Today is the birthday of Geoffrey Hill, one of the most rewarding and one of the most difficult of poets. Born in 1932, his lineage is long, traceable ultimately to Bede the Venerable, whose engagement with history, unity, and the mystical embodiments of landscape Hill shares. His poetry concerns the several powers of language not only the word's expressive energy, but its capacity to make things happen, to forge realities and to fracture them.
It's in the political realm that this power makes itself felt most percussively; and in Hill's verse, the political work of forging nations, of discipline, of drawing tight the incorporating bonds of belief, are encountered, courted, and challenged.
Hill came to mind today while I reflected on the Internet response to the election crisis in Iran. In the confusion following the contest between incumbent Ahmadinejad and progressive Mousavi, the interconnected world of the social media has played a role whose ultimate force and effect have not yet been revealed. Dissidents in the country have used the Internet to rally the Web to their cause; in the West, users of Twitter and Facebook have flocked to the virtual scene, lending their energy through a confusing blend of cyberwarfare, rumor-mongering, and witness.
In the poem "On Reading Crowds and Power," Hill encounters Elias Canetti's classic meditation on the mob as a machine to amplify the power of rulers:
Cloven, we are incorporate, our wounds
simple but mysterious. We have
some wherewithal to bide our time on earth.
Endurance is fantastic; ambulances
battling at intersections, the city
intolerably en fête.
In Canetti's era, the power to make words do things was monopolistic, the province of government and industry. Today's media unleash new tools to cultivate the energy of the crowd in defense of liberty. Hill's verse offers a cautionary note:
But hear this: that which is difficult
preserves democracy; you pay respect
to the intelligence of the citizen.
This is not to eschew these powerful new media. But we must learn to use them with sensitivity and skill, ever mindful that the power of word is older than the press—older than writing—and it can wound as well as make us whole.