The poet’s dilemma in a fallen world is not how far he has fallen, but how little ground he has regained. Crabbed, clenched, intransigent, the words plain but the language tangled: the inconvenience of a poetry as difficult as Geoffrey Hill’s is that it demands more than readers are usually willing to lose, at least to the trivial “art” of reading. If Hill’s work makes most contemporary poetry appear trivial, contemporary poetry makes Hill’s appear stilted, clotted (even gelatinous), deep in confusion and the calculus of decay.

Our poetry has long been at the mercy of its prose. Hill argues for a poetry secure in its doubts, wretched in its responsibilities, devilish or bedeviled in its labors. His works, previously published in five books and now gathered in his New and Collected Poems, form an achievement remarkably rich but remarkably narrow in its numbers: two longish poems and some seventy...


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