Thursday, July 18, 2013

"...purporting to be accessible, it is in fact haughty and condescending"

Here is another excerpt from an interview with poet Geoffrey Hill at The Paris Review:
HILL

[...]

I’ll go further and say that I think men and women who write poetry or write music or paint are finally responsible for what they do. They are entitled to praise for any success they achieve and they should not complain of just criticism. I do stress that, just criticism. I do not think that poems and paintings and string quartets are created by currents of history. At the same time I think these individual men and women who are ultimately solely responsible for what they write and what they do as artists are very powerfully affected by contingent circumstance.

INTERVIEWER
Could you also call it autobiography in the end?

HILL
Not necessarily, no, because autobiography is always apologetic—apologetic from apologia. I mean that we are affected every moment of our lives by pressures for which a not wholly satisfactory analogy is the pressure of the air around us. I can’t conceive of the discovery and development of a personal voice that is totally or even largely unaware that its existence is threatened the whole time by those things in discourse or communication that are alien to its own being. One shapes the personal voice in some way. One either does or one doesn’t. And I would distinguish the first-rate artist from the others by precisely this ability. He or she is first-rate to the extent of having realized, often with very great difficulty, the personal note amid the acoustical din that surrounds us all. And the lesser artist is so because he is less able to hear and to elicit the voice of the authentic self from the many voices of the not-self and, indeed, from the many voices of our time, which are themselves drastically inauthentic.

Obviously in having this sense of things I show myself to be not entirely in sympathy with the thought of John Locke, where (in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding) you do get a sense that the function of language is to be an unembarrassing ancillary a, to the concept and b, to the conduct of business. The tamer and more restrained language is, the better it is for the purpose and function of civil society. I think that the field of modern communications would like to think that it is neo-Lockean, but in fact, at its worst it has none of the limited but definite virtues that Locke had. It is reductive, and yet chaotic. Or, let us say, reductive, oversimplified, and yet violently confrontational. Such simplification of language—what one might call a kind of mass-demotic—is gripped by its own oxymoron; purporting to be accessible, it is in fact haughty and condescending, because it will not respect the intelligence of those from whom it demands a response.

INTERVIEWER
I suppose you could say that that, then, is one of the problems of those critics who have a problem with what they call the difficulty of your work: they’re assuming a readership that is having the same difficulty that they themselves are having.

HILL
The first obligation for any real critic is to be self-critical rather than self-satisfied. But reviewers will say things that are equivalent to either “this man is completely out of touch with his time,” or “we have grown cloth ears,” which seems to be a question of real significance; but having made the point, only one side of the issue is taken up, which is that the poet clearly has lost touch with his time. And the promise held out for further investigation of the alternative—“or we have grown cloth ears”—is not taken up at all. That seems to me to indicate a considerable degree of self-satisfaction and humorlessness.

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