Geoffrey Hill is, in the opinion of many, the best poet now writing in England, though he is not the best known.
He was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, in 1932, the only child of a police constable. After reading English at Keble College, Oxford, he was for many years a lecturer at Leeds University, becoming Professor there in 1977. In 1981 he moved to Cambridge, where he is now a Fellow of Emmanuel College.
As a poet he can be placed in no ‘group’ or school. His work has a severe formality unlike anything else presently being written, with an equally uncommon passion and force. He has a profoundly historical imagination, and his poems characteristically locate themselves in specific past circumstances, from 8th-century Mercia to the Third Reich, from the War of the Roses to the Spanish Counter-Reformation. ‘There is no bloodless myth will hold,’ he says in the first poem of his first book; all his poetry broods upon the dark implications of poetry’s need for a life-blood, the tongue’s necessary participation in the atrocities it seeks to describe. The intertwining of eloquence and guilt forms the very substance of his verse, instinct with Coleridge’s realization: ‘Poetry – excites us to artificial feelings – makes us callous to real ones.’ As Geoffrey Hill has himself written about Yeats: ‘The poet is hearing words in depth and is therefore hearing, or sounding, history and morality in depth.’
In September Penguin published his Collected Poems, containing all five of his previous volumes, from For the Unfallen (1959) to The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy (1983). There are three new poems, and a few of the earlier ones have been revised. ‘The time seemed right for a number of reasons. Everything written from now on is likely to be rather different,’ he says. Publication by Penguin will bring his work to a wider audience. He has been known as something of a poet’s poet, avoiding publicity, though he denies this. ‘Publicity has not been aimed in my direction.’ To mark the event he has given readings of his works.
What can voice bring to the poetry?
What I think voice brings to the poem is a kind of formal distancing. A poem works by a form of counterpoint between natural speech-cadence and the formal structure, and a good reading should bring out that sense of counterpoint. Each enhances the other, the natural speech-cadence never loses touch with the demands of the form, and the formal demands strengthen and enhance that sense of the natural cadence of the voice. So that for me a good reading does serve to draw attention to certain features that are an essential part of the workings of any good poem. I’m suspicious of any attempt to create some kind of special rapport with any particular audience.
Do you have a suspicion of the wider audience?
Circumstances are such that there’s very little point in brooding about numbers. To say that one had a certain suspicion about a wider audience would suggest that one is entirely happy about the smaller audience. It isn’t numbers that are in these days the vital factor. It’s quality of perception rather than number of readers that matters. It all turns on expectations and presumptions and prejudices, as to how language works and how it relates to so-called actuality. At the present time, misconceptions about such things are as likely to be found in the ‘select’ audience as in a larger readership. People who ought to know better have a superficial notion of the way thought is related to language, and have very little conception of the way thought and idea are modulated and modified by cadence. That is to say, they impose a simplistic thought-pattern or programme of their own on a work and persist in it, even when the modulations and the rhythms of that poem should show them they are wrong.
Do you blame the mass media for encouraging such simplistic attitudes?
I’m frequently most impressed by the tenacity and acumen with which current ·affairs commentators on television and radio approach the task of attempting to elicit facts and truths from quick-talking politicians. When they move, on the same programme, from that world of politics and finance to matters of art or literature, as they occasionally do, there is a distinct loss of pressure and interest. It is as if they feel they’re moving from the centrally significant to the trivial and marginal, and are therefore willing to accept assertions and rumours that they would resist and refute in a more ‘serious’ area of discussion.
You have described reading a poem as ‘an act of passionate attention’. But how many people are capable of bringing such attention to bear?
I think that nearly everyone is capable of passionate attention of some kind, but the nature of present-day culture is such that this passion is devoted to things other than reading. A great deal of passionate attention goes into pigeon-fancying, fishing and model-railways. These admirable pursuits are regarded as being worthy of passionate attention, at the same time as energy and devotion in the making or reading of poems is regarded as marginal and eccentric. But popular hobbies are themselves marginal and eccentric. Think of Wemmich in Great Expectations; Dickens being prescient again. ‘The office is one thing, and private life is another.’
