Sir Geoffrey Hill, who was elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford in June 2010, returned to the University of Leeds, where he taught from 1954 to 1980 on Tuesday 16 October, to read from the work of himself and others. Organised by the University Poetry Centre, it marked two important occasions – his eightieth birthday and the Library’s acquisition of his archive. It was, as promised, a very special event.
Various people from the LitFest committee were there (Sir Geoffrey used to live in Headingley), along with most of the university English Department, undergraduates, postgraduates, poets, family and many others, to listen to a man who, according to one published anecdote, once strode backwards and forwards in front of students in this same Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre, dressed in black and sweating. He told us that, as he sat there, sweating slightly. I remember him from my time as the only tutor who wore jeans, and his habit of savouring with attendant long pauses particular words from our contributions.
This is not a full account, but a series of glimpses and snatches: it seemed inappropriate to scribble more than a page of notes, and few did so, because this was not a lecture, and not just a poetry reading. After an elegantly concise introduction from Professor John Whale, Head of the School of English, he began with his own anecdotes, about how he had arrived in Leeds as a callow youth (“I was pretty awful”), and about Bonamy Dobrée, who was the Professor of English Literature for a year after his arrival. Dobrée liked to keep a balance in the department, which at that time contained both the Marxist Arnold Kettle and Wilson Knight with his “idiosyncratic mysticism”. He talked about his friendships with the poets Tony Harrison and Ken Smith, when they were students.
Poetry readings, he told us, are not just about the poet who is reading. After mentioning that it would have been better if we could all have seen the words in front of us, or perhaps projected on the screen behind him, he devoted at least the first half to the works of other poets, most of whom are represented in Oscar Williams’s A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry (1946), which he carried in his teenage years. Gerard Hopkins (he omitted the Manley) was first, followed by D.H. Lawrence (Bavarian Gentians, full of flowing lines and repetitions, mesmerizing read Hill’s way), T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (Pisan Cantos).
"Ezra Pound is incomparable,” he said. “He was the great life-giver to poetry in English in the twentieth century.” He brought in the composer Arnold Schoenberg as analogous. “He was stringent and astringent… after so much dominance by Wagner, by Brahms, by the German Romantics, he gave us Pierrot Lunaire.” He enlarged on Ezra Pound: “…this man could be so enriching… and yet so vicious in his politics…The Pisan Cantos are a most extraordinary achievement, written when Pound was held in appalling conditions by his fellow Americans… his mind was filled with the healing power of poetry.”
Hill has a way of reading often described as ‘sonorous’, which is not quite the right word. He has a singer’s soul, his style distantly related to Sprechstimme, which was prescribed for Pierrot Lunaire. He is, incidentally, an Honorary Patron of Leeds Festival Chorus.
He read beautifully his translation of Eugenio Montale’s La Bufera, which dates from the middle of the last World War, but he does not describe it as a translation: his version, entitled The Storm, is, in his words, “after Eugenio Montale”. It is, in fact, notably close to the original (better, it has been mooted) and is a homage to an admired poet who has attracted his attention for some years, whose “muted discords” make him a kindred spirit.
He read from his own fairly recent work. Ars, in memory of Ken Smith, which appears in Without Title, was particularly poignant, partly because several in the audience had known Ken, who was co-editor of Stand magazine, which continues. Improvisation for Jimi Hendrix was not poignant, almost funny. It resulted from an online article in which he thought he was being compared to the guitarist, resulting in his buying a number of CDs, which ended up being flipped to students in an American lecture hall. ‘Lysergic’, we were told, is fake Greek.
“There was a time,” he said in the last five minutes, “when I could wait twenty years for a phrase to find its right place, but I can’t wait that long any more.”
Most of the appreciative and, I am sure, affectionate audience walked across afterwards to Special Collections in the Brotherton Library to drink wine and to chat in an oak-panelled room – to the Master, and to each other.
'Hill's work will never be fashionable but it is a corpus of such passionate seriousness and ethical thought, its every phrase written with a consciousness of the weight of history and language, that it is hard to imagine it ever being ignored.' - Robert Potts (Guardian 2002)
'Geoffrey Hill is the central poet-prophet of our augmenting darkness, and inherits the authority of the visionaries from Dante and Blake on to D.H. Lawrence' - critic Harold Bloom
'Hill embodies his lacerating humour in the person of a sad clown, performer and temporiser, trying to bring together the multiple elements in a dispersed identity: "I'm to show beholden." And parts of speech, too, play many roles, like the German word traurig that recurs. The clown's task is less to juggle words than to catch the one word that his many meanings share.' – Michael Schmidt, reviewing Without Title (Independent 2006)
'But there are good reasons why some intelligent people find little of value in the sentimental consensus of modern poetry; Hill's writing, which speaks to those disputed conditions in which civil and spiritual, as well as personal lives are actually led, offers readers something more rewarding than the usual panaceas.' – Peter McDonald (Guardian 2007)
'Let's take difficulty first. We are 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?' – Geoffrey Hill (Paris Review 2000)