and as I said, I'm addicted to them -- a hunter in a jungle, thrilled by pawprints -- anyway, because my mind likes to deduce, I thought that Proust must have had Giotto's Charity lodged inside him after reading the Fors, and, therefore, when the opportunity arrived for a comparison to surge up in his mind and run out of the brain into the medium of language, which was waiting like a prophylactic to enclose it, then Giotto's Charity was there, ready to go, schloop, into the rubber. Well done Giotto's Charity -- provided by chance, stored against need, and utilised at last. The final step being the rare one. Think of all the brainstuff we never use, piles of it, lounging in heaps. They talk about an author's influences; one day they should look at all the author's noninfluences, all those hundreds of books they read and forgot. Reading: what a near-total waste of time.
If all the authors in the world mentioned Giotto's Charity in every single book then I would probably have passed over it in Ruskin and taken no notice, but as it was the words gleamed out at me, a point of focus and apparent clarity, golden bridge for a second, and I shaded my eyes, impressed by the shine or sheen. And the same when I came across the phrase "all the year round" on the first page of Charles Dickens' introduction to the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, knowing that he used the same set of words twenty years later as the title of a magazine. That human habit of linking, too, might have been the reason why an article about Geoffrey Hill appeared in the Guardian on January 31st, an article that ZMKC linked to in a comment after my post about Les Murray's Manuscript Roundel. "Carol Ann Duffy is 'wrong' about poetry, says Geoffrey Hill", is the article's title, and the journalist, Alison Flood, was referring to a lecture Hill gave last November in Oxford. It was one of the same Oxford lectures I was listening to while I was unscrewing my bottle of oil. Duffy in an interview had decided that "the poem is a form of texting" and Hill in his lecture disagreed, saying that poetry is language condensed but texting is language truncated, and also that "texting is linear only. Poetry is lines in depth designed to be seen in relation or in deliberate disrelation to lines above and below," which is true.
He mentions two of Duffy's poems, and mentions, too, her background and his, very similar, he says, neither of their families were wealthy. One of Hill's grandmothers at least was very very poor, as we know from the Mercian Hymns. She was a nailmaker, "hare-lipped by the searing wire." "Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak / this in memory of my grandmother, whose childhood / and prime womanhood were spent in the nailer's darg." But he and Duffy have gone in different directions: she is Britain's poet laureate, a populist, eager for outreach, and he is Geoffrey Hill, with a reputation for difficulty and being a crank and a harlequin, as he describes himself, a Ruskinian role -- Ruskin in the Fors is aware of his popular place as a crank, and plays with it -- I think plays is the right word -- he plays with it and also is it; and the same with Hill, who refers to himself in the lectures as a "Ruskinian Tory," and again in an interview he gave afterwards. "I would describe myself as a sort of Ruskinian Tory. It is only Ruskinian Tories these days who would sound like old-fashioned Marxists. I read and re-read Ruskin, particularly Fors Clavigera."
But Duffy. It's worth mentioning that Hill doesn't drag her into the speech gratuitously, no, this isn't a tangential attack, instead he integrates her, combining her with other references, for she is, it seems, like them ("them" being the Elizabethan poets, London riots, popular singers, and other items he mentions) part of the ordinary material of his days, whatever came along to aid him, debris that he seeks out or scoops up by chance. She is part of a larger atmosphere of opinion. He brings her in as he brought everything else in, ideas clustering around a core, a hazy rather than direct method of building an essay-point. As far as essays goes he really does essai, like Montaigne, like Fors too, in a cumulative way which lets him wander, like water in a mangrove swamp, as opposed to, say, water firing itself straight down the chute of a ravine, instead spreading out into marshes, pools, and billabongs, but always remaining water. So too Geoffrey Hill, no matter what he talks about, always reminds you that he is Geoffrey Hill. "Shit-eating grin," he happens to remark at one point, discussing the behaviour of politicians, and the phrase seems so appropriate that he stops and relishes it all over again, "shit-eating grrin," and gives his considered opinion of the words. And he marvels as he remembers that he is standing near a place where Ruskin lectured, once upon a time, with Thomas Carlyle in the room, a pair of friends, although Ruskin wouldn't let Carlyle have free run of his garden, because he spat.
But the point I was getting to when I mentioned the Guardian, was that the interview Hill read, the one with Duffy, was published in the culture pages of that same newspaper, as was a review by Sam Leith which Hill critiques later, and in fact listening to these lectures I get the impression that he reads the book pages of that publication pretty avidly, and so, when, at the end of the lecture, he makes a disdainful comment about the art and culture sections of newspapers overall, you could connect that disdain back to the Guardian in particular, although all other papers can be implicated as well, since he didn't name one when he was doing his disdaining.
I suspect that the link between the article and the speech, the initial bridge, the moment when Alison Flood felt the focus of alertness take shape between herself and Geoffrey Hill, was the same instant that he brought up the name of her employer, a word to which she must be perpetually alert, brain trembling for its cue like brain of lynx or jackal, his voice tickling the trigger marked Guardian inside her head, so that the true subject of "Carol Ann Duffy is 'wrong' about poetry, says Geoffrey Hill" is not Geoffrey Hill or Carol Ann Duffy or the lecture or Oxford or poetry or professor or laureate, but the paper itself.