SIR GEOFFREY HILL: THE MOST OVERRATED POET, EVER?

“Can I help you?”  That annoyed, bookworm look.

For too long now, since the early 20th century, poetry has become a vessel for pedantry—everything that poetry is not: gnarly, dweeby, bitter, pretentious, digressive, unpleasant, mumbly, claptrap.

“Difficult” is the icy, vampire-breath spell that needs to be broken—with our warm Shelley and Keats.

Fight off the New Critic specters, find T.S. Eliot in his coffin, and stab him through the heart.

Then the boil known as Geoffrey Hill will burst and dribble away.

But at the present, no birds sing.

Hill, who some in tweedy academia call the “greatest living poet,” used the “difficult” approach when he went off recently on Carol Ann Duffy; the current British poet laureate innocently called poetry the original texting message: after all, poetry is known for its ability to say a lot in a few words.  No, thundered the greatest living poet; difficulty is the essence of poetry, not brevity.   But really.  Duffy’s point need not be burned to the ground, even if it is just another one of those vain attempts to make poetry seem more relevant in a world that ignores or hates it today.  Over here, we have Shelley’s Defense of Poetry. And over here…a observation that texting youth are making poems—sort of.  OK, maybe it’s pathetic.  But worse, far worse, is Geoffrey Hill’s “difficult” maneuver, which is a complete turning away from Shelley’s Defense.  Any defense of poetry that says “poetry is difficult is no defense at all, but don’t tell that to a pundit like Sir Geoffrey.  Shelley, nor any of the Romantics, ever thought of defending, or describing, poetry as “difficult.”  Shelley at 22 was more learned than Geoffrey Hill will ever be, and Shelley stretched out on the sand before the sea is difficulty enough.  “Don’t treat readers like fools,” Hill tells Duffy, but to be intentionally difficult ranks as the most foolish effort of all.  Difficult exists in poetry or elsewhere, but not as a goal—that would be, quite simply, insane.

The difficult school produces poetry which is a series of impressions that may, at best, produce a state of strange befuddlement—which we might convince ourselves has some kind of intellectual worth. 

Shelley, by contrast, is like drinking from a cold spring after one has been hiking for hours.

The experiences are quite different.

The tradition from which Hill springs can be traced back to the early 20th century British academic tradition which produced plain language philosophy and language poetry.  The Cambridge Apostles, Kim Philby, Bertrand Russell, T.S. Eliot, Anthony Blunt, G.E. Moore, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes, Guy Burgess, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Ottoline Morrell, and F.R. Leavis.  “Difficult?”  Sure.  The poetry of government spies, double agents, closeted homosexuals and language philosophers  is bound to be difficult.   The source of the “difficult” tradition has a place and a name: Bloomsbury, Oxford, Cambridge.

The New Critics, who dominated American poetry for 50 years, were all Rhodes Scholars in England.  They were Southern Agrarians (basically defending the Old South) before they became New Critics.  Figure that one out.  Difficult?  Oh, yes. 

Then there’s poetry for people, poetry in the universal, democratic tradition.  Hello, Shelley.  Hello, Poe.

The other poetry is that of the priesthood, not for those who entertain people, but for those who want to manage people—the so-called difficult school, which appeals to language philosophy professors and those trained in various types of intelligence and social engineering.  Sir Geoffrey Hill. The New Critics.  Pound, Eliot, Guy Burgess.  The difficult ones.

Those in the second group hate and fear those rare artists like Poe and Shelley—populist geniuses savvy enough to expose them for what they are. 

Here is a good example: New Critic Robert Penn Warren’s essay, “Pure and Impure Poetry,” first delivered as a lecture at Princeton in 1942—this is where Allen Tate was seting up an early Poetry Workshop.  Warren’s lecture was later published in John Crowe Ransom’s influential Kenyon Review.  But before we look at Penn Warren, let’s quickly take a peek at another essay, a more famous one:

IN speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either thorough or profound. While discussing, very much at random, the essentiality of what we call Poetry, my principal purpose will be to cite for consideration, some few of those minor English or American poems which best suit my own taste, or which, upon my own fancy, have left the most definite impression. By “minor poems” I mean, of course, poems of little length. And here, in the beginning, permit me to say a few words in regard to a somewhat peculiar principle, which, whether rightfully or wrongfully, has always had its influence in my own critical estimate of the poem. I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem,” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.

I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.

There are, no doubt, many who have found difficulty in reconciling the critical dictum that the “Paradise Lost” is to be devoutly admired throughout, with the absolute impossibility of maintaining for it, during perusal, the amount of enthusiasm which that critical dictum would demand. This great work, in fact, is to be regarded as poetical, only when, losing sight of that vital requisite in all works of Art, Unity, we view it merely as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its Unity — its totality of effect or impression — we read it (as would be necessary) at a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation of excitement and depression. After a passage of what we feel to be true poetry, there follows, inevitably, a passage of platitude which no critical pre-judgment can force us to admire; but if, upon completing the work, we read it again, omitting the first book — that is to say, commencing with the second — we shall be surprised at now finding that admirable which we before condemned — that damnable which we had previously so much admired. It follows from all this that the ultimate, aggregate, or absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity: — and this is precisely the fact.

In regard to the Iliad, we have, if not positive proof, at least very good reason for believing it intended as a series of lyrics; but, granting the epic intention, I can say only that the work is based in an imperfect sense of art. The modern epic is, of the supposititious ancient model, but an inconsiderate and blindfold imitation. But the day of these artistic anomalies is over. If, at any time, any very long poem were popular in reality, which I doubt, it is at least clear that no very long poem will ever be popular again.

