Tenebrae by Geoffrey Hill
Introduced by Richard Skinner, who found a treasured book on a visit to Hay
I was first exposed (like radioactivity) to Geoffrey Hill’s poetry when I laid hands on The Faber Book of Modern Verse in my early twenties. This was a second edition, published in 1982, updated from the first (published in 1936) to include Hill, Heaney, Hughes and the other usual suspect post-war poets. There were only three poems by Hill in the anthology—“Ovid in the Third Reich”, “A Song from Armenia” and extracts from ‘Mercian Hymns’—but they stayed with me. No, that’s not the right way to put it—‘they stayed with me’ sounds like I read them, understood and enjoyed them and so remembered them, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that I had no idea what I was reading as I was reading them. They were inscrutable and formidable and they remained largely enigmatic ever after.
I then got hold of his Penguin Collected Poems, which had a mysterious Gauguin painting on the cover and included ‘For the Unfallen’, ‘King Log’, ‘Mercian Hymns’, ‘Tenebrae’, ‘Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres’ and ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy’. In King Log, I discovered another very striking short poem—’September Song’—and I fell in love with the stunning Anglo-Romanesque language of Mercian Hymns, a series of highly compressed poems that explore the moment ancient history becomes legend.
And then, in his collection Tenebrae, I stumbled across ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’, a series of 13 sonnets that is still the most beautiful sequence of poems I have ever encountered. In just 14 lines, each of these gorgeous sonnets conjures an entire world, through an intensely visual sense of place, filled with intricate detail of the mineral and vegetal, light and colour, while depth of field is achieved in lines such as: ‘the children thread among old avenues / of snowberries, clear-calling as they fade.’ With their sense of decorum and ‘fern and ivy’ decoration, these carefully-wrought sonnets read like a series of illuminated manuscripts owned by Margaret Beaufort or John of Gaunt.
The meaning of these sonnets, as well as almost all of Hill’s other work, continued to elude me but, over time, I began to understand that poetry doesn’t have to be ‘understood’ to be meaningful. Existence precedes essence; a poem’s mere existence can be enough to allow us to feel its essential nature. A poem isn’t a code to be cracked, with a meaning to be bludgeoned out of it—it is the striking of a tuning fork whose sound moves inside the body and finds a reverberation there.
In his essay “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement’”, Hill says that ‘the technical perfecting of a poem is an act of atonement, in the radical etymological sense—an act of at-one-ment, a setting at one, a bringing into concord, a reconciling, a uniting in harmony’ and this is as good a definition of poetry as I have ever heard. What I have come to understand about Hill’s work is that it lies somewhere between Suffering and Salvation. His idea is that a poem is a created artifact, that the poet is Homo Faber, and that the ‘difficulty’ of his work is posed in such a way that any ‘meaning’ to be gleaned is contained in the way the poem is posed. His poems aren’t ‘about’ chantries and canticles, they *are* chantries and canticles.
Fast forward to October 2014, when my Faber Academy co-tutor Joanna Briscoe and I were on our way to Talgarth to hold a day of creative writing workshops in The Tabernacle [for Arts Alive Wales]. On our way, we stopped off at Hay and spent an afternoon there. Joanna went to buy presents for her children while I went to The Poetry Bookshop, which must surely be the best bookshop for poetry in the UK. I had never been there before and my jaw dropped at the Aladdin’s Cave of first editions. I love the design of many of the books of poetry published in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, including Hill’s, and whenever I go into a second-hand bookshop, I always look for those lovely, slender volumes. Imagine my joy, then, when I discovered in the bookshop that day a first edition hardback copy of Hill’s Tenebrae. I held it in my hands and held my breath, not believing that someone hadn’t already snapped it up. I stepped immediately to the counter and bought it before anyone could take it away from me. I left in a delirium. I simply couldn’t believe my luck and the book is now one of my most treasured possessions.
Later that day, in the evening, Joanna and I each did a reading from our work and I ended mine by reading “The Herefordshire Carol”, the thirteenth and final sonnet in ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’. I relished the opportunity of reading Hill in a tabernacle, especially in that part of the country. Hill grew up in the West Midlands and his poetry has always beat the bounds between England and Wales and so it was entirely fitting. It was one of those rare, serendipitous moments when a poem is recited at exactly the right time and in exactly the right place.
Richard is Director of the Fiction Programme at the Faber Academy and a tutor on its six-month ‘Writing a Novel’ course. He also runs Vanguard Readings and its publishing arm Vanguard Editions. He is the author of three novels, all published by Faber & Faber, three books of non-fiction and two poetry collections.
Vanguard Readings is coming to Hay on 7th May 2016 with readings from local authors. Save the date!