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Laureate of language: Geoffrey Hill, photographed by Christopher Barker for his book "Portraits of Poets" in 1986

It was drizzling and already dusk when I arrived at the Examination Schools in Oxford one afternoon in March to hear Sir Geoffrey Hill lecture on poetry. Entering that forbidding Victorian pile, mounting the long staircase and arriving in the South School triggered a buried, decades-old recollection of the agonies of Finals. More than 60 years ago, my mother had also sat Finals here, alongside Geoffrey Hill; they were both reading English and might have attended the same lectures by (among others) C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. A little later, in London, they might have been to the same readings by such luminaries of the day as T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas. But they never met. My daughter, now also reading English and about to sit Finals in her turn, was waiting for me, having saved me a seat.

Inside that unprepossessing auditorium, presided over by a portrait of Kaiser Bill in academic scarlet, the lecture had just begun. There, silver-bearded and sonorous-voiced, was the Professor of Poetry. Already he held the large audience under his spell; apart from the occasional ripple of laughter at his sallies against his fellow poets, respect bordering on reverence prevailed. It could have been — perhaps it was — the Ancient of Days. Now in his early eighties, Geoffrey Hill has all the gravitas that attaches to his chair, but remains quixotic, impish and irreverent. His purpose in giving these lectures was evidently not to flatter his audience of dons, undergraduates and interlopers like me, but to do what he could to provoke us.

As I entered, the Professor of Poetry was reciting: not verses, but extracts from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. He went on to explain that his theme was "Monumentality and Bidding" — terms of art taken from one of his heroes of prosody, Gerard Manley Hopkins — and that his argument was that enduring, not to say great, poetry and prose must combine these two qualities. Monumentality speaks for itself, but by "bidding" Hopkins meant speaking directly to the reader and keeping his attention, "making it everywhere an act of intercourse" — "social intercourse", Hill interjected with a wry smile. (I suspect Hopkins the Jesuit also had in mind the sense of supplication, as in the "bidding prayers" offered up to God in every Mass.) The great speeches of Lincoln and King, a sonnet by Hopkins, the music of Purcell: each was analysed minutely, with frequent reference to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was all of a piece and, in its endearingly idiosyncratic way, "Hillian".

Last month, I returned to Oxford for another dose, drawn irresistibly by the magnetism of this voice versifying in the wilderness.  There is no denying that his lectures, like his poems, are difficult — but they are not so for the sake of exclusiveness. Hill addressed himself on this occasion to "any reader of intelligent goodwill" and in a line from one of his Expostulations on the Volcano, he insists: "I do not establish the recondite as Hill-school."

This entire May lecture was dedicated to resolving a single question in a single poem, "The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins: to whom was his vivid evocation of the "lyric flight" of the bird addressed? Was "thee" the bird or the poem's dedicatee, Jesus Christ? (Long after writing it, the poet added the title "To Christ our Lord", but there is no obvious solution.) In the hour spent answering this question, Hill offered a defence not only of poet and poem, but also of the "earnestness of spirit" — saturated in Classical culture and Catholic theology — that had made it possible for Hopkins to "find his way right at last to the true functions of his mind" and in doing so to create the new prosody of sprung rhythm. The very artificiality of such an "abrupt metre" creates naturalness, Hill argued, with a characteristic sideswipe at contemporary poets: "If only that were better understood at the present time."

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hegel`s advocate
June 13th, 2014
8:06 PM
TS Eliot and Grouch Marx were fans of each others works and eventually met for a dinner. It was a disaster and they never spoke to each other again. The very English poet John Cooper-Clark successfully combining the visual,seriously poetic Baudelairean and hilarious. Mark E Smith of the band The Fall recognising intuitively what Schopenhauer claimed about music and words. Iggy Pop has explicitly stated his "Dionysian and Apollonian" interests . Seamus Heaney and Bono are the pits. As bad as Oasis,Blur, Tony Blair and their fans. 100 tons of cocaine up bankers noses later and it`s austerity politics and gruel-propaganda for everyone. Many poets supported the Pussy Riot artists via English Pen poetry and music events last year.

