Geoffrey Hill & George Szirtes (review)

Speech! Speech! Geoffrey Hill Penguin £9.99 paperback

An English Apocalypse George Szirtes Bloodaxe £8.95 paperback

Geoffrey Hill is an astonishing poet, irritable, an irritant, irritating, all of these. In Speech! Speech!, 1440 lines divided into 120 connected poems, each twelve lines long, he is moody, angry, reflective, fed up to the front teeth, obsessive and very heavy with the irony. If you can still remember, put me down/ as terror-stricken, unteachable, he tells us. There are questions he wants answered, and cannot answer. For instance, without Churchill, would we have become like Vichy France? No time at all really | a thousand years, he admits, and in that phrase there is what bothers him. He is not sure whether the world has always gone to the dogs, or whether it has gone to the dogs with a particularly lamentable vengeance at present. On balance, it's the latter: Long-term counted as 30 days. The world moves at a shocking pace. He is amazed by Evelyn Glennie and by Princess Diana (what a peculiar combination) but absolutely vicious about, for instance, the game celebrity plays for us, the sense that, Everyone [is] a self-trafficker. He writes of Dystopia/on Internet, worries that there are contestant juries/dealing faith for faith. He loathes the way semiotics rule semiautomatics (not the greatest pun); that we give mass consent in compliance, media-conjured; that we will need footnotes to explain Birkenau, Buchenwald.

But he is himself in need of footnotes (which he provided at helpful length in his Collected Poems, for instance). His rage, for instance that Francis Fajuyi has been forgotten, is understandable, but I had to use the dystopian Internet myself to read about Fajuyi's self-sacrifice in the Nigerian wars of the 1960s. Hill's central idea always been the important relation between "history" and "now". The impression here is of history updating itself in Hill's head, dogging him whilst everyone else is losing their grip of it. Attacking doom-mood, nihilism's palindrome, he sometimes slides into doom-mongering himself. And you have to wonder whether The Sun isn't just too soft a target. He sums it all up in a cod stage instruction: Enter SCATOLOGY, dancing with DESIRE.

When Hill is not too cryptic or elliptical, he is magnificent. His control of speech-rhythm is absolute, even when the language itself is compressed and tense. He will never win over readers whilst phrases like the plenary immanence are second nature, but images like a slather/ of half-rotted black willow leaves/ at the lake's edge, or the fabrication/ of natural light, the poison-runnels/ greening with slick, or low-slung jets blizzard the surface-water - these rich, visual cameos are always incredible. Speech! Speech! makes terrible demands on itself (pauses and stresses are determinedly marked, and capitals used for emphasis) and on the reader, but it confirms that Hill, ever the iconoclast, is almost bursting with language.

George Szirtes' An English Apocalypse might sound at first as if it is yowling up the same diseased tree. But this is a clever combination of old and new poems, bringing together images of England in the last fifty years from the twin standpoints of then and now. Szirtes, who was evacuated from Hungary in 1956, aged eight, has a brilliant, essentially forgiving view of the fifties and sixties: learning fixations and the twelve times table,/ the inordinate lengths short trousers could go to,/ the proper droop for socks. It is the time of Hancock, of Peter Sellers, of the Beezer and Beano, of circuses, raffles, of the understatement of an English landscape/ whose skin is tight and heavy, lumps of shine/ receiving a faint covering of moonlight. Even the tonal shift in the new poems - in the first poem, "History", oil was creeping up deserted seaside sands - can't disguise the primary affection Szirtes feels for his country (he may be Hungarian by birth, but his world here is soaked in Englishness, from pettifogging teachers to an absorption with the sea).

If there is a sadness, it is for the passage of time. One of the best poems, "All In", is more interesting and evocative as a memory of wrestling than of foreign commotion. Lucozade, Dusty Springfield, Sid James may have given way to video shop, to graffiti, but the sense of doom Szirtes occasionally injects into his reflective and open rhythms seems tentative, as if soap stars and wrecked Morris Minors and pools of vomit and Kilroy-Silk are really just nuisances, interfering with his pastoral dreams. Even the final poems, in which England vanishes under a wave of water and suicide, remain playful. This isn't Larkin's apocalypse, the whole boiling bricked in, which he thought would happen soon. It's a regretful ode to the past, which is never melancholy, because Szirtes is too bright-eyed and inventive for that. Where Hill can hardly catch his breath, Szirtes inhales and exhales with enthusiasm. An English Apocalypse is a perfectly personal album of pinpointed images.


From The Independent