That the extent of a poetical work is, cœteris [[ceteris]] paribus, the measure of its merit, seems undoubtedly, when we thus state it, a proposition sufficiently absurd — yet we are indebted for it to the Quarterly Reviews. Surely there can be nothing in mere size, abstractly considered — there can be nothing in mere bulk, so far as a volume is concerned, which has so continuously elicited admiration from these saturnine pamphlets! A mountain, to be sure, by the mere sentiment of physical magnitude which it conveys, does impress us with a sense of the sublime — but no man is impressed after this fashion by the material grandeur of even “The Columbiad.” Even the Quarterlies have not instructed us to be so impressed by it. As yet, they have not insisted on our estimating Lamartine by the cubic foot, or Pollock by the pound — but what else are we to infer from their continual prating about “sustained effort?” If, by “sustained effort,” any little gentleman has accomplished an epic, let us frankly commend him for the effort — if this indeed be a thing commendable — but let us forbear praising the epic on the effort’s account. It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of art, rather by the impression it makes, by the effect it produces, than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of “sustained effort” which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing, and genius quite another; nor can all the Quarterlies in Christendom confound them. By and by, this proposition, with many which I have been just urging, will be received as self-evident. In the mean time, by being generally condemned as falsities, they will not be essentially damaged as truths.

On the other hand, it is clear that a poem may be improperly brief. Undue brevity degenerates into mere epigrammatism. A very short poem, while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring effect. There must be the steady pressing down of the stamp upon the wax. De Béranger has wrought innumerable things, pungent and spirit-stirring; but, in general, they have been too imponderous to stamp themselves deeply into the public attention; and thus, as so many feathers of fancy, have been blown aloft only to be whistled down the wind.

A remarkable instance of the effect of undue brevity in depressing a poem — in keeping it out of the popular view — is afforded by the following exquisite little Serenade.

I arise from dreams of thee,
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright.
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
Has led me — who knows how? —
To thy chamber-window, sweet!The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream —
The champak odours fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream;
The nightingale’s complaint,
It dies upon her heart,
As I must die on thine,
O, beloved as thou art!O, lift me from the grass!
I die, I faint, I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast:
Oh! press it close to thine again,
Where it will break at last!

Very few, perhaps, are familiar with these lines — yet no less a poet than Shelley is their author. Their warm, yet delicate and ethereal imagination will be appreciated by all — but by none so thoroughly as by him who has himself arisen from sweet dreams of one beloved, to bathe in the aromatic air of a southern midsummer night.

Poe’s remarks made this little poem by Shelley one of Shelley’s more popular poems

In his essay, Robert Penn Warren sets up a staw man: pure poetry.   Pure poetry, in Warren’s view, is what poets like Poe and Shelley are after.  Pure poetry is the target which Warren, the New Critic, attempts to destroy.

Warren looks at “The Indian Serenade,” as well, and one can tell Shelley’s poem is now better known.  One can see the shift from Poe’s “Very few, perhaps, are familiar with these lines” to Robert Penn Warren’s introduction to Shelley’s poem in his essay:

And we know another poet and another garden. Or perhaps it is the same garden, after all:

I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low
And the stars are shining bright.
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
Hath led me—who knows how?
To thy chamber window, Sweet!

We remember how, again, all nature conspires, how the wandering airs “faint,” how the Champak’s odors “pine,” how the nightingale’s complaint “dies upon her heart,” as the lover will die upon the beloved’s heart. Nature here strains out of nature, it wants to be called by another name., it wants to spiritualize itself by calling itself another name.

The ideality of Poe and Shelley are faulted by Warren as “nature” which “strains out of nature,” and “nature” that wishes to “spiritualize itself.” 

Prior to his discussion of Shelley’s “garden” from “The Indian Serenade,” Warren presents the various elements of the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet so he can refute “pure poetry” in the following way: Romeo swears his love for Juliet by the moon: Juliet objects because the moon is changeable.  Warren assigns “pure poetry” to Romeo’s “purist” moon metaphor and Juliet’s objection represents, for Warren, the more sensible “impure poetry” of the moderns—who laugh at the straining, spiritual sentimentalism of purists, Poe and Shelley—and, in this case, Romeo.  Here are Warren’s exact words:

Within the garden itself, when the lover invokes nature, when he spiritualizes and innocently trusts her, and says, “Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear,” the lady herself replies, “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon/That monthly changes in her circled orb.”  The lady distrusts “pure” poems, nature spiritualized into forgetfulness. She has, as it were, a rigorous taste in metaphor, too; she brings a logical criticism to bear on the metaphor which is too easy; the metaphor must prove itself to her, must be willing to subject itself to scrutiny beyond the moment’s enthusiasm. She injects the impurity of an intellectual style into the lover’s pure poem.

Juliet, and “her rigorous taste in metaphor!”   According to Warren, the New Critic, the “logic” of Juliet “injects the impurity of an intellectual style” into the “pure poem.” 

Of course this is imbecilic.  Here is a classic case of pedantic over-thinking by a New Critic determined to push out the Shelley/Poe influence in poetry.  Juliet does not object to the “metaphor.”  She objects to the inconstant moon.   Warren is attempting to work up an intellectual case against “purity” (and Shelley’s “Indian Serenade”) by linking “pure poetry” to an inexact use of metaphor.  But the metaphor does not fail here; the moon fails.  And the moon fails for the woo’d girl because of its inconstancy.  There is nothing “impure” here—except in Warren’s reasoning.  Nothing in Juliet’s objection signals “impurity,” or a rebuke to Poe or Shelley’s poetry, or their Platonist philosophy.  The implied Shakespearean rebuke of Shelley’s “purity” is all in Warren’s New Critical head. 

Warren continues the attack on Shelley’s “purity” by “installing Mercutio in the shrubbery” of Shelley’s “Indian Serenade.”  (Mercutio is outside the garden in the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene—why not put him in the Shelley poem?)  “And we can guess what the wicked tongue would have to say in response to the last stanza,”  says Warren, rubbing his hands together in glee.

Warren then works up an elaborate trope about how all poets must come to terms with the bawdy Mercutio when writing love poems—one cannot exclude Mercutio entirely without consequences.  Warren’s point is certainly apt—if only he were not comparing a brief lyric to a play.  Poe (who was always very vigorous about metaphor) made this precise point regarding “undue brevity” one hundred years prior—which Warren seems to have completely missed.

