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A Prayer to the Sun -- Geoffrey Hill

(Poem #349) A Prayer to the Sun
(in memory of Miguel Hernandez)

above all things
    the Sun

                salute their meat
                    at noon
                   (Hell is

                                      Blind Sun
                                     our ravager
                                      bless us
                                       so that
                                      we sleep.
-- Geoffrey Hill
Like Adrian Mitchell, Geoffrey Hill has never been afraid to voice very
definite political concerns through his poetry. And the fact that he
isn't as consistently (and vocally) anti-establishment as Mitchell means
that when he _does_ make a statement, it tends to be heard very clearly
and unequivocally.

Today's poem is all the more striking for its visual weight - the
stanzas are like crosses rooted in the graveyard of the blank page; at
the same time, we are reminded of the silhouettes of the black Junkers
bombers that divebombed Hernandez's Spain during the Civil War...


[Bios and stuff]

A goatherd in his youth, Hernandez joined the Spanish Communist Party in
1936 and  fought in the Civil War (1936-39). Condemned to death by the
Nationalists after the war, his sentence was commuted to life
imprisonment after international protests. He died in prison soon
afterward, at the age of 31.  Hernandez's predominant themes are love --
particularly of a sorrowful nature -- war, death, and social injustice.

        -- EB

A biography and assessment of Geoffrey Hill can be found accompanying
the text of his most famous poem, the brilliant 'Mercian Hymns', at
poem #37

George Macbeth comments on Hill's ability to fuse ancient history with
the recent past and personal experience to create a unified poetic
whole. Both 'A Prayer to the Sun' and 'Mercian Hymns' exhibit this

It's been some time since we had an instalment of Poetry 101. (For those
of you who came in late, P101 is an occasional column wherein Martin and
I hold forth on various aspects of poetry in general. Actually,  it's a
_very_ occasional column... ). So here goes.

[Poetry 101]

In my previous essay [1], I talked about the difference between
connotation and denotation, and how that difference was vital to the
creation and interpretation of poetry. In a sense, the essay was about
the 'how' of poetry (at a very basic level, of course) - how poetry uses
connotation (by which I mean association, inference and implication) to
suggest meanings beyond the merely 'dictionary' interpretation of the
poet's words.

Today I'll expand on the same theme, but laying special emphasis on the
'why' - why poetry has to use its own special devices to say what it has
to say.

First, a generalization[2]: the purpose of all writing - poetry and
prose, billboards and tech specs, Babylonian cuneiform and Martian
squiglets - is communication, the transmission of facts, ideas and
emotion. Now, obviously the choice of the method of transmission is
dictated by the matter being transmitted; thus, technical documents
should be written in clear, precise language [3]; while writers of
advertising copy should aim for instant recognition and high retention
value and surrealist critics should cabbage Frink marsupial :-).

You may have realized what I'm getting at here - this, in its most basic
avatar, is the doctrine of form versus content that I'm always making
such a big fuss about [4]. Form follows content; content is  meaningless
without form.

In the case of a technical document, (to use my example of a few
sentences ago), simplicity is king [3]. Hence such documents tend to be
written in dry, descriptive prose, stripped clean of ambiguities and
inconsistencies - "just the facts, madam, just the facts".

Unfortunately, Real Life (tm) cannot be similarly stripped of
ambiguities and inconsistencies; human nature is a Complicated Beastie.
How, then, are writers to communicate the essence of their all-too-human

Writers of prose approach this problem in different ways. James, Zola
and Proust (for example) examine reality in minutely descriptive prose;
through cataloguing _everything_ about an event, they attempt to capture
its ineffable 'eventness' [5]. Steinbeck and Tolstoy use the strength of
simplicity to create powerful, moving tales of humanity at its best and
worst; although I love their books, I still think they fail to capture
the sheer complexity of all life. Baroque novelists like Pynchon, Eco
and Rushdie dazzle the mind with their ornate intellectual games and
wild inventiveness; their work is dense and complex and immensely
stimulating, but somehow it seems to lack 'heart', sometimes.

The central paradox is this: life is complex; yet any depiction of it
has to be simple in order to be emotionally effective [7].

Which brings us to the idea of poetry. Poetry functions through a
process of simultaneous compression and expansion. On the one hand,
poetic syntax is highly concentrated - there's usually more 'action' in
six lines of taut verse than in 6 pages of flabby prose. There's no
dross, no fluff;  every word is 'chosen smooth and well-fitting', every
phrase is 'just so'. Truly great poems often fit Exupery's famous quote
about elegance in engineering: 'A designer knows he has reached
perfection, not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing
to take away'. And it's this wonderful economy of expression that gives
poetry its power - the concentration of meaning and emotion that make a
great poem leave the reader a changed person.

At the same time, words in a work of poetry never have but one meaning,
only one 'correct' interpretation. They link with each other and with
the poem as a whole, creating complex resonances of sound, structure and
sense; they talk to each other, crafting parallels and paradox side by
side; they talk to the reader, offering new ways of looking at the world
and at themselves, new insights and empathies...

... until what was originally just a pattern of black marks on a page or
a linear sequence of sounds expands into a multidimensional tangle of
sight and smell and sound and sense, an approximation to that marvellous
complexity which we call Life.



[1] If you missed it, it's archived at poem #270
[2] I'll be making lots of generalizations today <grin>. Feel free to
take issue with the comments you disagree with, and do mail me with lots
of feedback.
[3] This is why jargon is a Bad Thing - anyone who uses 5 syllables
where one will do probably doesn't have anything useful to communicate
in the first place :-)
[4] See, for example, poem #195
[5] Leading one wit (I don't remember who) to remark of James,'He
consistently chews more than he bites off'. [6]
[6] No, I don't like Henry James. How did you guess?
[7] You'll notice that the best speeches use the simplest language -
just think of phrases like 'I have a dream', 'Blood, toil, tears and
sweat' and 'Lend me your ears'.


Yes, all the points I raised in my essay are touched upon by today's
poem. Read it a few times and you'll see what I mean - it's only 27
words long, but there's a bushel of meaning in it, just waiting to be

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