An important poem about bearing witness to atrocity
Geoffrey Hill, who died in 2016, once defended ‘difficulty’ in poetry, arguing that ‘genuinely difficult art is truly democratic’. Human beings are complicated, so any poetry that is to be worthy of us should reflect our complexity, whether moral, emotional, or intellectual. ‘September Song’ reflects Hill’s dedication to this principle, tackling one of the most ‘difficult’ subjects for a poet to write about: the Holocaust. ‘September Song’, which can be read here, was published in 1968.
The poem is grimly prefaced by the birth and death dates of a child who, we are told, was ‘deported’ in 1942. As we read on, we realise that ‘deported’ is a military euphemism, and the child was in fact killed in 1942, aged just ten years old, presumably in one of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. The (fictional) child’s birth date, ‘19.6.32’, is significant: this is the day after Hill himself was born.
Much of Hill’s poetry is about bearing witness to historical events, and this poem, dealing with the subject of the Holocaust, is no different. Although some people thought that writing poetry about Auschwitz (or even after it) was ‘barbaric’ in Theodor Adorno’s word, Hill believes that poetry can be used to bear witness to the terrible atrocity of the concentration camps – but the poet must be careful not to overdramatise (or melodramatise) what happened, nor must they assume an empathy they cannot possibly have. The bracketed words in which Hill confesses that he has made an elegy for himself acknowledges that the elegy Hill has written here is as much for his own benefit as it is for the victim (something, we might say, true of all elegies from Milton’s Lycidas to Tennyson’s In Memoriam). The poem is an elegy for the victim of the Holocaust memorialised (though not named) by those opening dates but also for all victims; it is also, given those words in parentheses, an elegy for all humanity.
Formally, the poem is written in free verse with irregular metre and line lengths. The last line contains ten syllables comprising four trochees and a final iamb, finally returning to a full pentameter line. The loose form here helps to lend Hill’s poem a tentativeness (imagine writing an elegy for a Holocaust victim in perfect heroic couplets), as if he is unsure of the fitness of poetry, or at least his poetry, to do justice to this recent atrocity that occurred very much in living memory. It’s also worth pointing out that the poem is fourteen lines, summoning the spectre of the sonnet but denying us either its rhyme scheme or its iambic pentameter rhythm. Hill wants to put us in mind of the sonnet, rather than write one. (Again, would there be something blasé about writing a perfect sonnet with impeccable rhyme schemes after the horrors of Auschwitz?)
Note the suggestion of the victim’s ethnicity and religion in the third line, with ‘passed over’ suggesting the Jewish festival of Passover: certainly the use of this phrase invites such an analysis. ‘Zyklon’ (strictly Zyklon-B) was the gas used in the gas chambers at Nazi concentration camps. The final line strikes us almost as tautology, until we recall that ‘plenty’ means enough, so ‘more than enough’ suggests the poem has already exceeded, at fourteen lines, the limits of what it is possible to say in poetry about this event. To borrow from Anthony Hecht (another poet to write movingly about the Holocaust): ‘I think I may already have said too much.’