Poe appreciates the beauty of Shelley’s poem, remarking that its brevity prevents it from being a popular poem.  Warren, however, blames the beauty that is there in Shelley’s poem—by comparing it to a Shakespeare play—and implying there is something intellectually lacking  in Shelley’s lyric.

Warren says a lot more in this essay: how there are many types of poetic purity, so many, in fact, they contradict each other; that purity implies exclusion—as when Poe says poetry should exclude truth and passion except by contrast, and strive for unity—and since there are as many types of exclusions as types of purity, the exclusionary strategy is fruitless; hence Poe is wrong, and all poems benefit from being impure.

Warren then examines two poems; first the famous four-line “Western wind, when wilt thou blow,” and then his friend John Crowe Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.”  We get the sort of New Critical analysis that mingles the obvious with the obscure in such an over-reaching manner that it ends up making one feel less acquainted with the poem.  No one will remember Warren’s essay—except for perhaps Harvard’s Stephen Burt, who stole the concept “Elliptical Poetry” from its pages. 

The New Critics began something wicked—even as they, themselves, now fade from our collective memories.  It is the seed planted by the New Critics that makes us declaim today that the ghastly Sir Geoffrey Hill is the “greatest living poet.”

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69 Comments

  1. jhwriter said,

    February 8, 2012 at 6:02 am

    I share your dislike of Geoffrey Hill and the New Critics, especially the unreconstructed Southern faction of that party. But Shelley’s poem is honestly terrible:

    My cheek is cold and white, alas!
    My heart beats loud and fast:
    Oh! press it close to thine again,
    Where it will break at last!

    Excruciatingly juvenile sentiments tarted up in utterly unexceptional language. Poe’s praise of it is just one of many examples of his often peculiar aesthetic tastes. Compare those lines with these from “Prometheus Unbound”:

    How fair these airborn shapes! and yet I feel
    Most vain all hope but love; and thou art far,
    Asia! who, when my being overflowed,
    Wert like a golden chalice to bright wine
    Which else had sunk into the thirsty dust.
    All things are still: alas! how heavily
    This quiet morning weighs upon my heart.

    The good Shelley makes the bad Shelley sound even worse.

    The rest of your rant is fun but pointless. The New Critics are dead. Geoffrey Hill’s primary defender is Harold Bloom, who is certainly not of their ilk. (After all, he found a place for Shelley in The Western Canon.) I understand that you are more comfortable with dead poets than live ones, but that doesn’t mean you need to treat dead critics as if their ideas still matter. Let the critic Warren rest along with the critic Poe; it’s their imaginal works, in poetry and prose, that matter.

    • David said,

      February 8, 2012 at 7:29 pm

      Jhwriter,

      At least you give “good Shelley” his due. I think that Tom’s point is that the “vampire-breath spell” cast by the New Critics (which still lingers today) prevents Shelley from getting a hearing at all.

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 8, 2012 at 9:51 pm

      Harold Bloom is absolutely in the New Critical ‘difficult’ school.

      Shelley was a very early interest of Bloom’s, back when Bloom hated T.S. Eliot’s dominance of Letters when Bloom was a young man—Bloom has said this himself: no better way to annoy Eliot than to champion Shelley. Bloom has since gone on to crucify Poe (see New York Review of Books Oct 11 1984) and generally been a crackpot nuisance in Letters. Absolutely Bloom is a New Critic, since the New Critics were nothing more than crackpot haters of Poe…

      • R said,

        February 8, 2012 at 11:27 pm

        You’re throwing around the word ‘crackpot’, but really weren’t Poe and Shelley, & etc, driven out of these channels precisely for being ‘crackpots’ and ‘amateurs’ (as I believe you said of Shelley here once).

        • thomasbrady said,

          February 9, 2012 at 1:52 am

          R,

          Crackpot might be too harsh a word to ‘throw around,’ you’re right, though it fits the general temper of how I feel about these guys. As for ‘amateur,’ I think that’s much different than ‘crackpot.’ Shelley and Poe have been attacked for being ‘amateur’ and ‘juvenile.’ True.

          jhwriter calls these lines “juvenile”

          My cheek is cold and white, alas!
          My heart beats loud and fast:
          Oh! press it close to thine again,
          Where it will break at last!

          But this is the voice of ‘education and learning’ getting in the way of simple enjoyment. I love these lines, and the Difficult School can complain all they want–but I’ll still love them.

          “Juvenile,’ when it comes to poetry, is always better than ‘crackpot,’ by which I mean pedantically incoherent.

          • David said,

            February 9, 2012 at 4:14 am

            As Poe says, those “juvenile” lines of Shelley are best understood by one who has experienced such bliss.

            Besides, what is metaphor if not nature straining “out of nature” and wanting to be called “by another name”? Is this not poetry’s purest task? It is surely a difficult task, yet the result needn’t be difficult, or a pain, to read.

            • R said,

              February 9, 2012 at 4:27 am

              I agree with JH on this one; the lines are not very interesting. They probably weren’t even particularly juvenile in Shelley’s own time, as they are to our eyes now – just cliche.

            • David said,

              February 9, 2012 at 5:13 am

              The lines of “Indian Serenade” may be less “interesting” than the lines quoted from “Prometheus Unbound”, yet Poe praises the former, not because they are “interesting”, but for their “warm, yet delicate and ethereal imagination”. The lover’s heart is exquisitely breakable, as vulnerable to dissolution as the breezes, scents, dream-thoughts, and bird-songs that haunt the midnight garden. Interesting? Nah. Beautiful? Absolutely.

  2. R said,

    February 8, 2012 at 8:14 am

    I had no idea this man was supposed to be “the greatest living poet.”
    Shows how much I know.

    I’m having quite a laugh reading his bio notes at Poetry Foundation: “gnarled syntax and astonishing rhetorical power” “to convey extreme emotions by opposing the restraint of established form to the violence of his insight or judgment” “Appalled by the moral discontinuities of human behavior”

    And here’s my favorite: “the bitter medicine of his syntax appeals to the puritan in us: even when the poetry is difficult, obscure and painful to read, we know it is doing us good.” GRRRR. EXTREME POETRY. Thank you for hurting me, Sir Hill, with your bitter bitter and painful truths GRRRRRR.

