Compel the Adversary

The oblique-direct, as practised by a great word-sorceror. What a book Luka‘s would have made. Unpublishable. Someone still should.

Geoffrey Hill said of his late(-ish) collection Speech! Speech! that it was an attempt to bring a sort of energy into English verse that had been missing from it for a long time, an energetic effrontery; and that when presented with that energy, the absence of which they had all been loudly decrying, the majority of critics had simply not known what was to be done with it. He also said (words of advice to young people), “give us a black swan”. I don’t think he’d ever read heronbone – I’m not certain I ever really have, properly.

The Oblique-Direct

The oblique-direct: the slantwise thing, in poetry for example, which carries a certain resonance, carries you off somewhere, even before you are able to resolve it into an intelligible reference to something definitely in-the-world. It may never be resolvable; or no inquest suffices to resolve it, but you learn of the connection which anchors it to a context, a concrete situation, much later on and wholly by chance. There is writing, like much of the late poetry of the late Geoffrey Hill, which is oblique-direct almost all the way through. You can try to become a Geoffrey Hill expert, master of the references, but even the best effort will involve a lot of conjecture, and more than a few near-misses. And that sort of mastery is not the point: the point is the way that someone else’s private references, never wholly private because no language is wholly private, still catch at something in you and can even become part of your own lexicon, never wholly private, of things you say to yourself, out loud or not out loud, when you need something to say that is attuned to something otherwise unspeakable about the situation.

“Great gifts foreclosed on; loss and waste offset / by thrifty oddities of survival – / dittander and black saltwort that are found / flourishing on the midland brine” (“Mysticism and Democracy”, from Canaan). Dittander you can look up – it’s a “salt-tolerant plant”, like black saltwort, which is “generally found along the edges of salt marshes but has been increasingly introduced to gardens” – an emblem of transplanted thriving. The botanical references are not simply there for colour. There’s also an absolutely typical Hill double meaning in “flourishing on the midland brine”: the “on” locates it (“found along the edges of salt marshes”), but also has the sense of “living on” – I fed my plants midland brine, and they flourished on it. (He does that all the time.)

I tried out a similar trick in a poem of my own – “Say self-delight, as in the roadside cowslip / flowering in dense stands along the run / of harrowed earthworks, or the mission-creep / of bindweed raising trumpets to the sun” – you can see straight away how “flowering” descends from “flourishing”, how the image of tenacious flora taking root in a harsh environment is adapted and re-used. “Dense stands”, and “earthworks”, are direct steals from the Wikipedia entry on cowslip: “The cowslip is frequently found on more open ground than the primrose, including open fields, meadows, coastal dunes and clifftops. The plant suffered a decline due to changing agricultural practices throughout the 1970s and 1980s in Britain. It may therefore be rare locally, though where found it may be abundant. Additionally the seeds are now often included in wildflower seed mixes used to landscape motorway banks and similar civil engineering earthworks where the plants may be seen in dense stands”.

You might not know that unless I’d told you, or you’d thought to look it up; I’d forgotten where I’d got it from myself, and only sought it out because “dense stands” seemed too good to have been my own invention and I wondered if it was a common way of talking about flowers. It turns out (ask Wikipedia) there’s something called the “stand density index”, although it’s more commonly used to refer to trees. In the context of the poem, it’s brought into correspondence with “self-delight”, a term I took from a section in John Berger’s TV series Ways of Seeing in which a group of women discussed portraits of women: “this sort of self delight of a person”, which the speaker saw as a sort of kernel within the concept of narcissism, something less “pronounced” than it, more quiet and private and less pushy perhaps, although also something that could radiate out of a person and be perceived and enjoyed by another.

Perhaps this is too much like explaining a joke. I’m trying in this way to sketch out the protocols of a public-private writing, an oblique-direct writing which essays (tries out) “that which shall contain / its own passion in the public weal”.