Poetry as oath-bound utterance

Poetry as oath-bound utterance

Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012

by Geoffrey Hill

Oxford University Press, $71.95 hb, 987 pp, 9780199605897

Bridget Vincent

Bridget Vincent

Bridget Vincent recently completed a PhD in English Literature at Cambridge University as a General Sir John Monash Scholar and is...

In his November 2010 lecture delivered as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Geoffrey Hill tested the idea that poetry might constitute a form of perjury. He acknowledged that ‘this is a deeply pessimistic view: many would say anachronistic’. Showing that language is an imperfect and even fallen medium which presents moral hazards to its users was not, however, the session’s most challenging proposition. More confronting was the suggestion that poetic language belongs to the category of perjury in particular, rather than to a more general category of ‘the lie’ or ‘the misleading remark’. Perjury is not simply lying but lyingunder oath: in Hill’s equation, poetry becomes oath-bound utterance. If, as he puts it later in the lecture, his ‘opinions on the matter of poetry … are decidedly peculiar’, it is because of this suggestion that poetic language bears such juridical weight. Whether poets might assume unspoken oaths; whether, more broadly, poetic speech necessarily holds civic consequences, is an urgently explicit question in his current work and one of the tensions animating both the context and the content of Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952–2012.

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