Poetry in Prospect: Selima Hill’s ‘The Gold Hotel’

Our new monthly column is here to guide you through the lines and stanzas of modern poems—starting with one written by the first winner of the King’s Gold Medal for Poetry

February 09, 2023
Illustration: Kate Hazell
Illustration: Kate Hazell

Poetry is the most reactive of literary arts. For new ideas, and changes in the zeitgeist, it is the canary in the mine. Poems about the climate crisis appeared decades before any novels. Robert Frost called poetry “a fresh look and a fresh listen”, and poetry adapts more quickly than fiction partly for practical reasons (most poems get drafted in a few days while novels have big things to consider that take time, like characters, plot, cause, effect), but also because poems depend on finetuning a single sensitivity.

Poetry “strikes out the ore of self”, says Seamus Heaney, and you can’t pose or lie in a poem. Falseness shows. You can play with alternative realities, but the feelings have to be genuine, and genuinely yours, or the poem won’t work. It may work as rhetoric, which Yeats says we make “out of the quarrel with others”, and many angry poems, full-heartedly raging against injustice, are very effective rhetoric. But true poetry, as Yeats said, comes “out of the quarrel with ourselves”. Shostakovich, defending one of his operas against criticism, said, “I have experienced every note and taken responsibility for every bar”, and that is how poets have to feel about their words.

Poetry is like an elephant’s trunk. Tough, coming mysteriously out of personal experience, it can embrace a baby, lift a truck, save a life, and yet its skin is one of the most sensitive parts of the body, a network of sensory cells, concentric membranes of connective tissue, and between each of those membranes a layer of gel. Any slight pressure, just brushing it with your finger, deforms that gel, affects the connective tissue, stimulates nerve endings, sends a message to the brain.

Ideally, that’s how a poem works. Sensitive to the lightest touch, but strong, bendy and ultra-connective, inside and out.

An elephant’s trunk also reaches out, and a good poem has some quality of coming truly from me to you, one self to another. It is up to the other to let it land in them, and people are particularly open to poetry at very raw moments, like falling in love, losing a lover, or grieving a death. By going deep into the particular, the personal, poems touch a universal that everyone can share.

But people not used to poetry sometimes find it “difficult”. In the late 1990s, fed up with this “difficult” idea and wanting to help (because when the back of every book says it is uniquely brilliant, where do you start?), I wrote a weekly column about reading poems for a few years in the Independent on Sunday.

The poets had to be alive, and I alternated men and women. It was not a “how to read”. I would not presume to do that—every reader can see different things—I was just sharing details of how I responded and how I thought each poem got its effects; musical, emotional, intellectual. The column caught the mood of the moment, but I wrote two books from those columns afterwards, which pinpointed a new moment, three years that radically changed the ecology of UK poetry.

The first book, 52 Ways of Looking at A Poem, came out in 2002. In it, I explained that poetry in Britain and Ireland, unlike America, had little to do with universities. We were teachers, social workers, publishers, arts administrators, sometimes journalists and usually self-employed, chasing the next job, next cheque. But in 2005, in The Poem and the Journey, nearly every poem I discussed was by a poet at a university, teaching creative writing.

That’s how swift the change was. What happened in those three years between 2002 and 2005, when universities embraced the cash cow of creative writing, has had a real effect. Now, 20 years later, several generations of young poets have been studying creative writing, writing PhDs on other poets and teaching at universities. So the approaches, styles and voices of poems have transformed. But there still are many excellent poets outside university, who are nurses, carers, teachers; who have been soldiers or worked on building sites and now live by teaching and performing.

This means that the diversity of poetry published in the UK is wider than ever before. The TS Eliot Prize shortlist—which last month received its traditional set of readings at the Royal Festival Hall—reflected it. Not only are the poets and their voices diverse (only half the shortlisted poets were white, very different from 20 years ago); so are poetry publishers and editors. Small presses sometimes beat established imprints to the prize. More importantly, the poems themselves are more diverse. Many more are about identity, ethnic and sexual. There are more about ecology and science. And I think there is a new fluidity; of identity, of course, but also of form.

Today, what used to be called performance poetry, which gets its effects through the presence, energy and shaping voice of the live performer, has become mainstream. The art of poetry depends on patterning, and sometimes this is only apparent in the poet’s voice when they deliver it on stage. A line from Frank O’Hara—“feelings are our facts”—has never been more true. This may be one reason that poetry, increasingly live poetry, appeals so strongly today to the young. We toss on such a muddy sea of competing misinformation, that feelings sometimes seem the only certainty. On stage among the 10 shortlisted poets, as well as in the audience, the Festival Hall was full of young faces.

