A Snake in the Garden (Stand 15.2)

This is the proof of a short article that I wrote for the Special Issue of Stand on Geoffrey Hill. The issue is full of great poems, articles, photographs and tributes, including by John Whale, Sarah Prescott, Jeffrey Wainwright, Elaine Glover, Jon Glover, Hannah Copley and many more!

A Snake in the Garden. Stand 15.2 (2017)

In March 2016, Geoffrey Hill wrote me a detailed letter about his correspondence with Tony Harrison in the 60s, while Harrison was in Nigeria. Hill described the poem which he began writing at this time for Tony Harrison: a poem which he did not complete for 48 years. Hill later developed his early lines into a three-part sequence ‘To Tony Harrison’, published in Broken Hierarchies in 2013 (728-730). The first poem in the sequence begins: “Correctly scotching the snake he’s not yet/ Convinced of his power”. This same line, composed almost 50 years earlier, can be seen in Hill’s Nigeria Notebook in the Geoffrey Hill Archive in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds. The Tony Harrison Archive in Leeds also contains letters relating to this incident with the snake, which had a marked impact on Harrison, then working as a young lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University in Northern Nigeria. Harrison also wrote to Simmons in this period about a cobra in his garden – the second snake he had to kill. This was a period of great political tension in Nigeria and alongside his anxiety about killing the snakes, Harrison wrote to Hill about the Igbo massacres and the difficulty of resolving such extreme violence with the routines of everyday life.

Hill himself spent a brief period in Nigeria just before the devastating Nigerian Civil War. He met Christopher Okigbo during this time, who was killed in the war shortly afterwards. Hill’s Speech! Speech! contains a number of poems about the Biafran war, and he commemorates Okigbo and Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi in some of the praise songs. Hill heard praise-songs on the radio in Nigeria when he was there in 1967, and in an interview with the Guardian, he described how these influenced him, and how he admired Fajuyi’s qualities of ‘simple courage, simple dignity, and the way that he ‘behaved nobly in the midst of total moral chaos’.

Hill’s Nigerian notebook, not only contains the first line of the poem ‘To Harrison’, but also the last which, in the final version, is published at the end in the sequence (Collected Works 730):

Parp parp, hear this: his Dutch

Reformed neighbour,

Freaked-out Peugeot, comes to drive him to Church. (XLVI: To Tony Harrison)

Taken together, the three sections of this dense poem offer a sense of the eccentricity and intensity of these years: snakes in the garden, colleagues attempting to convert others, political violence, letters to fellow poets. There are echoes between sections: staccato phrases underpinned strangely by the rhythms of the sermon; irony; odd rhymes that reverberate. We hear lines from the first section, ‘Igbo and Yoruba/ Burnt to rubber’, for instance, in the ‘Grand war-lubber’ of the final section. We should not, of course, expect easy patterns or answers from Hill’s work. Nevertheless, this intricate poem offers us a brief glimpse into the importance of poetic relationships: an insight into the intimacy and distance that threads together the work of Hill, Harrison and Okigbo. The sequence also speaks to the incredible productivity of Hill’s late career. And perhaps, finally, this delicate poem offers us the hope that we might, in years to come, finally complete those unfinished lines that are sitting quietly in the bottom of a drawer.


This short article was first published in Stand 15.2 (2017) 

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