It was mid-summer and I was putting the finishing touches on a long essay. But then, predictably, things slowed down. Each of the finishing touches cried out for their own finishing touches, and the endpoint skipped away from me, snickering. My editor waited on the West Coast in polite silence. The essay’s subject was the British poet Geoffrey Hill, and he was not helping. The great man decided to set up camp somewhere over my left shoulder. Every time I gazed away from the keyboard or wrote a shoddy sentence his face floated into view, wearing an immense and accusatory scowl.
This hurt. Hill had changed my life. I was writing the essay in part to pay tribute to the man, a word-crammed master of the English language who the dustjackets called “probably the best writer alive, in verse or in prose.” His transmissions from England’s bleak glories of landscape and history had fallen like a welcome bucket of ice water on my Florida youth. Trying to keep up with his awesome erudition was a fun game to fail at, and his darkly devout writings had given me backbone for a newfound faith. In short, I owed the man.
Lately it had seemed like this brilliant but blisteringly difficult poet was getting his forever-delayed due. When I started the essay Hill had just wrapped up his term as the Oxford Professor of Poetry, which in England is a sort of consolation prize for not getting named Poet Laureate. All of the lectures had been posted online, and I was ready with my small commentary on them. I thought I was being timely. I had no idea.
On that summer day as I was finishing the essay, I opened my computer to search up some small detail. There, in one of Google’s pre-chewed information sidebars, was his familiar face. Below it was the familiar caption, swiped from Wikipedia: Sir Geoffrey William Hill, FRSL (18 June 1932 – 30 June 2016) was an English poet . . .
Was? No, this must have been some other Hill. Geoffrey Hill was not dead; he was alive and growling somewhere in England. But I checked the dates and the places of birth and death. Finally, despairing, I refreshed the page: the last refuge of the disbelieving. A sad little internet spit-take.
Sure enough, it was that Hill. He had died just a few days earlier, while I was working on the essay about him. His Google results testified to this fact: He had undergone a change in grammatical tense. One day, is. Next day, was. Suddenly the birth-date followed by a dangling hyphen had been closed in with its terrifying twin. The vital parentheses of his life were filled up and shut and lowered into the settled ground of searchable fact. (18 June 1932 – 30 June 2016).
This was painful to learn, and not a little disorienting. It turned out that when I thought I was writing about a living poet, I was actually writing about a dead one. Nothing in the essay had changed, but it suddenly belonged to the past: I was now tangling with a historical figure. The rules were different. In the interest of simplicity, I sent the piece in unchanged except for a short note under the headline: This essay was composed before Sir Geoffrey Hill’s death on June 30. But maybe this was too wordy, too persnickety. In the end the editor just went through and changed all the tenses.
I don’t know how I’d prefer to have learned about Hill’s death. I only know that this way seemed too stark. But the truth is that these days such news can fall upon you at any time, with traumatic effect. People who spend their days wandering through corridors of content inevitably put themselves in harm’s way. The internet knows this, and tries to soften its own blow. It’s rare to come across a simple declarative headline announcing some beloved figure’s death: usually it comes wrapped in several layers of gauze. Often, “Fellow Artists Remember” the given person, or you may find your hero’s name followed by the dreaded tag “A Life In Pictures.” These tactics rarely make me feel better. I generally wish that it had been given to me plain, with plainer dignity. That’s why I’m so grateful for the message I got from my sister on April 21, telling me that Prince had died: It saved his death from being bound up in one of those puff-piece indignities. His death was not just one more piece of informational flotsam in the internet’s flood. It was news from a friend, and we were alone together with our sadness.
In 2016 especially, navigating the internet for any reason is an exercise in pain-avoidance, and you always lose. And it’s more than just the news about our departed Prince or Thin White Duke. I’ve heard that on Twitter (especially Black Twitter) seeing a fresh name hashtagged is about as good as seeing a fresh body laying out. With the speed of those awful transfigurations, it is entirely possible that by the time a family member or a friend learns about a person’s death they may already have been turned into a metaphor, their last breaths analyzed thousands of times by strangers. And then what? How do you state a person’s significance when they have been turned into a symbol? How do you mourn a person who is not known to have had a life, only a death? In the public eye they suffer the inverse condition of most famous figures: the birth side of their vital parentheses is the empty part. Their death-date is the only thing really known about them, and it dangles helplessly, shorn of the life before it.
Between the harsh happenstance of learning about death via hashtag or date-change on one hand, and the A Life in Pictures fluff and celebrity ululations that pass for internet eulogy on the other, something is missed. Maybe our culture already had a problem with mourning, but in our screen culture it has become a gaping hole. Between our two main modes of noting loss, neither seems really humane or mature. Neither — frighteningly — seems to really be for the departed. Mourning has always been a fraught business, caught on the knife’s edge between honoring the dead and palliating the living. But as with much else, this balance seems in danger of shifting hard to the latter.
Geoffrey Hill faced the difficulty of mourning in his most well-known poem. “September Song” is a brief elegy for an anonymous victim of the Holocaust: born 19.6.32 — deported 24.9.42, the subtitle reads. The unnamed girl to whom the poem gives tribute was born one day before Hill in 1932, and was “deported” to a death camp when they were both ten years old. Hill attempts the retrieve her from the abattoir of history, where she was merely one of “so many routine cries.” The brutal irony of a “deported” date standing in for the termination of a young girl’s life injures throughout. “As estimated, you died,” Hill says. “Things marched, / sufficient, to that end.” Ultimately the poet’s attempt at rescuing a life out of the severed data of birth and (estimated) death are in vain, and he knows it. His poem has failed, and Hill acknowledged its failure in a lacerating standalone stanza:
(I have made
an elegy for myself it
Hill knew that his attempts at mourning a person at such a distance, physically and temporally, are on some level void. There is a moral distance also, and he cannot bridge it. Trying to bridge it may be dangerously self-serving. He sees that his poetry will devolve into an attempt to identify with the girl and her suffering, but in Hill’s schema such identification is impossible and wrongheaded. The best he can do is bear witness, and he scarcely knows how to do that. The last lines depict his pitiful resignation, many decades and miles away from where he could have been any help to the unnamed victim. “The smoke / Of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.” There is no remedying the wrong. Hill the word-master wanted us to remember the paltriness of words in the face of such evils, such reductions, the shrinking of a girl’s life to two dates.
How do you mourn a writer who punctured every pretense about mourning? How should I have reacted that day when I saw his Google results change? There are ways, maybe. Following any loss, we can do no more and no less than fulfill the bereaved family’s wishes. On the day after Hill’s death his widow, the Rev. Alice Goodman, issued a statement reading, “Pray for the repose of the soul of my husband, Geoffrey Hill, who died yesterday evening, suddenly, and without pain or dread.” Whether or not we feel able to follow her request specifically, the grieving wife’s words have weight. When a notification asks us to “pray for,” or “keep in your thoughts,” or “remember,” they are asking us to remove ourselves for a moment from the flow of our lives. They’re asking us to devote ourselves to a very unprofitable activity.
Rev. Goodman released the statement on her Twitter account. We have that platform to thank for our knowledge of her words: its amazing capabilities allowed us to know her wishes directly and almost immediately. But attempting to do as she asks would likely mean turning away from that same platform. It would likely mean a hard turning-away from all our bright tools of connectivity and communication. And then turning ourselves over, for a moment, to a dimmer and more difficult means of communing. •