On the 10th of May, Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill gave another lecture in the Examination Schools, entitled "Poetry and Disproportion." He was wearing a fantastic blue-backed waistcoat with a dark purple patterned front, and he looked quite robust, though he wilted somewhat as the evening wore on. This lecture was a bit more difficult to follow than its predecessors, and indeed I got the impression that if I had not been present for all of the earlier lectures, I might have been entirely lost in this one. Still, it was informative and entertaining, which I have come to expect from Hill, and as always, very well presented in that voice that one of his interviewers described as sounding 'the way I imagine God would sound.' He began with the idea that the mortal desire for proportion and stability is rooted in our arguments. At one point he misread something he had written, and stopped himself, but then with his characteristic sprezzatura he said, "Let it stand. Dissertations will do fine. What I wrote was dissentions..." He spoke of tyranny as a breaking of the balance of power, leaving it wholly in one scale--this he said was taken from Swift. He went on to show that disproportion is therefore a most debilitating tyranny. Later, while explaining a complicated concept related to this, he laughed at himself, saying, "if you could make sense of that sentence, you're better than I am." He brought up Bertolt Brecht, who wrote about "the ingenuity of the oppressed" and the potentiality of mankind in regard to Shakespeare's Coriolanus and Eliot's unfinished Coriolan. He went on, "I realise that in my dealings with you on the subject of English poetry, I may give you the impression that I don't overall enjoy it. So I'm trying to iron out some kinks in my reputation with the help of Brecht."
As always, I took careful notes throughout the lecture, but to repeat them in their entirety here would tax both my patience and yours, so I have noted some highlights below:
- The theme of a play or novel is not synopsis.
- Shakespeare is eminent in his own period, you see--which means he has an edge over the others.
- There is a Mad Meg element in Shakespeare (this refers to a painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder. The painting shows the utter chaos of battle, and its name echoes the nickname of a large siege-cannon.)
|Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) by Peter Breugel the Elder, c. 1562. Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp|
- "For everything of merit to go down the pipe with everything of trash is not justice--its a type of anarchy."
- Citing Rossiter on Ambivalence: "Shakespeare wrote in an inverted equilibrium."
- I wish I could describe modern poetry as one critic described Mad Meg: a mad stare ahead at nothing.
- "The role of Mad Meg seems to have devolved upon me, in my thrice-yearly appearance on this platform." Perhaps it would be best if a comedian, or a rapper, were to take over this position.
- "As I often say when backing out of a cul-de-sac of my own making: I will watch development in that area with interest. ...No, I won't. Not really."
- We could now do with an artist possessed of the virtues of Peter Breugel the Elder...Damian Hirst may believe that he is improving on Breugel for the modern age. (See the Wikipedia entry on Hirst for some really weird modern art, and don't miss the link to Oak Tree by Michael Craig-Martin, which was the first 'work of art' I saw in the Tate Modern when I visited it in 2001.)
|Beautiful revolving sphincter, oops brown painting by Damien Hirst (2003)|
- "Why do I write sentences like that?" after describing how to understand misunderstanding.
- My lectures are tirades--Horatian tirades, which can be bogusly Christianised.
- There is disproportion in Sidney, but it occurs for him in history, because it deals in true matters: he finds it immoral, to be 'captive to the truth of a foolish world' (Defense of Poetry)
- "There has always been an element of unease in my appreciation of Sidney's definitions."
- Ezra Pound once said that 'all values ultimately come from our judicial sentences.'
- Aesthetic reading in an ethical context may have grown from the meditative prose of Boethius.
- Chaucer is writing something wholly commonplace, and wholly beautiful. "We could not have predicted this particular special ordinariness until Chaucer invented it for us."
- From the earliest classical times, it was the inevitability of social and natural chaos that prompted philosophers to come up with ideas of equality and the golden mean. What we have now is a golden mediocrity.
- "Henry (VIII) was a political oxymoron."
