Chris Woodhead interviews Geoffrey Hill, Oxford's new Professor of Poetry
Outside, a waterfall from a blocked gutter flowed down the kitchen window. Three sodden and rather stately sheep trooped by in single file. Geoffrey looked at me across the table and nodded with satisfaction. “I love weather like this,” he said, “Don’t you?”
I nodded back. You don’t, after all, buy a farmhouse halfway up a Welsh hillside for the joys of perpetual sunshine. He finished his coffee and picked up one of the black notebooks in which he writes his poetry. “I am,” he sighed, “very, very tired.”
Geoffrey Hill, England’s greatest living poet, published his first pamphlet of verse in 1952 while an undergraduate at Oxford University. Now, in his old age, he is writing with intense urgency and concentration. His Collected Critical Writings (2008) recently won the prestigious Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. The news that he had allowed his name to go forward as a candidate for election to the next Chair of Poetry at Oxford saw almost 50 senior academics pledge their immediate support.
“If you sit up half the night writing, you’re bound to be tired,” I replied, unsympathetically. “Why do you do it?”
He did not, he replied, have any option. “At my age, you know you haven’t got that long and I am trying, I suppose, to make up for those long periods of time when I was unable to write.”
Those blank periods are a matter of public record: serious health problems, severe depression, a move from Leeds, where he had taught for 26 years, to Cambridge. In 1988, he was invited to join the University Professors Program at Boston University. He published just one book of poetry, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, between 1978 and 1997. Finally, in 2006, he retired. “Fifty-two years of university teaching,” he once said to me, rather ruefully, “It must be some kind of record.”
Make up for it he most certainly has. In the last three years, Hill has completed four unpublished books of poems and is currently working on a fifth. Could he, I asked, say something about the genesis and nature of these late poems?
“The first of the four books began as a result of my coming face to face with Donatello’s Habakkuk in Florence in May 2007. The second derives from a rediscovery of the power and beauty of one of Sir Philip Sidney’s lyrics in Arcadia, a demanding technical exercise in English ‘Sapphics’. The third is a book about my ‘discovery’ of Wales, dedicated to the memory of my Welsh great-grandfather. The fourth is again an exercise in handling rhyme, metre, rhythm — in short, ‘stress’ — within the constraints of compact metrics and complex rhyme-patterns. The fifth, I don’t feel able to talk about, as it’s unfinished.”
I like to think that my wife and I contributed something to the Welsh book, Oraclau. Driving last May with Geoffrey from Cambridge to Wales, we stopped at Llanllwchaiarn, near Newtown, where his great- grandfather was baptised in 1826. The church was, predictably, locked, so we wandered round the graveyard. “Who is that strange figure with the long white beard who kept walking in front of the camera?” Geoffrey asked when we showed him the printed photos.
En route to Llanllwchaiarn, we had driven past Bromsgrove County High School, in Worcestershire, where Geoffrey had been a pupil from 1942 to 1950. “We were,” he said, “95 per cent working class, and I am very proud of what the majority of my classmates achieved in later life. The boy who was my closest friend in the ‘L’ (for Latin) stream and who, having done very well at School Cert, left to work in an office, retired a few years ago as Professor of Chemical Engineering at Zurich with a DSc and numerous patents to his name. That is what I call genius. In terms of success, recognition, stability and personal happiness, I come a long way down the list of ex-pupils of BCHS in those years. As to my being a poet: at 78 [almost] I have to grit my teeth and get on with it. I would rather have been a Professor of Engineering and a more generous and loving son.”
This, I thought to myself, is the man of whom Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote: “Geoffrey Hill remains for me the supreme voice of the last few decades…The recent work, telegraphic, angry and unconsoled, at once assertive and self-dispossessing, is extraordinary.” So, too, is the gap between the strength of the public recognition and the bleakness of the personal judgment.
“Say that I am gifted — ,” one of the poems in Scenes from Comus (2005) declares, “and I’ll touch you/for ordinary uncommon happiness. What/a weirdo, you think. Well, yes, I was wired weird.”
Were you, Geoffrey, I ask, “wired weird”?