  3. R said,

    February 8, 2012 at 8:38 am

    “Everything is packed down hard; there’s nothing squishy or sentimental or rhapsodic here”

    Ha ha. Well, maybe someday a return to the feminine/night continuum…

  4. February 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    A bit of a mountain out of a mole hill. Firstly because the British poetry “scene” (or whatever you want to call it) has been notably fractious lately, so I suspect this is just some plain old political sniping under cover of some aesthetic disagreement. And as someone who does PR for a living, I assume he actually said a LOT more than what we read, but that the ‘short’ (and frankly inadequate) version is what got most quoted and publicized.

    As a side note, if you say “poetry should be easy” or “poetry should be difficult,” either one sounds a little, well, too easy. Facile, if one wants to dip a toe into the thesaurus.

    But if we say,”Poetry is more about the struggle for expression, the fumbling for meaning in a universe that can seem uncaring and unknowable. Breaking through to either find some meaning or express that inexpressible existential unknowing is poetry’s job and breaking beyond everyday language and expressing what cannot be expressed in ordinary prose is what poetry should aim for?”

    In a few words, that could be summed up as “Poetry should be difficult.”

    I think both positions (and you could easily come up with a similar ‘long’ version of “poetry should be easy”) have merit and warrant discussion and argument.

    • R said,

      February 8, 2012 at 10:44 pm

      I completely agree, TCP, poetry is essentially ‘difficult’, even if it appears simple and plain. I could make the argument for both, or love both.

      • thomasbrady said,

        February 9, 2012 at 2:02 am

        But “is difficult” to write is not the same as “is difficult” to read. The mere phrase “is difficult” does not get to the heart of the issue.

        • February 9, 2012 at 3:44 pm

          Difficult to read is not the same as difficult to write.

          But I would say that “difficult to read” has validity as a criteria. I don’t say it’s the only criteria or that one that doesn’t meet that criteria can’t be good.

          Only that because a poem attempts to express what prose is inadequate to express, I can respect the idea that if a poem does not require struggle to understand, then maybe you are not writing good poetry because what you wrote could probably have been just as easily written in prose instead.

          Not saying I agree or disagree, only that this position merits consideration and shouldn’t summarily dismissed anymore than a contradictory position.

          • thomasbrady said,

            February 9, 2012 at 9:05 pm

            Coffee,

            Re: “Difficult to read,” you wrote:

            “a poem attempts to express what prose is inadequate to express, …if a poem does not require [a] struggle to understand, then maybe you are not writing good poetry because what you wrote could probably have been just as easily written in prose instead.”

            But whether in prose OR poetry,”difficulty” can never in itself, be proof of ANY merit whatsoever. The merit must be judged on those qualities which, in fact, make whatever is under consideration, meritorious. Why should the “difficulty” ever be included in the merit? A certain good may be difficult to obtain, but how is the difficulty part of the good? It is not. We may identify the difficulty with the good—because the good may happen to be difficult to attain, but clearly we can see the danger of assuming the difficulty is actually part of the good.

            If a poem is hard to understand, why should one assume that poetry is its proper mode? When we struggle to say in poetry what ought to be said in prose, then, and only then, do we get that “difficult” poetry which is so often mispraised. But you are saying the opposite. You are saying if the poem is NOT difficult, then maybe it should be written in prose, instead. But if difficulty is never a merit, how can lack of difficulty ever be a flaw?

            Tom

            • February 10, 2012 at 6:53 pm

              I suspect that in anything more complicated than a yes/no question, one thing, in and of itself, never “proves” anything.

              Which is why I have tried to use the term criteria. And while in some circumstances, there may be criteria that are absolute deal breakers (“must not have a cat – I am deeply allergic”) I don’t think that is usually true.

              Nor does being difficult (or meeting other criteria we might set) necessarily and solely make something good or bad.

              But, again – I say it is valid to make the argument that expressing the inexpressible requires a certain amount of difficulty. I don’t agree with that, just as I don’t agree with many things I respect. I respect Plato. I respect the validity of his arguments and point of view. I also wouldn’t want to live in his Republic (no poetry allowed).

              Though I still suspect we are making much of a statement, which, if properly translated, actually says, “Duffy is a stupid b—h and I hate her.”

              • thomasbrady said,

                February 11, 2012 at 10:28 pm

                Coffee,

                Plato does not ban all poetry from his “Republic.” He is quite explicit that if the poet can make a good argument to be included, he can be included.

                We argue to find things out. Not to be right. To find things out. I agree with Plato because I think we do need to argue about the subject, and we can write poetry in the meantime, too.

                Plato argues in the Symposium that Love is not beautiful, because Love desires beauty, and we do not desire what we already possess. Love is a love…of something, says Plato.

                I think we need to ask the same thing about difficulty in poetry…what is difficult? Difficulty in doing what?

                Is it difficult to be widely read, so that we can understand more of what we read in poetry? OK, let’s really look at this, and approach it as Socrates might. Should reading be done out of difficulty, or curiosity? If someone finds reading difficult and curiosity or pleasure do not make them read, is this the kind of person we should even consider as a reader of poetry, much less difficult poetry? Is this the kind of reader of which we say, “poetry ought to be difficult?” Of course not. But if reading is a pleasure to a reader, and they are curious, and read widely and inquisitively, wouldn’t we say this would be the reader much better fit to appreciate “difficult” poetry? But if pleasure and curiosity drove the preparation to read “difficult” poetry, how could the actual reading of the poetry itself be “difficult?” If an athlete took joy in getting better at their sport in practice, would that joy disappear in the actual playing of the sport and be replaced by a difficulty? Or if the athlete found practice difficult, would they improve? But let’s say the athlete hates to practice and therefore finds practicing difficult, but practices anyway, and improves. Is this athlete a good athlete if they continue to find playing difficult? If we are watching that athlete and we say, it looks like what they are doing is difficult, we might say the athlete is good—since it looks difficult to us—but would it be difficult to the athlete? A great chess player sees many moves ahead—and this is difficult to most of us—but is it difficult for the chess player?