- For the real poet, raw potentiality, language in the raw, always has [Mad Meg's face]...we have within ourselves the irresistible tug of anarchy, and it may lead to creative ideas of our own.
- Liner notes in CDs are sometimes more interesting than the music. Poetry will always differ from music, but some of both give the impression of existing solely for their own euphony.
- Love of proportion grows from human distress at the disproportion in life.
- There is some ambiguity in my philosophy and critical standpoint--does my radicalism involve tearing up by the roots, or returning to and nurturing them?
- I think it is only a Ruskinian Tory these days who can be confused with an old-fashioned Marxist. Ezra Pound, whose poetry I'd better tell you here and now was some of the greatest of the last century, he was wickedly fascist.
- Oxford gives centrality to the marginalised--even myself.
Then on Friday, the 13th of May, Sir Tom Stoppard came to speak in the Sheldonian, and I took a break from dissertating to go and hear him. I had adored his play, Arcadia, when an undergrad, and had finally read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead over the summer before coming to Oxford. His talk was entitled, "A Pragmatic Art," and it concentrated on the purpose of an artist, with reflections from his own profession of writing plays. He was introduced by the president of Trinity College, Sir Ivor Roberts, and I learned some things that I had not known about Stoppard, such as the fact that he came to Britain as a Czech refugee when he was a child, and that he had honorary degrees from Yale and Cambridge (I have always had a latent desire to be conferred an honorary degree...). When he stood up, I took note of his longish silvery hair, his dark grey (almost black) suit and red tie over a white shirt, and his voice, when he began to speak, which was wonderfully hobbit-like, reminiscent of the voice of John Hurt. He spoke very slowly, and enunciated each word clearly, like one long trained in elocution. He began by reading some passages from works he had brought with him, including The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary (whose death in 1943 occasioned this annual lecture in memorial), and 'Epitaph for George Dillon' by Osborn & Creighton, as well as his own play, Travesties, and then asked, "Why do we value art?"
He went on to say that artists these days were not only honored, but validated, and that there was an increase in narcissism and egotism in writers and artists in general. His reflections were not preachy, though he seemed to have formed opinions from long experience. As with Hill, I took careful notes, and I have copied some highlights below.
- "Nowadays an artist is a man who makes art mean the things he does."
- "The artist and the priest emerged from the same shadows of the fire in the cave."
- "If the atheists don't mean God, they mean somebody very like him."
- An artist is not a separate category of human being.
- "When writing a play, the thing is as self-sufficient as a sonnet...You're not interested in any other thoughts but getting these words in the right order so that they make the noise you want them to make."
- The point about Shakespeare is the miracle of the collusion of sound and sense.
- I betray that principle the moment a play is in the theatre being prepared; your writing is handed over to other people to become a physical event, and event with changes of light and pace and sound effects and a hundred other things that can spoil it, and it becomes all technical and pragmatic...but at least you can change your mind about it.
- "I write plays in order to contradict myself in public."
- "intrepid uniped" is a phrase that is difficult to translate, because the sounds are lost
- "I really ought to desist, and I'd like to find a note to desist on...which I will do arbitrarily."
- All art has at its foundation a kind of moral duty--that is what makes a universe of the world of art and culture.
- "If you take away everything, you are left with a residue that you wouldn't want to die for, or live in."
The summation was given by Professor Hermione Lee, President of Wolfson College, who had a deep, nasal voice and was wearing a grey skirt, black tights, an oversized cardigan, and a scarf. She amired Stoppard's 'opulence of intellect' and called him a 'very special human being.'
In all, the two lectures were neatly dovetailed and gave me much to ponder, though of course I was not at liberty to ponder much at the time, aside from my thesis. I was (and still am) so glad to be living in Oxford, though, to be able to attend such fascinating lectures given by some of the most unusual and well-respected artistic minds of this era. I hope that I will be able to stay in the lecture loop this year, and that I will be able to get back to Oxford after work in time to hear most of them...who knows, maybe I will be able to attend even more, as I won't feel that pressing panic of paper deadlines whenever I glance over the lecture list.