Books: A word in your inner ear

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Hill: Profound meditations on the ethics of writing GEOFFREY HILL: COLLECTED CRITICAL WRITINGS EDITED BY KENNETH HAYNES Oxford University Press, 688pp, £25

GEOFFREY HILL IS A STRUGGLE. No living English poet is praised so highly. No poet of his renown has fewer readers or less recognition. His admirers lament and grumble, but aren't entirely baffled. Yes, we believe, Hill's poetry, sequences like Funeral Music and Mercian Hymns, will be alive when Ted Hughes's and Seamus Heaney's are loam. But meanwhile, we don't deny he can be difficult – and the recent stuff, what the hell's that about?

Hill also writes as a critic. His Collected Critical Writings include three previously published collections, plus two new ones. But if you expect prose to be more straightforward than poetry, Hill's isn't. He's a critic of unequalled density and intensity. You have to read hard, slowly and probably several times. When you have, I think it's clear that some of the essays here – "Our Word is Our Bond", say – are profound meditations on the ethics of writing that any writer should try to know by heart.

The 30-odd pieces dwell on a range of lit-crit subjects: Dryden, Hopkins, Eliot, Bible translation, the Oxford English Dictionary itself. But each one is also a statement of Hill's own poetic credo. Language is not a means of communication or expression. It is a thoroughly intractable medium. Every word we have is loaded, invested with the history of the ways it has been employed, the battles it has taken part in.

Words (he quotes Coleridge) are "living powers". They exert a gravitational pull, sway us in directions we might not wish to go. Those who imagine they are using words will find they're being used by them. "We are all overcome, at some time or another, by a kind of force in the nature of language itself". For the poet, "irredeemable error is the very substance and texture of one's craft and pride". If that sounds like Original Sin, it's meant to.

In this situation, "a poet's words and rhythms are not his utterance so much as his resistance". Writing a poem is a matter of making one's way through treacherous terrain. Success is hard-won. Failure is normal. Reading a poet's working drafts – Keats's, for example – can be a nail-biting experience. "Rather than saying, 'see how clever this particular leap of imagination has been', I find myself repeatedly urging, 'see how recalcitrant, how obstructive, the material is; he almost didn't make it.' "

Reading these essays, you're in the thick of it. You're not addressed as an audience, the critic interpreting for your benefit. You're like a bystander to a struggle between the critic and his chosen writers. Some kind of argument is being advanced, but you're too close to follow it.

What you're conscious of is the thoroughness of Hill's reading (a page citation for every instance of the word "somehow" in FH Bradley's Appearance and Reality); his amazing recall for where a word has appeared elsewhere; the constant pressure of cross-examination which he subjects his texts to; his ever-alert ear for the false note – and occasionally the true.

He brings the kind of fierce, interrogating awareness to the resonance of language that most of us encounter only in the depths of marital discord, when one wrong word may mean the end of everything. Hill's energies and criteria are ethical. You don't hear much about delight. It's a matter of taking full responsibility for what you say, taking the full weight of one's words. It is an idea of writing that some will find intolerable, paralysing. But we all pay lip service to the power of words. To see it taken absolutely seriously should give us strength.