In your book of essays, The Lords of Limit, you quoted Allen Tate’s description of poetry as among those ‘discredited forms’ which have been ‘defeated by the popular vote’. Can this defeat be turned to good?
It can be turned to good only in the occasional victory of the poem itself. The occasional good poem undeniably bears witness to value and justice and seems to stand as an approximation of permanence. But the good is always outvoted by the bad in art. Pound’s vision of history in the Cantos focuses on heroic figures, heroic creators and patrons, snatching brief victory from a general context of defeat, their achievement all the more luminous and illuminating because of the darkness that surrounds and encroaches. His most powerful and cogent metaphors are of light shining all the more strongly, beautifully, because of the surrounding darkness. That Pound’s own great intelligence itself sank into darkness for a time does not, for me, obscure the truth of much that he has to say about the tyranny of Mammon or diminish the noble beauty of his finest work.
The received opinion is that you are a ‘notoriously difficult poet’, but you have claimed that your work has a quality of simplicity.
It is my fate, within the domain of ‘Rumour’, to be regarded as ‘this notoriously difficult poet’. ‘Enter Rumour painted full of tongues’ describes a good deal of literary publicity, including some kinds of criticism, as well as the operations of the financial world. If one can adopt Pound’s ‘Usura’ as a term for the whole complex of commodity, technology, credit and debit, this is surely among the demonic forces of our own time in the West, the destroyer of intrinsic value and meanings; it denies the value of passionate attention given to matters of general good, pushes it to the fringes of Wemmick-like privacy, into harmless hobby and eccentric behaviour.
What help could you suggest to readers who nonetheless do find your work impenetrably difficult?
Any reader who was prepared to read through my Collected Poems with the kind of attention which one ought to be able to take for granted could see for himself or herself the truth of the matter. Start with ‘Genesis’, of 1952, and read on. Those who can only listen to Rumour are beyond my reasoning. There is no point in arguing with them.
Any density in the work only reflects the world’s density then?
The world is a dense and complex place, but it is possible for good poets, without in any way being simplistic or simpleminded, to write with luminous clarity about that density. The converse is equally true, I agree. It’s only too easy to write confusedly about matters which ought to be luminously clear and plain.
The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy is, you say, with King Log the volume you would be most reluctant to jettison in the game of the sinking balloon. Its 400 lines of rhymed pentameter quatrains were thought by some to have sprung out of the prevailing national mood at the time of the Falklands War. When did you in fact begin work on the poem?
I first became interested in Peguy in the early 1960s, and a few phrases which found their way finally into the poem also date from those years. For me, thought is inseparable from cadence and rhythm, and as early as 1960 I scribbled down in my notebooks bits of phrase and rhythm which at the time I didn’t know what to do with – which seemed to be pointing in a direction I was not then able to follow. One or two of these found their final and proper home in the poem, which I worked on from September 1980 to the end of July 1982.
Your poetry has been described as ‘persistent games-playing with words’. Would you reject this as a criticism? There’s a tendentious emphasis in the kind of suggestion you refer to, as though games-playing with words were a perversity indulged in by poets alone, while the rest of the world goes its innocent and straightforward way. It seems to me that any writer comtemplating the world of commodity and policy sees the entire conduct of commerce and nations ruled by patter. It fools nobody and yet it fools everybody. One might take the easy way, accept this as the rule of the age – and there are various popular kinds of patter-poetry at the present time – or one might sense that very insistence on immediate availability (quick verbal snacks) as but one of the many ways in which the cruel density of the world proclaims itself. When critics call you a ‘notoriously difficult poet’ I think they really mean ‘not ingratiating’ or ‘not suitable for instant consumption’.