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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


Speech ! Speech !

Geoffrey Hill

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To purchase Speech ! Speech !

Title: Speech ! Speech !
Author: Geoffrey Hill
Genre: Poetry
Written: 2000
Length: 60 pages
Availability: Speech ! Speech ! - US
Speech ! Speech ! - UK
Speech ! Speech ! - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : dense, sharp, clever, powerful -- but not easily accessible

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 17/11/2001 Nicholas Lezard
The New Criterion D 12/2000 William Logan
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/3/2001 David Bromwich
The Observer . 20/1/2002 Jeremy Noel-Tod
TLS A 25/1/2002 Robert Potts

  From the Reviews:
  • "The poem is at its most comprehensible when referring to itself like that. As for the rest of it, a first reading yields only impenetrability. (...) I am strongly inclined to dismiss this as madness: junk. But it is the madness of a more-than-first-class mind." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "The labor of decoding comes at a price higher than the likely benefit. (...) His profound and accelerating distrust of the serpent of language (devil and destroyer both -- Hill wriggles like poor Laocoön) has made him fend off the reader. This is a poem hedged with razor wire, but the stance is lazy." - William Logan, The New Criterion

  • "Hill's subject is disintegration -- of the bonds that cement people in a community of speech; of art's freedom from traffic in crude and violent stimulants -- and his method is disintegrative. (...) Speech ! Speech ! is the cry of a poet -- a writer, not a speaker -- who has been moved to wonder aloud whether anyone is listening." - David Bromwich, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Speech ! Speech ! is a furiously serious attempt to extend the range of modern poetry, poignantly conscious of public indifference" - Jeremy Noel-Tod, The Observer

  • "This is, in many ways, a hostile address. However, the poem is also passionate, comical and even tender in places, utterly committed to what it sees as the public good." - Robert Potts, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Speech ! Speech ! the title cries. Those familiar with Hill's work might expect invective and exclamation in any case, and here there can be no doubt that damning declamation and loud declarations will follow. The relationship is emphasized: speaker and audience, poet and reader. But the title is also a tease, a nod to the modern need to hail and place any- and every-thing centre-stage -- if only for a fleeting fifteen minutes of fame. Hill takes the platform -- but warily, an epigraph by Günter Grass (beside one by Ennius) a reminder and warning -- in capital letters -- to lower the curtain before he has taken in the applause (and, implicit in the words, been compromised by it).
       In the first of the 120 stanzas -- an introduction, of sorts, and a warning -- Hill offers a clipped inventory of some of what can be expected:

Erudition. Pain. Light. Imagine it great
unavoidable work; although: heroic
verse a non-starter, says PEOPLE. Some believe
we over-employ our gifts.
       There is little patience here -- certainly not with those who suggest he over-employs his gifts. There is little give and take here: it is a poem of statements, explanations only found in their sum. Hill barrels ahead, tackling a variety of issues and questions simultaneously, juggling them higher and higher in an acrobatic (and occasionally dizzying) display.
       What is Speech ! Speech ! about ? What isn't it about. At best one might say: most of all it is about today, about what society has wrought in the past century and where it stands at the beginning of a new millennium.
       It is a modern poem -- though Hill never forgets his history. Our technology can be found here: e-mail, faxes, modems, barcodes (though the speaker admits also to receiving clues from the "sputtering / agents of Marconi"). The artists invoked range from Caravaggio and Daumier to Anselm Kiefer, Holst to ... Elton John ("Great singer Elton John though" -- you can quote him, though you should probably be aware of how it's meant).
       Politics are central to the poem:
Politics, RAPMASTER, múst be a part
of oúr conformable mystery, this
twinship of loathing and true commonweal.
       The politics of the poem is global -- ranging freely from England to Nigeria, Holland to Germany and beyond. Hill's native (but since forsaken) England is a natural focus ("And nów whose England áre you | but then which / England were you ?"), its past and present considered:
Bucer's England -- De Regno Christi -- even then
it was not on, not really. The more
you require it, the more it slips from focus,
skews in the frame, the true
commonweal out of true.
       (Bucer's England -- who recalls it ? But these are the demands of a Hill-poem. And he is right, the German immigrant and reformer (1491-1551), tutor of Edward VI, should -- like many of the apparent obscurities throughout the poem -- be everyday-familiar.)
       Anomie is a central concern: "Anomie is as good a word as any; / so pick any; who on earth will protest ?" Hill is wary of the malleable mass, the swayed crowds -- the audience. Many of the approaches taken in the 20th century -- in the arts as in politics -- dismay him, and much is dismissed out of hand, as in the caustic 21st stanza:
SURREAL is natural | só you can discount
ethics and suchlike.


have answers, but nót one I go for.
Think surreal | the loss of peripheral
vision vis-à-vis conduct.
       Occasionally the criticism can seem too sharp, too relentless, interspersed with anagrammatic wordplay that undermines the substance. The danger of falling back into simply accepting this status quo seems great, his prediction too likely:
Next year same time, same place. Let's all retrench,
get together for sháred únrecognition.
       Hill's blistering poem is not without hope, but it is heavy, heady stuff. Despite the "shambles of peripeteia" throughout it is an exciting poem. Its 120 stanzas -- "As many as the days that were | of SODOM" (a reference to the great work by the man whom Hill seems unlikely to ever refer to as the 'divine Marquis', D.A.F. de Sade) -- are as energetic (and occasionally as excessive) as any Sadean invention.
       Erudition does weigh on the poem. "Citations please", he jokes early on. Later he offers some relief:
       End of scholastic
disputation. Now the theatricals:
enter SCATOLOGY, dancing, with DESIRE.
       But he cannot quite leave be, cannot lose himself in the played world. He acknowledges the accusation of being "wantonly obscure" but maintains (correctly) that accessibility is not an end-all, and cannot (or should not) be cheaply bought (or sold). And there is something to be said for standards.
       Yes, Speech ! Speech ! can be a frustrating poem. It places demands on the reader, and readers -- generally unpracticed in what is truly involved in the act of reading -- don't always appreciate that. But Hill has something to say, and he expresses it quite remarkably. Certainly worthwhile.

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Reviews: Geoffrey Hill: Other books by Geoffrey Hill under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Christopher Okigbo's collected poems, Labyrinths
  • See also the index of Poetry under review

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About the Author:

       English poet Geoffrey Hill was born in 1932. A graduate of Keble College, Oxford, he has taught at the University of Leeds, at Cambridge, and at Boston University.

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