                Further, when we say poetry should be difficult, are we saying reading that difficult poetry should be more difficult for some than others? And if so, don’t we have a scale? And this scale—going from less difficult to more difficult—which direction is always better? Isn’t it always the movement towards the less difficult which is better? In every case? If we are really serious about this scale?

                Tom

                • R said,

                  February 11, 2012 at 11:46 pm

                  “Plato argues in the Symposium that Love is not beautiful, because Love desires beauty, and we do not desire what we already possess. Love is a love…of something, says Plato.”

                  • thomasbrady said,

                    February 12, 2012 at 1:44 pm

                    Barbarella?

                    Meh.

                    Not in my Republic

                    • R said,

                      February 12, 2012 at 4:27 pm

                      I was referring to the line, “an angel doesn’t make love, an angel is love” – not suggesting Barbarella for anyone’s Republic.

                    • thomasbrady said,

                      February 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm

                      Thanks, R. Just quote next time. Videos are a time-suck. That “angel” was absurd. If you’re looking for Plato dramatized, check out Shakespeare…

            • Ashu अशु said,

              March 14, 2015 at 6:13 am

              [But whether in prose OR poetry,”difficulty” can never in itself, be proof of ANY merit whatsoever.]

              There’s nothing objective about such an assertion. At a certain period of Sanskrit poetry, linguistic and stylistic difficulty was considered an adornment and merit to be cultivated FOR ITS OWN SAKE. At least one poet boasted that no one would be able to read his poetry without his own accompanying prose commentary. I know: different culture, different literature. But different cultures and literatures, like different races, aren’t fundamentally that different. I mean, look, the most influential school of English poetry in the twentieth century, whose continuing influence you lament, proclaimed exactly the same aesthetic. You tend to make the mistake of imputing objectivity to your tastes, but this is among the commonest intellectual failings — another universal.

              • thomasbrady said,

                March 14, 2015 at 11:46 am

                Ashu,

                Common sense logic, though, tells us that “difficulty” is never an end, though it perhaps may describe the means to an end; yet we cannot want the means; we can only want the end. Therefore “difficulty” is never something we want, because even if we wanted it, it would be difficult to get, and we would already have it—therefore it cannot ever be something to have, or want. Priesthoods like difficulty for its own sake, as do bad teachers. But not me.

        • February 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm

          And, as noted earlier, I suspect the heart of the issue is nothing to do with poetics and everything to do with rivalries and factions within the British poetry society.

          I could make an argument for “poetry should be difficult.”

          But were I to do a close reading of the Hill-Duffy spat, I would probably reach the most Harold Bloom-esque of conclusions: “just some public sniping.”

  5. February 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    Also, I would call Anne Carson the greatest living poet. You might disagree. In fact, you probably do.

    But I love her work. It’s my opinion. I have my reasons. Some you might consider good reasons. Others, stupid reasons.

    I suspect that it’s true, a good many people have that same opinion about Hill. They, too, have their reasons.

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 9, 2012 at 2:03 am

      Really? Anne Carson has never done anything for me.

      • February 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm

        She’s someone who really speaks to me.

        But I understand that the academically informed, close reading that is at the heart of her book ‘Nox’ (not my favorite of her collections, but still very good) could be construed as being exactly what Scarriet rails against.

  6. David said,

    February 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    i just read Anne Carson’s “Book of Isaiah”. That’s wild stuff. Difficult, but in kind of a fun way.

  7. Dawn Potter said,

    February 8, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    I like Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” but I haven’t read all that much of her work otherwise. I keep meaning to, though.

  8. R said,

    February 8, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Interesting post, thanks Tom. The bit about Shakespeare, Shelley and Warren’s misreading of Juliet’s objection to the moon is great, and I agree. I was just goofing off above, but this has really got me thinking about the triumph of the priesthood and patriarchal poetry. I see what you’re saying about the difference between the ‘difficults’ wanting to ‘manage’ people with their art, but don’t you think too that we can be ‘managed’ by what looks and feels like entertainment? Does a Billy Collins poem ‘manage’ me any less than a Charles Bernstein, or does it just appear not to? Or is the appearance everything?

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 9, 2012 at 1:45 pm

      R,

      Good question, and I don’t have time or space now to give a good answer.

      On one hand we have the universe, nature, reality, whatever you want to call it, and words that describe that reality. This is the proper realm of poetry, to be very simple about it. The ‘difficult’ school, the British academic/New Critic/Language poetry school is a distraction at best, a brainwashing, at worst—they break the student’s will to love the universe and put that love into words by using words for another purpose—words now command the mind rather than reflect the world. In the difficult school, words/language become everything, and the glorious universe of Shelley, nothing.

      T.

      • February 9, 2012 at 3:59 pm

        “Difficult to read/understand” also does not mean “difficult to appreciate.”

        I just started reading JH Prynne’s collected poems.

        Dense, difficult stuff, but just reading those first few poems, without even being to say, “yes, I truly understand this,” I can honestly say, “this is amazing and beautiful.”

        When I first read the “Wasteland” as a teenager, I didn’t understand everything that was going on in it. For example, I had no idea that couple was talking about an abortion.

        But I knew, without fully understanding, that it was amazing and that something in it spoke to me.

        We don’t speak like Shelley anymore, but that doesn’t mean the language can’t pierce us to the heart.

        We don’t speak like Eliot writes, either, but “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/” – tell that doesn’t send shivers up your spine?

      • David said,

        February 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm

        In the difficult school, words/language become everything, and the glorious universe of Shelley, nothing.

        True, yet it is also important to note that “words/language become everything” when the universe being described by the poet is so radically inward that the quest for an “objective correlative” breaks down. This is the concern of a certain kind of modern poetry that is, to my mind, worthwhile and beautiful in its way.

