Poem of the Week: ‘September Song’ by Geoffrey Hill

Paul Norris 10 December 2018
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

born 19.6.32—deported 24.9.42

 

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable

you were not. Not forgotten

or passed over at the proper time.

 

As estimated, you died. Things marched,

sufficient, to that end.

Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented

terror, so many routine cries.

 

(I have made

an elegy for myself it

is true)

 

September fattens on vines. Roses

flake from the wall. The smoke

of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.

 

This is plenty. This is more than enough.

 

How do we remember atrocities? All too often (as with the Rwandan Genocide) we don’t, but even when, as with the Holocaust, atrocities enter collective memory, it is difficult not to make the story about the rememberer more than the remembered. There are obvious examples: weepy sentiment like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas; people posing inside the Berlin Memorial. Geoffrey Hill’s poem is about the process of remembering (and talking about remembering) the Holocaust more than it is about the event itself, in which it takes only a passing interest. ‘Just so much Zyklon and leather’ is the only unambiguous reference to the material reality of the Nazi death camps. A single word – Zyklon – informs the reader what this poem is about (although the deportation date gives a clue). While ‘Just so much’ has the ring of a casual recipe (Just so much), or perhaps exhaustion at unimaginable excess (Just so much),  ‘Zyklon and leather’ suggests a pageant, a performance. By using these words to evoke the suffering in the camps, Hill draws attention to how our memories reduce that suffering to its recognisable elements, to a costume drama in books, on screen and in our heads. The ‘routine cries’ he mentions are not only those of the Nazis’ victims, but the generation of perfunctory responses the suffering in the camps has generated in those who claim to remember.

What is ‘more than enough’ in the poem’s final line? Is this the poet congratulating himself, saying that now he’s done his duty by writing about the Holocaust he can get back to enjoying the harmless fire of his barbecue? Or is the Holocaust itself more than the word ‘enough’ can ever capture? More than any idea of totality or completion? This question gets to the heart of the poem’s anxiety that it might be about the poet himself, that it might be impossible to write about anything else.

The better-known ‘September Song’ is a pop song covered by Frank Sinatra, but written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson as part of the 1938 musical Knickerbocker Holiday. The lyrics of the song play on the simple and familiar metaphor of autumn as the closing years of a life:

 

Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December

But the days grow short when you reach September

When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame

One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

 

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few

September, November

And these few precious days I’ll spend with you

These precious days I’ll spend with you

 

Perhaps an ageing Geoffrey Hill’s thoughts turn back to a child who will never enjoy her autumnal years, making him grateful for the ‘plenty’ he has – a story which is essentially about him rather than the victim. There might also be a veiled reference to Kurt Weill’s anti-fascism: Jewish, he fled the Nazis in 1933, and collaborated with Bertold Brecht in the US, writing songs like the Ballad of the Nazi Soldier’s Wife (which was originally written in German in order to be broadcast in the Third Reich to lower morale). Hill’s choice of title doesn’t bring it down to the level of a pop standard, but rather brings the pop standard up the level of serious poetry, trying to find a more substantial place for remembering pain in the cultural consciousness.

Hill does not exonerate himself from his indictment of inadequate memorials: the poem itself is a routine cry, and he admits in parentheses that he has written this elegy not for the child who is its ostensible subject, but for himself: for his own emotional satisfaction, catharsis, perhaps even literary recognition. But ‘it/ is true’. Not only the statement ‘I have made an elegy for myself’, but the entire poem is true. Even if it was written for partially self-interested reasons, it is the best we can do. No response to pain and death on such a scale will ever be adequate, especially given that inexpressibility is intrinsic to pain: ‘resistance to language is not simply one of its incidental or accidental attributes but is essential to what it is’ (Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain). So any response, no matter how limited, is better than forgetting, better than silence.