What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.


Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.

So much for difficulty. Now let’s take the other aspect—overintellectuality. I have said, almost to the point of boring myself and others, that I am as a poet simple, sensuous, and passionate. I’m quoting words of Milton, which were rediscovered and developed by Coleridge. Now, of course, in naming Milton and Coleridge, we were naming two interested parties, poets, thinkers, polemicists who are equally strong on sense and intellect. I would say confidently of Milton, slightly less confidently of Coleridge, that they recreate the sensuous intellect. The idea that the intellect is somehow alien to sensuousness, or vice versa, is one that I have never been able to connect with. I can accept that it is a prevalent belief, but it seems to me, nonetheless, a false notion. Ezra Pound defines logopaeia as “the dance of the intellect among words.” But elsewhere he changes intellect to intelligence. Logopaeia is the dance of the intelligence among words. I prefer intelligence to intellect here. I think we’re dealing with a phantom, or as Blake would say, a specter. The intellect—as the word is used generally—is a kind of specter, a false imagination, and it binds the majority with exactly the kind of mind-forged manacles that Blake so eloquently described. The intelligence is, I think, much more true, a true relation, a true accounting of what this elusive quality is. I think intelligence has a kind of range of sense and allows us to contemplate the coexistence of the conceptual aspect of thought and the emotional aspect of thought as ideally wedded, troth-plight, and the circumstances in which this troth-plight can be effected are to be found in the medium of language itself. I could speak about the thing more autobiographically; it’s the emphasis where one is most likely to be questioned, n’est-ce pas?”

—From Hill’s Paris Review interview.

6 thoughts on “Difficulty/Overintellectuality

  1. I was just pondering about difficulty in reading, having just finished Milkman, which I found messy, complex, repetitive, exhilarating, depressing, anything like real life really, but not deliberately difficult or opaque.

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  2. I’m so glad you posted fragments of this interview. I recently got a subscription to the Paris Review, and I am grateful I can read the whole interview. I own Hill’s Broken Hierarchies and his collected critical writings. I look forward to the publication of The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin later this year.

    Also, as an aside, I will be interested to read your thoughts on the letters of Davenport and Kenner. I saw you bought them and are reading through them. I bought them when they came out and have dipped into them, but not extensively. I think both men are geniuses, but especially Davenport–and I own quite a few of his books.

    And lastly, I bought a used copy of Koerner’s The Reformation of the Image after I saw you post on twitter about your purchase of his newest book. (This is truly the reason I love twitter: because I can get great book suggestions that I otherwise would never get.)

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    • I’ve subscribed and unsubscribed to Paris Review so many time over the years; currently I just buy the issues of particular interest, like the Geoffrey Hill issue. I consider Hill the greatest British writer of his generation, and assiduously collect all his books. I’m also looking forward his last collection.

      The Davenport/Kenner letters are delicious. There is so much that is rich and thought-provoking. I find Davenport’s essays fascinating, although a bit uneven, whereas Kenner’s work is of the first rank, almost regardless of the topic.

      What do you make of the Koerner? I put my purchase on hold after a conversation on Twitter, being told that the typography was poor, making it difficult to read, not for its prose, but for its production.


      • I like having the Paris Review subscription because I like to read in the archives though I do remember a time when those archives were free! (By the way, I just cancelled my subscription to the LRB because I didn’t use it that much. I am considering a subscription to the TLS instead, but I already have so much to read that I don’t need another magazine.) I have not received the Koerner book yet because I ordered a used copy, and it has not arrived. I think I will enjoy it because I like to read about the Reformation, and I am always interested in the role images/icons play in the Church.

        I am not familiar with Kenner’s work other than his book, The Pound Era, as well as his work on Ulysses, so I want to find some of his essays. I know he has written about Ford Maddox Ford, who is another author I am trying to explore this year (I own both The Good Soldier and The Fifth Queen).

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