“Were Whitman, Yeats, Hardy? Yes, of course they were. They were also tremendously sane. Their poetry kept them sane, fulfilled their sanity, spoke of and for their sanity. I do not claim equality with them, but neither do I affect a false modesty. I think I was discerned as being ‘wired weird’ by my Bromsgrove schoolmates, and was to some extent ostracised for that reason. Rightly so, I think. At the same time I would claim a sanity, at once basic and overarching, for myself in terms of my craft. I may not be, but my poetry is, profoundly sane, and I believe that it will be more and more recognised to be so as time goes on. Of course,” he added, “I’ll be gone by then.”
We stopped for another cup of coffee. The rain if anything was heavier. The sheep trooped back in the opposite direction, still in single file.
If the test of the “sanity” is the ability to engage with what matters most to us, individually and collectively and, in so doing, to remain, over 60 years, scrupulously alert to the weight of both the world and the word, then Geoffrey’s poetry is indeed profoundly sane. Does this mean that, as time goes by, his poems will secure a wider readership?
No, sadly, it does not. We live in an age that expects its poetry to be immediately accessible. Geoffrey does not share this populist belief. “Accessible,” he once said to me, is a perfectly good word if applied to supermarket aisles, art galleries, polling stations and public lavatories, but it has no place in discussion of poetry and poetics.
His critics allege that his poems are impenetrably difficult. The truth is that every first reading is likely to yield lines of heartbreaking beauty (“the may-tree filling/with visionary silent laughter”; or “The marvellous webs are rimed with eternity”) and wry humour (“I wish I understood myself/more clearly or less well”). Most readers will find his range of reference (from, for example, Dame Helen Mirren to Thomas Bradwardine) challenging, but a good search engine helps pretty quickly to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.
In an interview given to the Paris Review in 2000, Hill’s response to the charge that his poetry is excessively intellectual was that life is difficult. “Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other and we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most ‘intellectual’ piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when, if such simplifications were applied to our own inner selves, we would find it demeaning?”
Art, he believes, has “a right to be difficult” if it so wishes. “Cogent difficulty, that yields up its meaning slowly, that submits its integrity to the perplexed persistence of readers of goodwill, is one of the best safeguards that democracy can have.” Why? Because “tyranny requires simplification…Propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequence, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualification and revelation…resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.
“But,” he once again sighed, “poetry is dismissed as an eccentric pursuit. If it were not so, John Humphrys would put as much effort and preparation towards harassing some cultural charlatan as he does towards making a political double-dealer squirm.”
I laughed. The thought of the Today programme giving poetry the serious attention it dedicates to the clichés of leading politicians is frankly absurd. It is also, however, as Hill implies, deeply depressing.
If there is an answer it lies, of course, in our schools. We returned to Hill’s childhood. “At the time, that county high school seemed a very ordinary school, but what seemed ‘ordinary’ then appears extraordinary now. Its loss,” he said slowly and sadly, “has been a dreadful national deprivation and degradation.”
“I know,” I said, “I have spent the last 20 years trying to do something about it and got nowhere.” We looked at each other and laughed. The absurdity of us sitting in the middle of Noah’s flood, pontificating about education when fine teachers across the country are forced to conform to the doctrine of “Relevance and Accessibility” must have hit us simultaneously.
For a while, we sat in silence. I had no idea what Geoffrey was thinking. I was lost in a vivid memory of a sunny June afternoon in 1968. I should have been revising for my finals, but, bored, I’d taken a few hours off and was wandering round Bath. By chance I went into a bookshop and picked up a copy of Geoffrey’s magnificent second book of poems, King Log.
Maybe I am “wired weird” too, but I can only compare the experience to falling in love. There was the same sense of wonder and excitement and mystery, the sense, as Geoffrey himself has put it, of being “brushed past, or aside, by an alien being”. I bought the book and over the intervening years have bought every subsequent book Geoffrey has written. I count his poetry and now, towards the end of our lives, his friendship, as one of the greatest blessings I have been lucky enough to receive.
He looked up. “Could you bear,” he asked, “to watch another episode of Prime Suspect?” “Of course,” I replied. Politics, education and poetry might be in a mess, but “H Mirren”, as Geoffrey once put it in a poem, “is super”.