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Awkward beauty

A Treatise of Civil Power  by Geoffrey Hill

Near the end of his latest collection, Geoffrey Hill seems to get entangled:

Shredded - my kite - in the myriad-snagged
crabapple crown, the cane cross-piece flailing;
a dark wind visible even deep in the hedge.
I knew then how much my eros
was emptiness, thorn-fixed on desolation,
as rain rode up Severn and we, on high ground
eastward, scarped and broke it, like some
folk of the Heptarchy.

The poem, entitled "Coda", is a backward-looking one; a remembrance of his boyhood in Worcestershire. Those familiar with his work will recognise the cadences. There is the long phrase, reaching for a sonnet, but disappointingly snagged midline; it is stuck, like the kite itself, on its own polysyllables. There is the compounding of densely textured sounds; the chiming of "cross", "eros", "desolation" and "emptiness" suggesting the futility of poetic endeavour. And there is that feeling of grand abandonment, isolation, of general let-down. When Hill does bathos, he does it big time.

Geoffrey Hill is now in his mid-seventies. Having spent a number of years teaching and writing in Boston, he has returned to England, and this, his 14th collection of poetry, has its own relation with retrospection and return. He published a small limited-edition booklet of the same name in 2005 with Clutag Press. This book's contents differ, but it is a visual tribute to its slimmer predecessor. The cover layout is identical, and the Penguin book offers a photographic reproduction of the original's embossed paper. There's something naff about the res - ult, akin to wood-effect vinyl, but not without reason. The comically ersatz feel counters the grandiosity of the title, which is an allusion to Milton's 1659 polemic of the same name.

This is, in many ways, explicitly political poetry, in the tradition of Milton. Like a number of his former books, which tackled issues ranging from the cash-for-questions scandal, the European Union, and the public mourning for Princess Diana's death, A Treatise of Civil Power appears to engage (albeit cryptically) with contemporary affairs. Hill looks, particularly, at the discourse surrounding acts of terrorism and the power of the media. "Terror is opportune," one poem relates, "as is relief from terror"; "Nobody listens or contradicts the screen." Puns about reigning, resigning and Blair's departure jostle with accounts of images of the English Civil War.

As always, however, Hill's satire is double-edged. His poetry seems to simultaneously claim that contemporary society needs seeing to, and to imply that he isn't really up to the job. A form of comedy, again, provides the way out:

Getting into the act I ordain a dishonoured
and discredited nation.
Milton or Clarendon might well approve.
Can't say who else would. It smacks rather
of moral presumption. Things are not that bad.
H Mirren's super.

It is, however, only a "form" of comedy. Lines such as these (punning on Helen Mirren's TV role as Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect) are intentionally laborious. Combined with the datedness of "super", the advance towards Dame Helen seems somewhat lacking in "lyric mojo" (the term is Hill's own). This clownishness is crucial to Hill's late poetry, as is his balancing between public and private utterance; he constantly scrutinises the impression his poetry makes on his age, and his age makes on his poetry. And through these self-deprecating acts, he repeatedly articulates the "peculiar and private" shame that a writer carries, a frustrated eroticism, both in relation to the body of language, and to the body itself.

It is this aspect of Hill's later verse that is, perhaps, the most astonishingly powerful and moving. While uncertainty about the merits of "civil power", and the dangers of absolutism extend to the need to hold on to other absolutes. Most importantly, the Treatise considers the idea of absolute love, or "eros", and its relation to human desire. Such matters are broached in one of the Treatise's most beautiful poems, written in memory of the philosopher Gillian Rose, who died in 1995, soon after finishing her memoir, Love's Work. Hill writes:

If there's a healing of broken love it's not
as dyslexia's broken, learning to read signs.
In broken love you read the signs too late
although they are met with everywhere
like postcards of Manet and Monet, Van Gogh's

The lines are moving, not only for what they suggest about romantic love, but for what they imply about reading earthly interactions. As he wrote nearly 30 years ago: "We hear too late or not too late."

These lines also raise questions about learning to read Hill's work through time. It is frustrating that so many descriptions of Hill's poetry des cribe him as a difficult poet. The characterisation distracts from the fact that he is, and always has been, among our greatest broken love poets. His is the sort of love poetry that extends to encom pass thoughts on love in its theological forms, as well as aesthetic desire. This "not quite knowing what the earth requires", as Hill puts it, results in a sometimes awkward triangulation between "earthiness, earthliness, or things ethereal".

Hill uses such awkwardness to admit his own embarrassment when faced with the responsibility of being both a poet, and a man of the world - his "fear to wander in unbroken darkness/even with those I love". It is, in the end, difficult to do justice to Hill's Treatise, except to say that it is great poetry, capturing the complex experience of feeling oneself wanting. To quote Hill, by "poetry I mean something impossible/ to be described". (He adds elsewhere: "I know that sounds/ a damn-fool thing to say.")

Sophie Ratcliffe is a research fellow at Keble College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power