There are substantive differences between reading a poem and recognizing its allusions, and having them pointed out to you in the endnotes (even if they are supplied by the poet themself, as Eliot does in The Waste Land).
No, I confess I did not hear any of these voices the first time, or indeed any of the times, I’d read The Waste Land. More grievously, I’d heard and still hear the wrong nightingale – not Ovid’s or Arnold’s but Keats’s (which is, to say the least, one of the most glaringly irrelevant low-lying nightingales on offer).
Is it just late, or am I beginning to hear voices? Perhaps most Cambridge English Tripos students at some point in their undergraduate careers are confronted with the prospect of pulling an all-nighter with the – ostensible, and foolhardy – aim of understanding Eliot’s 1922 The Waste Land.
A friend recently asked me what it meant to see, perceive, live poetically. She had recently stumbled upon Viktor Shklovksy and taken quite an interest in the things he had to say about defamiliarization, of the shaking things up in our lives to see them once again as they are.
Sometimes words stick. Read enough and the most innocuous and well-trodden of words can suddenly harl onto an older, wispier network of voices imbedded deep in our minds. J.H. Prynne’s Al Dente (2014) has for its epigraph, all in italics, the inobtrusive phrase: “O summer’s day”. As a dear friend pointed out to me, Prynne was actually alluding quietly to both Dickinson and Shakespeare.
In Hill’s later poetry, one is consistently caught unawares by some slantwise piercing glance. Amidst the rumbling ground bass of gnarled density and difficulty, a keen pure tone sometimes shines through.