Monday, 22 October 2012

Geoffrey Hill returns to Leeds University

Stringent and Astringent

Richard Wilcocks writes:

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)

Inspired by an old cornet

In the run-up to the LitFest in March, members of the local OWLS (Older Wiser Locals) group worked with children from Year 5 at Weetwood Primary School to produce poems inspired by an old cornet. The different generations each brought their own experiences to the project, ably assisted by poet James Nash. Special thanks are due to Year 5 teacher Judith Brockbank and to Lee Ingham and the OWLS.
A booklet of the poems is now up in Headingley Library. These photos are of a display which is currently near the main entrance of the HEART Centre in Bennett Road.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Cage by Peter Spafford

LitFest veteran and Headingley resident Peter Spafford has based his latest play on a book by Dan Billany and David Dowie - which exists only because of an Italian farmer who looked after the manuscripts (in exercise books) during the Second World War, after an escape from a camp.

As most readers of this blog are unlikely to be able to attend the performance in Goole, there will be another one on Sunday 11 November at 2pm in the Quaker Meeting House on Woodhouse Lane.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Blue plaque for J R R Tolkien - more photos

A few more photos taken at Monday's unveiling ceremony outside 2 Darnley Road in West Park, Leeds...

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Unveiled - Tolkien's Blue Plaque

In a ceremony organised by Leeds Civic Trust, the plaque for one of our area’s most famous – and most beloved – literary residents was revealed on Monday morning, 1 October, on the red brick wall of 2 Darnley Road. It was unveiled by Dr Kersten Hall, graduate of St Anne’s College, Oxford and Visiting Fellow to the Faculty of Arts at the University of Leeds. 

The event followed campaigning by the Tolkien Society and its members. Here is part of the Society’s informative statement for the event:

J.R.R. Tolkien, graduate of Exeter College, Oxford, was Reader in English language at the University of Leeds, his family moved to Leeds residing briefly at 5 Holly Bank, Headingley and then leasing a house in St Mark’s Terrace. In 1924 Tolkien bought the semi-detached property in Darnley Road. He went on to be made Professor of the English Language at the university. The family lived there for over a year before Tolkien’s election to the Rawlinson and Bosworth chair of Anglo-Saxon saw them return to Oxford in 1926. 

During his time at the University of Leeds Tolkien was instrumental in shaping the English Language syllabus at the university; some aspects of this were still present sixty years later. He also worked with E.V. Gordon to produce an edition of the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was published in 1925.

Members of Headingley LitFest’s organizing committee were there, as might be expected, accompanying others in the crowd to the nearby Stables Bar for a reception. Speakers included Rory McTurk, Emeritus Professor of Icelandic Studies at the University of Leeds, who contributed to the LitFest programme in 2009. Included in his brief talk were references to a ‘completed’ translation by Tolkien of the story of Sigurd and Brynhildr - and also a Tolkien version of Beowulf, which might just be released for publication next year. 

In only-too-brief conversations with transient friends, it was established that some Tolkien Society members had come up to Leeds from many miles away - for example Dr Lynn Forest Hill, who had travelled from Southampton.

In letters to Allen and Unwin in 1961, the great man emphasized his gratitude for his time in Leeds: “I was devoted to the University of Leeds, which was very good to me, and to its students, whom I left with regret.”

Pictured below: Second Lieutenant J R R Tolkien during the First World War. To qualify as a signals officer, he attended a signals school run by the army's Northern Command at Farnley Park, Otley, which he left in May 1916. He did not see the full intensity of the Battle of the Somme, but he did experience the horror of trench warfare. In November 1916, he was invalided back to England with 'trench fever' and temporarily posted to Hornsea in East Yorkshire. His recovery from this was sporadic and , having relapsed, he was admitted to a Harrogate sanatorium. He also spent time at the Brooklands Officers' Hospital in Hull.  (from the booklet produced by Leeds Civic Trust)

Monday, 1 October 2012

Mimika Children's Theatre Comes Home

Mimika, the internationally acclaimed children’s theatre is to perform in Headingley on Saturday 3 November at the HEART Centre in Bennett Road in four special performances of their show Landscapes, presented by Headingley LitFest as part of our Between the Lines pre-March programme of events. 

This is the first time that Mimika has had a home performance in the city for twenty-five years!
Bill and Jenny, the inspired ‘do everything’ creators and animators of Mimika are really looking forward ‘to coming home’ and sharing their work with their local neighbourhoods. 

While their current show Landscapes has enthralled and enchanted audiences elsewhere in the UK and world wide, for example in London, Dublin, Madrid, Toronto, Singapore and in countries such as Denmark, the USA and recently China, Jenny (pictured, with goose) told us: while travelling around the world and performing to audiences from different cultures is often thrilling and fabulous this chance to show the work to friends, neighbours and the local community will be special.

Landscapes is a wordless theatre presentation set inside a beautiful white calico dome. It is an intimate, gentle and engaging evocation of four areas of the natural world. Audiences travel from the Desert to the Rainforest, from under the Sea to the South Pole. Using ingenuous crafted and designed models, puppets and sets, special lighting effects and an immersive sound track, Mimika take their audiences on a very special colourful and enchanting journey.  The show has been described as by far one of the most mesmerising children’s theatre pieces, (Canada) and as a show that should enchant audiences of any age (USA) with Mimika heralded by Kilkenny Arts Festival (Ireland) as one of the most original theatre companies in Europe.  

Performance times are 10.00am, 11.30am, 1.00pm and 2.30pm.  Adults £4.00, Children (under 16) £2.50. Children under ten should be accompanied by an appropriate  number of adults for groups of five and over. 

Tickets are now on sale at HEART . As each performance is limited to twenty-five persons, you are advised to get yours soon.

More information on Mimika at