But personal feelings often provoke a wish to attack and, ever since the 18th century, belligerent newspaper columns have regularly tried to bat poetry down, call it out, call it dead. Luckily, this short poem from Selima Hill, who has just been awarded the first King’s Gold Medal for Poetry, shows how very undead poetry is. And why we need it.

The Gold Hotel

She hangs, or what she wants to tell me hangs,
Far beyond my reach like a songbird
For ever sealed in a chandelier

That God Himself could not be heard inside
And if I knew what she knows – which I don’t,
She hardly knows herself, no one should,

She keeps it hidden like a gold hotel
She’s carried to the bed of the sea
And buried there, embracing solitude –

If I knew, and even if I don’t,
Because her words say one thing and her eyes
Say something else, I know I’ll never leave her.

Reading this, I listen first for the journey of feeling, through the images and also through the pronouns that give me the people and their relationship. Also through the stanzas, which are stepping stones for each new thought. There is a she (first word) and an I. She is beyond my reach, like a bird sealed in a chandelier. This is weird, but I don’t expect to know what is going on instantly. I let it unfold as I go.

In the second stanza, we hear more about this chandelier. Even God could not be heard inside it. This she is as sealed off from the speaker as God. As if to drive the point home, after if I knew what she knows (which evokes the hope of empathy, of knowing what the other knows), we get a syntactical sealing-off—a dash, a parenthesis starting with denial. Which I don’t.

The last word in a line often carries most stress, and don’t seems to bear a lot of weight. Then this very negative knowing is elaborated on. She hardly knows herself, no one should.

This makes me wonder if her locked-in state is dementia. Most people today have come into contact with, if not cared for, someone sealed in like that,who tragically hardly knows herself. Maybe, like an old-style photo in a dark room, what is developing here is a recognisable scenario: a child trying to understand a demented parent.

The third stanza, the heart of the poem in which the title words are buried, supports this idea through the strangeness of what she does or doesn’t know, which she keepshidden. Like a gold hotel. Is this apreciousthing, shining and valued, where she can lodge, at least temporarily? Does hotel look back to the first stanza’s chandelier? Ordoes a gold one imply a golden cage, a prison for that sealed-off songbird? Or are both these ideas, positive and negative, at work in the image? I begin to suspect so—the I does value and respect what she holds secret, but also feels it is imprisoning her.

The next lines elaborate on the hotel. She has buried it in the bed of the sea. So this place, where she might go on holiday and meet other people, is now underwater; she is embracing solitude.

Having moved from the first line’s image, of something hanging out of reach, presumably in the air, we are now below the sea. That summing-up word solitude seems to rhyme, or at least chime, with should inthe stanza above, which makes me feel the two inner stanzas are nested within the outer ones.

The elephant’s trunk of poetry at work again: there seems to be a tough structure here, but one which contains a molecular flexibility, even instability. The poem’s carefully cadenced outward formality belies the surreal uncertainty within, about communication and knowing. The two inner stanzas seem bonded by that rhyme in the same place of the last line of each. The last line of the second stanza and first line of the third (which contains the words of the title) are the heart of the poem: She hardly knows herself, no one should, // She keeps it hidden like a gold hotel. But there is a stanza break between them. Maybe dementia is itself a kind of secret, a hidden gold hotel. Which has beauties but, like the sanitorium in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, you cannot leave. And something is broken in it.

Immediately after solitude, a second dash closes the parenthesis and the speaker’s repeat of If I knew reminds me how, in the first line, she actually does want to communicate, even though what she wants to tell me is out of reach.

At once we hear, in even if I don’t, anecho of the second stanza’s I don’t, whichis allthe more emphatic by occupying the same place in the line. What does this do? Does it break the structure we felt before and its implication: that the two inner stanzas, representing perhaps the knowledge or non-knowledge hidden inside the her, are nested within the outer ones?

I don’t think so: I think it reminds us how fluid, and sometimes repetitive, this world is. As often, when talking and listening to dementia sufferers, the speaker, the I, has to keep switching between one thing and its negative, its opposite. I know, I don’t. She hangs or what she wants to tell me hangs. Words say one thing, eyes say something else. Communication is out of reach, up in the air, under the sea. But, in the last words, knowledge is reached and safe. I know I’ll never leave her.

I get a picture of a daughter with a mother who is either deep in dementia, or has some other condition where communication and knowing are blocked. And yet certainty, of personhood, relationship, warmth, reassurance, call it humanity, does triumph in the end. The elephant’s trunk has done its work. What else is poetry for?

‘The Gold Hotel’ is reproduced from Selima Hill’s “People Who Like Meatballs” (Bloodaxe Books, 2012)