    • David said,

      February 9, 2012 at 3:55 am

      No surprise, I suppose, that one of the enthusiastic reviewers of a book that promotes “robo-poetics” alludes approvingly to Pound’s “make it new” carnival bark.

  9. doubleyouaye said,

    February 9, 2012 at 5:13 am

    I think poems like Hill’s become popular because other poets see them as something they, too, can write. It is easy to be difficult. It is hard to be clear. Well, it is hard to be clear but not artless. T. S. Eliot could be difficult or clear: compare The Four Quartets and Old Possum to The Waste Land, for instance.

    If modern poets don’t like Shelley or Poe, it is because they can’t write like them. That’s why non-poets enjoy Shelley and Poe; they aren’t in the game, they aren’t in the competition.

    It’s okay to dip into difficulty as long as there is something else in the poem to enjoy. I think some of Hopkins’ work is difficult — it certainly has the gnarled syntax for which Hill is known — but the lyrical beauty of his work makes up for it. I’ll spend time deciphering a Hopkins poem. I wouldn’t do it for Hill.

    • R said,

      February 9, 2012 at 5:46 am

      Yes, yes, okay, the place is filthy with populists…

      I actually think it’s exactly the opposite: non-poets think they can write like Poe or Shelley because they are such poety-Poets. They are wrong, of course.

      Poets themselves prefer a Hill because they think perhaps there is some magic formula to writing (coded) difficult poetry that beats one upside the head with the force of its bitter, titled, and entitled Power. I am being unfair to Hill, of course, but that’s too bad, I guess.

      I love Hopkins as well, and think he and Celan, for instance, have entirely different coded difficulties to decipher – ones that are worth it (to me).

      • doubleyouaye said,

        February 9, 2012 at 5:11 pm

        You may be right that I have the reasons switched, but I don’t know. I once read “A Subaltern’s Love Song” to my roommate, a man who knows nothing about poetry. His immediate reaction was, “now that’s a poet who could write”.

        Perhaps we will never know.

        • David said,

          February 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm

          I’m someone who arguably knows nothing about poetry. That’s a wonderful poem. I suppose that it would be classified as “light verse”. What is Betjeman’s reputation in the academy these days?

          • doubleyouaye said,

            February 9, 2012 at 6:05 pm

            He’s a national icon in Britain (there’s a statue of him outside of King’s Cross Station), who sold, I think, some 2 million copies of his Collected Poems during his lifetime, but he’s totally ignored by the academy. I can’t think of a more unfashionable poet to like if you want to be an MFA student.

            • David said,

              February 9, 2012 at 6:18 pm

              Thank God I’m too old to seek an MFA. 🙂

              I just read “Crematorium” (his only poem featured at Poetry Foundation). Wow. Simply, wow.

              I have a philosophical kinship with Betjeman’s traditionalism that sets me implacably at odds with Shelley’s radical liberalism, yet that same traditionalism puts me squarely in the camp of the English Romantics when it comes to the quest for Beauty in Verse.

              I was briefly fooled by Hill into thinking that I had found what I actually seek in Betjeman. I’m thrilled by this discovery. Thank you, doubleyouaye!

              • doubleyouaye said,

                February 9, 2012 at 10:13 pm

                You are quite welcome. He continues to be one of my absolute favorites.

        • R said,

          February 9, 2012 at 11:05 pm

          Ah, tennis – the only sport I am in any way fond of.

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 9, 2012 at 1:36 pm

      Precisely, my dear double,

      Stanzas–April 1814, written when Shelley was 21…has Geoffrey Hill, “greatest living poet,” ever composed this kind of music?

      AWAY! the moor is dark beneath the moon,
      Rapid clouds have drunk the last pale beam of even:
      Away! the gathering winds will call the darkness soon,
      And profoundest midnight shroud the serene lights of heaven.

      Pause not! The time is past! Every voice cries, ‘Away!’
      Tempt not with one last tear thy friend’s ungentle mood:
      Thy lover’s eye, so glazed and cold, dares not entreat thy stay:
      Duty and dereliction guide thee back to solitude.

      Away, away! to thy sad and silent home;
      Pour bitter tears on its desolated hearth;
      Watch the dim shades as like ghosts they go and come,
      And complicate strange webs of melancholy mirth.

      The leaves of wasted autumn woods shall float around thine head:
      The blooms of dewy spring shall gleam beneath thy feet:
      But thy soul or this world must fade in the frost that binds the dead,
      Ere midnight’s frown and morning’s smile, ere thou and peace may meet.

      The cloud shadows of midnight possess their own repose,
      For the weary winds are silent, or the moon is in the deep:
      Some respite to its turbulence unresting ocean knows;
      Whatever moves, or toils, or grieves, hath its appointed sleep.

      Thou in the grave shalt rest—yet, till the phantoms flee,
      Which that house and heath and garden made dear to thee erewhile,
      Thy remembrance, and repentance, and deep musings are not free
      From the music of two voices and the light of one sweet smile.

  10. February 9, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    I’m not sure anyone has seriously suggested that Hill is better than Shelley nor that Shelley is not one of the greatest poets in the English language.

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 9, 2012 at 4:55 pm

      Coffee,

      By saying this, you are pushing under the rug a very important and vital truth: there is a tremendous amount of Shelley-prejudice out there.
      Do you think they aspire to be like Shelley in MFA programs? Are you kidding? Shelley-worship would be laughed at. Geoffrey Hill and Shelley sit together VERY uneasily, and right now, in academia, the Hill forces dominate. The climate created by the New Criticism and the Difficult/Language School rains on us all. Nor is Shelley appreciated outside the academy, since one does need a certain amount of refinement and sophistication to appreciate Shelley. In other words, Shelley is nowhere and Hill is everywhere. This is not some minor, academic squabble. This is of major, major importance. Why do you think we have Dark ages and Renaissances? Mankind’s happiness depends on this debate. (Not everybody’s perhaps, but certainly millions, and probably billions of souls) The worst thing we can do is down-play it.

      Tom

  11. David said,

    February 9, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    Obviously it is beside the point to compare Hill to Shelley, if the issue is whether Hill is the “greatest living poet”.