AmericanPoetryReader
June 8th, 2014
1:06 AM
Oddly, Daniel Johnson suggests at one point that Hill's "declamatory style" is in the tradition of Yeats and Eliot but then refers only to Eliot at other points. I assume Johnson jettisons Yeats from the discussion because Hill seems to be of the Eliot school when tradition and individual talents are the subject. I'd rather be with Yeats, who published a whole lifetime of selfies that grew from a sense of self as a part of the universal. Eliot may have tried in the Four Quartets, great poems that they are, but Eliot seems always to decide what ideas are of value and then fit his poems to those specific ideas. To me, this isn't a poetry of ideas but a poetry of "my ideas have value and yours don't." At his most limited, Eliot speaks as a rootless American who suffers from the worst of my compatriot's weaknesses, the insistence on holding tight to a cramped belief in a tradition that doesn't exist by itself but that is merely one part of a much larger, more inchoate tradition, in this case the tradition of poetic expression--although political, religious, and social traditions would work just as well for Eliot. Yeats too could be dogmatic but never to the extent that Eliot was. Even in crabbed old age, Yeats was still searching for resolution of opposing ideas. Even as a youth, Eliot had largely rejected any such attempt at resolution. Philosophy, religion, politics may require such rejection, but poetry, more often than not, abhors it. No wonder Eliot had to reject the ghost of Yeats in "Little Gidding." No wonder Eliot quit the craft of poetry (poetic drama aside) after his quartets. I don't mean to imply that the selfie impulse can't lead to poorly constructed poems. A lot of contemporary poetry would put the lie to such a claim. I also agree that poetry has lost much of its luster. This loss, however, results from competition for a limited audience from other more popular forms of expression, not from any failure on the part of poets of the age. I can equally appreciate the examples Johnson gives from both Walcott and Hill, finding Hills no more or less universal than Walcott's. I consider Walcott's "Omeros" the greatest long form poem of the last five or six decades, but I don't like his sexism any more than I like Eliot's antisemitism. Nor does it mean I devalue Hill as a poet expressing himself. A more capacious poetic tradition exists than either Johnson or Hill seen willing to accept. I have no problem accepting Eliot and Hill as part of this capacious tradition. I've never understood why they both seem incapable of accepting poets dissimilar to themselves as a part of the tradition. Then again, I define the poetic tradition as the most artful examples of a multitude of poets speaking in poetic language, not as poets enforcing my preconceived idea about ideas.

JM
June 4th, 2014
10:06 AM
This is an interesting essay but it loses focus when it begins to imitate the coat-trailing that characterizes too many of Hill's supporters. It doesn't do Hill any favours to ramp up his reputation at the expense of his contemporaries. What does it mean to say that "Walcotts and Heaneys [...] delight the ear but are content to go with the flow"? Can you really differentiate Heaney and Walcott from Hill on these grounds? Remember Walcott's often bitter and admittedly autobiographical (but less selfie-like than Wordsworthian) long poems about his estrangement from both Anglo-American AND West Indies cultures. And Heaney wasn't usually thought of as 'going with the flow': remember 'My passport's green' or his rebuking of John Carey, or his critical stance in both the Republic and Northern Ireland on many political issues, from the IRA to the abortion referendums of the 1980s, which I would guess antagonized many more people than Hill's lectures. Another comparison, not made here, would say that, just as much as Hill, Heaney's essays and defences of poetry (including perceptive essays on Hill and Hopkins) as collected in 'Finders Keepers' continue the tradition of Eliot and Auden's critical prose.

hegel`s advocate
May 29th, 2014
5:05 PM
Is it a gauntlet Hill throws down? Matthew Collings said his own paintings (made with Emma Biggs)in his recent London exhibition throw down the glove to what`s going on today. But do they? Or is it `today` that`s throwing down the challenges ? Are Hill(and Johnson)simply being ideological ? It was the philosopher Schopenhauer who claimed that it was music that brought us closer to the experience of the "ding an sich". And so it was/is with the music and poetry of Joy Division. The singer Ian Curtis even voted Tory before his suicide. "Existence,well what does it matter? I exist on the best terms I can. The past is now part of my future. The present is well out of hand." At the same time the poet John Cooper Clark recorded his classic `Beasley Street` with a band (produced by Martin Hannet). It`s a shame the elder poets,philosophers , artists and feminists (with the exception of Julie Burchill and Zizek) don`t credit any of the younger generation with some brilliance and elan vital or Holy Spirit. The English language is very generous. The opposite of our present politicians and clergy.

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