For the last few years, one of the running scandals in the world of poetry was the failure of Geoffrey Hill to find an American publisher — or, rather, the failure of any American publisher to make its way to Mr. Hill's doorstep. Mr. Hill, an Englishman who teaches at Boston University, has been considered one of the leading poets of his generation ever since his first book, "For the Unfallen," was published in 1959. But in the past 10 years, he has become something more, thanks to a sudden and surprising transformation of his style.
For four decades, Mr. Hill was the most costive of poets. His "New and Collected Poems 1952–1992" runs to barely more than 200 pages, and each of his poems seemed to require long gestation: They were gorgeously wrought, highly allusive, and obsessed with the difficulty of honest poetic speech. Mr. Hill seemed to write little and rarely because every word he did write was charged with conscientious labor. His style was darkly beautiful, saturnine, full of Latin echoes:
Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds.
These lines, from Mr. Hill's 1978 collection "Tenebrae," also suggest his favorite themes. He is deeply engaged with English history, including church history, and with the landscape that is history's theater. At a time when English poetry was becoming more modest, confessional, and cosmopolitan, Mr. Hill's high seriousness and implied conservatism made him distinctly unfashionable.
Then, in the mid-1990s, came a surprising change. Mr. Hill began to write very rapidly, his trickle of poems turning into a torrent — he has published more verse in the past 10 years than in the previous 40. And his poems, while still intricate and ambiguous, became much more personal, outlandish, and comical. Instead of small, poised objects, they started to seem like installments in an ongoing monologue. In the rants that make up "The Triumph of Love" (1998) and "Speech, Speech" (2000), the poet presents himself as a cross between King Lear and Coriolanus — a bemused, outraged, always eloquent denouncer of his times and his fellow men. Sometimes, the manic energy of Mr. Hill's writing sends it careening over the cliff of sense, so that all the reader can glean is a mood:
Ruin smell of cat's urine with a small gin.
Develop the anagram — care to go psychic?
Psych a new age, the same old dizzy spell.
Force-field of breakdown near the edge.
Whether Mr. Hill's late style is an improvement on his early style remains an open question. What is beyond doubt is that the transformation has made Mr. Hill one of the most fascinating poets at work today — one whose every new book promises a revelation. That is why so many readers of poetry have been aghast to see Mr. Hill's publishers grow smaller and smaller, and finally disappear, so that his last collection — "Scenes from Comus" which appeared in England in 2005 — was never even released here. It is now common to hear English critics call Mr. Hill the greatest poet alive; in America, where he actually lives, it is hard even to find his books.
Happily, the drought has broken with the publication of "Without Title" (Yale University Press, 96 pages, $26). This new collection is a good introduction to Mr. Hill's late style, with all its beauties and blemishes, and readers who want to get to know the poet would do well to start here. (Yale University Press, which is to be congratulated for stepping into the breach, is also bringing out a new "Selected Poems" this summer.) They will find poems of intense, gloomy beauty, with a Hardy-like affinity for English landscape, and a tone of voice that, once heard, is never forgotten. They will also find a self-absorbed and self-regarding poet, whose quarrels with himself and the world are usually conducted at an unpleasant pitch.
But then, Mr. Hill himself is the first to acknowledge his abrasiveness. In a series of "Pindarics" addressed to the Italian poet Cesare Pavese, Mr. Hill jokingly writes, "you're / the second most self-centered man I know" — he himself, of course, is the first. And the 21 poems of this sequence bring back some of the least appealing strategies of Mr. Hill's recent verse. As in "Speech, Speech," he seems to be conducting an interior dialogue, full of private references, whose grammar and connections he never tries or wants to make explicit. "Pound glided / through his own idiocy; in old age / fell upon clarities of incoherence, / muteness's epigrams, things crying off," Mr. Hill writes, and the application to his own work is obvious.
What remains clear in the "Pindarics," even when the specific argument does not, is Mr. Hill's Jacobean haughtiness and longcherished anger:
Turning towards the people is no worse, no better, say,
than chancre of exile. Let us have
the roving taste that lingers among spice
whether of women or the laureate's rack,
elite conjunction with the mob's own lords,
the push-and-pull of predicate acclaim;
compassion sold, mislaid, become an art.
This has always been one of Mr. Hill's favorite veins, and in the past 10 years it has dominated his work. The best reason to read Mr. Hill, however, is not his self-seriousness, but the self-forgetting that occurs when he writes about nature and landscape, love and death. A series of poems in "Without Title" headed "In Ipsley Church Lane" manages the exceptionally difficult task of transforming the beauty of landscape into the beauty of language:
Every few minutes the drizzle shakes
itself like a dog:
substantially the world as it is, its heavy body
and its lightness emblems, a glitter
held in keel-shaped dock leaves, varieties
of sameness, the pebbles I see sing
polychrome under rainwash…
The beauty of the visible world is all the more potent in "Without Title" because the poet is constantly meditating on aging and death. Now 75, Mr. Hill can't forget that "Dying's no let-up, an atrocious / means of existence: nobody saved," as he writes in "Ars." But age and the memory of lost love that haunts several poems here also allow Mr. Hill to exercise the somber, mellow style that has always been his best. "Without Title" confirms that the more of Mr. Hill's poetry you read, the more you find to argue with and to admire — a sure sign that you are in the presence of a major poet.