    Tom — if you’re taking requests, a comparative analysis of Hill and, say, Ben Mazer would be quite instructive.

    The point of the present thread is important, though, as it pertains to the disability of many contemporary poets (especially those schooled in the tradition of New Criticism) to recognize and appreciate great poetry.

    R mentions Celan. That is a great example, in my opinion, of poetry that is difficult, not because the poet is trying to “manage” his reader, but because the inner universe that the poet is attempting — sincerely and haltingly — to describe is so ineffable..

  12. David said,

    February 9, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    He utilized traditional poetic forms, wrote with a light touch about public issues, celebrated classic architecture, and satirized much of contemporary society for his perception of its superficiality. “Modern ‘progress’ is anathema to him . . . ,” Jocelyn Brooke wrote in Ronald Firbank and John Betjeman prior to Betjeman’s death: “though fortunately for us [he] is still able to laugh.” Brooke continued: “Perhaps [Betjeman] can best be described as a writer who uses the medium of light verse for a serious purpose: not merely as a vehicle for satire or social commentary, but as a means of expressing a peculiar and specialized form of aesthetic emotion, in which nostalgia and humour are about equally blended.”

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-betjeman

    I’m reminded immediately of Evelyn Waugh, one of my literary heroes.

  13. Colin Clout said,

    March 19, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    So, I’m afraid I don’t really have the time to read through the whole initial post, and what follows it, BUT (and forgive me if any of this is taken up somewhere in the above):

    1. No doubt about it, the NC were wrong about Shelley, but…
    2. If you don’t think Shelley was a “difficult” poet, you might want to check out his “Mont Blanc,” “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” or “The Triumph of Life” (amongst many) and…
    3. For Hill, poetry deals with difficult things – principally, difficult moral things, and especially in the wake of the travesty of “civility” that was the 20th century – and so that difficulty should be reflected in the poet’s style. I think he has a point.

  14. thomasbrady said,

    March 20, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Colin,

    “poetry deals with difficult things…” but must it do so with difficulty? That’s the point. One shouldn’t deal with blind things blindly.

    I don’t believe the ‘travesty of civility’ was invented by the 20th century, and it’s dangerous to ascribe to poetry vague, broadly defined, historical categories. It gets us way beyond the point in a fine fit of mere justification.

    Tom

  15. June 19, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    Historian Dominic Sandbrook
    In his State of Emergency tome
    Praised highly Hill’s Mercian Hymns
    Said they’re almost like coming home—

    They were popular with Brits in the ’70s,
    When Britain was going to pot—
    They gave the isles’ denizens a backward look
    So they wouldn’t forget what they’d got.

    My education’s reprehensible,
    So I found them incomprehensible.

  16. thomasbrady said,

    June 20, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    This kind of says it all for me. From an interview with John Haffenden.

    Hill is asked:

    Can you describe how and why you came to write Mercian Hymns, and why you chose to write the sequence in the form of prose poems?

    And Sir Hill replies:

    They’re versets of rhythmical prose. The rhythm and cadence are far more of a pitched and tuned chant that I think one normally associates with the prose poem. I designed the appearance of the page in the form of versets.

    Really?? God forbid Hill allows his “hymns” to simply be called prose. Not Geoffrey Hill! They are “versets of rhythmical prose!”

    • June 20, 2013 at 10:10 pm

      Though prose posing as poetry
      Can engender frustration,
      At least the Mercian Hymns
      Don’t use line breaks or indentation—

      This is one reason Bill Kulik’s work
      Strikes my fancy:
      Upon line-broken prose poems he
      Looks askance-y:

      ———————–

      The Eye Behind

      My secretary: what a girl! You never know what she’ll do next. Like coming to work in a blouse two sizes too small, top two buttons undone. Even better, with no skirt on; just a pair of ice-blue panties (black, one guy insists) she keeps tugging at, snapping the elastic where it circles her upper thigh, right beneath her cute round ass with its tight little tuck (especially in those four-inch stilettos we love to see her wear). Imagine what it’s like to watch as she fingers the lacy waistband, drawing it slowly down to reveal a glimpse of pubic hair, thick and dark (or is it thin and light?). As she does her jobs—filing, taking dictation, reading email (who, we wonder, is sending her all those messages?), her silky brown (or maybe it’s blonde?) hair falls lightly on her shoulders. But it’s equally possible it could be tied in a bun or braided or fastened by a glittering black clip, an exotic Polynesian comb or an elegant silver chain that barely tinkles as she parades back and forth all day long, the sensuous apprehension of baby eyes upon her

      William Kulik

  17. thomasbrady said,

    June 20, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    Or this.

    Hill’s poem “Ovid in the Third Reich.” The title alone is supposed to make us tremble.

    But what do we see? The quotation from the divine Ovid, which contains more wisdom, stated and implied, than entire libraries of thought, is pinned up by Mr. Hill, and appended to his own banality, a vagueness of dramatic speech making obscure and unfounded assertions, as if a pebble were trying to hold up the Pyramid at Giza.

    Ovid in the Third Reich

    non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
    solaque famosam culpa professa facit.

    Amores, III, xiv

    I love my work and my children. God
    Is distant, difficult. Things happen.
    Too near the ancient troughs of blood
    Innocence is no earthly weapon.

    I have learned one thing: not to look down
    So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,
    Harmonize strangely with the divine
    Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

    The translated Ovid reads:

    She who can deny having sinned does not sin, and only the fault confessed makes her notorious.

    • noochinator said,

      June 23, 2013 at 10:45 am

      I dunno, I think this is pretty good:
      A Goebbels describing his inner mood,
      Giving his reasons for doing what he did—
      “Things happen”; i.e., it is what it is—

      The damned have their place, and he has his:
      Cold world, and one has to support one’s kids—
      Per Ovid, one must never admit guilt in any fashion:
      True in American democracy, as well as in German fascism.

  18. thomasbrady said,

    June 24, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Nooch,

    Ovid is saying something closer to ‘better to be vile than vile esteemed’ than ‘one must never admit guilt.’

