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The Hill Difficulty

11/05/2006

I’ve been dipping in and out of Geoffrey Hill‘s new book, Without Title, lately. It’s not his most immediately captivating work, but there are flashes of the Hill brilliance here and there throughout.

Hill is one of those poets considered difficult. I’m not about to deny that his work is dense and challenging, but I have a difficulty with the use of “difficult”, especially when it’s set in opposition to “accessible”. To put the equation crudely, any readily understandable writing is “accessible”, which is considered very good; any writing that is not readily understandable is “difficult”, which is considered very bad. Question that, and you’re elitst, which is considered very very bad.

The problem is that such an assessment is external to the poetry, as it is based on the knowledge and experience of the reader and the attitude they hold towards the unfamiliar. Some readers derive pleasure from looking up things they don’t understand. I’m one such reader, even if I don’t always have time and energy for it. Moreover, in an interview on Radio 3’s The Verb, Hill once said not only that it’s not necessary to get all the references in his work to enjoy it, but that he sometimes doesn’t get them all.

An assessment based on accessibility/difficulty also closes down debate about the intrinsic qualities and merits of the writing. That’s where the debate should lie. Hill can write exquisitely; he can also write real stinkers. He should be judged as a poet on the weight and balance of the good work against the bad.

Unlike some, I’m not against so-called accessible poetry per se–some of it is wonderful–but I believe it’s important that the republic of letters not succumb to the tyranny of the accessible or the dictatorship of the academic.

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