Tuesday, 26 October 2021

Hugh Creighton Hill

Hugh Creighton Hill 1906-82

I ordered Hill’s 1954 pamphlet (Some propositions from the universal theorem. Artisan 4 Spring 1954; The Heron Press, Liverpool) from a bookseller but it never turned up. I was disappointed. It seemed a moment when the set idea of the 1950s could be dissolved and re-drawn. Hill (born 1906) had published a book in the 1920s and hooked up with Migrant in about 1960. He seemed like someone who had never given up on modernism – a proof that you don’t have to compromise, perhaps. So I was excited to get his 1980 selected poems, from Migrant (”A soundproof gesture”). I was disappointed. I guess 'soundproof' means "no-one was listening".
I love the idea of someone who had got turned on to modernism in the 1920s and who never gave up. But if that someone was never very productive, the music you hear is about inhibition and artistic frustration and the sound of liberation doesn't come through. As it turns out, Hill published 3 books up to 1930. But he excludes them from his Selected so I have never seen what is in them. I guess 24 is too young, you can’t write complex and advanced stuff until a bit later in life. It’s sad, he didn’t publish anything further until 1952. If he published 3 books in 4 years, then published roughly 1 page a year for the next fifty years, it sounds as if he had seen his own style and then didn’t like it. He did a 1968 pamphlet with Tarasque, Simon Cutts’ set-up, here in Nottingham.

The poems aren’t bad. Actually, the 1950s ones remind me of Joseph Macleod. This is rewarding, it help to make my idea of Macleod more secure. There was a sound of a certain time and Macleod was part of his generation rather than just being solipsistic or perverse. His 50s poems are about triangles – that idea of basing poetry in geometry, which you absolutely find in Macleod and Read, and which seems so puzzling today.

Black as god’s bachelors the night
without even a moonface behind
spreading unrepresentative clouds,
mutters prayers for departed day
dead as an island under soldiers.

Too late. Perhaps a silver virgin
could have averted this gloom?

Too late. Maybe the astrologers’ risk
proves too high for the underwriters?

Meanwhile, another death: death
not only to day and the devil of light,
to leaves, cheeks of apples, dahlias,
wreaths enraptured with spiders,
but also, also, to the comic sins of mongrels,
mechanical efficiency, the lapsing love
parading in graceless nudity among
ecstatic day-dream corridors,
and possibly (alas?) to the final pleasure,
solipsistic benefits of mystification.
(from ‘Triangle in a semi-circle’, in the 1954 pamphlet)

This actually could be Macleod (who links astrology and actuaries in a passage in 'Foray of Centaurs'), and I feel sad that there isn’t more like this. It evokes possibilities. A retrospective selection then closes the possibilities off – you can see where they run out. This is a strange poem and I especially don't see how the motif of a triangle in a semi-circle fits in. The "deaths" could mean simply disappearance from sight, as the moonless night sweeps everything out of visibility.

It is interesting that Hill connected with Migrant. The modernist thing had apparently gone dormant for thirty years, the channels had closed because no information was flowing down them, but still he found Migrant in 1960. He was still stirred by the idea of poetry. The flip side of it is that not writing fails to alter the 1950s; it isn’t really an advance on writing weak poetry and being published and upholding the mediocre literary set-up. You change things by rejecting the conventional and releasing your energies in the uncharted realm. The works have the subversive force. Just being sceptical doesn't do it. Hill was too sceptical, too weary. I like the idea that there were people who had seen Eliot and Pound as the Big Thing in 1930 and who had been simply been indifferent to all the poetic waves from then until 1961. Not a completely wrong attitude. You need there to have been people who saw Auden as a big downhill slide, a lapse from modernism, not an advance at all. They represent the honour of the system. So you aren’t just awarding prizes to mediocrity the entire time.
Maybe there were twitches of opposition in the 1950s and maybe that Hill pamphlet was one of them. Migrant didn’t have a cluster of brilliant writers – but they had Roy Fisher, and that is enough. Fisher was writing away throughout the 1950s, maybe we have to see his unpublished poems as the honour of the 1950s. (Actually, they did come out in magazines. Later, he decided not to take them and publish them.) What was ‘Artisan’? It was closely linked to Heron, anyway. Heron did two pamphlets by Vincent Ferrini so I suppose there was already a link with Olson – the other Gloucester poet. Their impress says “Liverpool and Gloucester”, so just possibly this means Gloucester Massachusetts and the co-publisher was Ferrini. Maybe the people at Migrant saw these publications and made inquiries.
The South Bank poetry library re-opens after COVID lockdown and I go there again to find books on the margins of my historical work. Hoping to be proved wrong, I suppose. But the books I dredge up don’t prove me wrong and don’t call for the conclusions to be rewritten. I have also been extracting pamphlets by Koef Nielsen and Pete Hoida, among others. Which don’t change the picture… it’s just a way of collecting more evidence.

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