    Why does one need to say anything else after ‘things happen?’

    Dramatically and conceptually, the Hill is just not interesting or adding anything, except to perhaps defend Goebbels and his position. Dramatically of course.

  19. 9Janxciv said,

    January 1, 2016 at 2:26 am

    Anything worth doing well has its difficulties. It is more difficult to write a symphony than to whistle a little tune while you trim your toenails. It is more difficult to paint the Sistine Chapel than to smear some waterpaints in a pre-school coloring book. Difficulty is one of poetry’s defenses in that it keeps poetry from stooping to the level of newsprint. Any damn fool can read a newspaper, but reading Vergil, Dante, Milton, Eliot, and, my personal favorite, Wallace Stevens is difficult at first. Beethoven’s piano piece, Albumblatt fur Elise, is bloody difficult and took me months to learn during formal piano lessons. But should I throw that out because it is more difficult to play than, say, “Happy Birthday”? When I was a junior in college, back in the days of the dinosaurs, the American poet Dara Wier (with whom I was fortunate enough to have an extended conversation while walking the scenic paths of our campus) recommended that I begin reading Wallace Stevens. Her words “He makes you work, but he pays you back for the effort” have proven true again and again, and I have been reading him now for thirty-seven years. “He makes you work” is the same as “difficult.” A poem is a double effort—the poet’s, and then the reader’s. Just like the Beethoven Fur Elise. When poetry becomes so mongrelized as to remove all difficulties, then it will be doggerel, which is one step above advertising jingles.

  20. Andrew said,

    January 1, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    I take one look at W. Stevens intentionally difficult, erudite, elitist poetry and it ALMOST makes me believe that advertising jingles and “doggerel” are a more viable and truer art form.

    Sigh… Stevens’ writing is certainly not my cup of tea.
    Once in a while I will savor a cup of bitter Lapsang Souchong – just to remind myself that along with most people I prefer plain old tea with milk and sugar.

    Those advertising jingles sure do live on in our souls – much longer than cerebral modernist verse does. And they move product too !

  21. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 1, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    I love the cheerfulness of the advertising jingles. You never find that with “cerebral modernist verse”. Reading poetry, any poetry, is not difficult for tome. I don’t understand why people say it is difficult.

    I don’t count myself among the Immortals in writing poetry, but I don’t find it difficult to write it either. And I like many, many poems from both modernist and romantic and any other tradition you can think of except where there is obscenity or cruelty in the poem. Maybe I am unaware of all the levels of reading or writing that are possible in poetry. Who knows. Poetry makes me happy except when it’s only cerebral. If you don’t undderstand it the first time, keep on reading. Of course I do read Dante with notes. For sure I wouldn’t understand the background on all the people he finds in either hell, purgatory and Heaven without someone else’s notes. But what do you need to look up or find difficult about ‘The Love that moves the sun and the stars’. It is clear that He means the Love of God and isn’t that the core his his great poem?

    You don’t even have to have read Sophocles to understand immediately most of the beautiful poem Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold. In fact, you can get an idea of Sophocles in the poem itself. You just have to have been in the world long enough to know that the darkness and confusion of it can at times be completely overwhelming.

    And you can understand in Dante that the light of Heaven was so blinding he could only look at its reflection.

    • maryangeladouglas said,

      January 1, 2016 at 4:21 pm

      I’m happy I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s resolutions are difficult. For instance, I might have made a resolution to make no typos in the New Year and by this time already would have failed. And that would have been difficult.

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        January 1, 2016 at 4:29 pm

        I completely agree with Thomas Graves that to have difficulty as a goal in poetry is insane. And I freely admit I find it extremely difficult to read almost all books on literary theory. But aren’t the literary theorists the ones, for the most part, that are making the reading of poetry difficult? Isn’t that the name of the game?

    • Andrew said,

      January 2, 2016 at 12:03 pm

      What ho! sickly people of high and low degree
      I pray ye all be warned by me;
      No matter what may be your bodily ills
      The safest and quickest cure is Beecham’s Pills.

      They are admitted to be worth a guinea a box
      For bilious and nervous disorders, also smallpox,
      And dizziness and drowsiness, also cold chills,
      And for such diseases nothing else can equal Beecham’s Pills

      They have been proved by thousands that have tried them
      So that the people cannot them condemn.
      Be advised by me one and all
      Is the advice of Poet McGonagall.

      [Wm. McGonagle, from poetrytreasures.wordpress.com ]

  22. thomasbrady said,

    January 2, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    9Jan,

    Scarriet may be the only place in which this difficulty error has been strenuously shown to be the great error it is.

    Here’s my point about difficulty and it’s a very simple one:

    Difficulty for itself, in itself, by itself, as itself, should NEVER be sought.

    When we mistakenly begin to think of “difficulty” as a kind of virtue in itself, we open the door to all kinds of error. And any poet or artist who makes a show of difficulty, in order to make themselves seem wiser or better artists, mistakenly perpetuate this profoundly hurtful error.

    Your example of whistling a tune while trimming your nails—that may have been how the Ode to Joy melody came to Beethoven. More “difficult” to do all the things which finally result in an orchestra playing the Ninth Symphony for a dressed-up audience, sure, but is it the “difficulty” which is the good, finally? No, Beethoven will tell you that what matters is what happened when he was just whistling.

    These pianists we see, who are practically children, who play Mozart for concert audiences, are obviously finding it less “difficult” to play the piano than you or I, who labor over learning “Fur Elise.” Or Mozart himself. Now. Is the fact that it is less “difficult” for them to play extraordinary music than it is for us, a good thing or a bad thing?

    My point may be subtle. But it really is important. And not difficult.

    • dlatane said,

      January 20, 2017 at 7:47 pm

      “No, Beethoven will tell you that what matters is what happened when he was just whistling.”

      Thank you for speaking for Beethoven. Do deaf people whistle?

      • thomasbrady said,

        January 20, 2017 at 11:24 pm

        Beethoven would have understood my point.


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