Since graduating from Keble College, Oxford in 1953 Geoffrey Hill has pursued a joint career as academic and poet. From 1988 until retirement in 2006 he taught at Boston University, where he co-founded the Editorial Institute with fellow academic and Oxford’s current Professor of Poetry, Christopher Ricks. Hill’s academic interests are unusually wide-ranging; his recent Collected Critical Writings (OUP, 2008) contains essays across a wide spectrum of poets, critics, theologians, and philosophers from the Reformation to the late 20th century.
His first publication was a pamphlet in the now-celebrated Fantasy Poets series, a joint-venture of the Eynsham-based artist Oscar Mellor and the Oxford University Poetry Society; this appeared at the beginning of his third undergraduate year at Keble, and, like other pamphlets in the series (which included Adrienne Rich and George Steiner), is now a “collector’s item”. Since that time he has published 12 individual books of poetry. A Selected Poems appeared from Penguin in 2006; a Collected Poems is scheduled for 2012. Hill is an honorary fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge (where he taught from 1980 until 1988) and of Keble College, Oxford. He is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has honorary doctorates from Leeds and Warwick.
What follows is an edited version of an interview given at Keble on the morning of 27 February. On the previous evening he had addressed the Lord Herbert of Cherbury Society at Jesus College on the theme “Strongholds of the Imagination”.
As a poet and as an academic, what do you think the poet’s place should be within the institution of the university?
I don’t have much faith in creative writing courses such as the Master of Fine Arts programmes so prevalent in the States and increasingly active in the UK. I believe that poets should be self-taught, based on an intensive programme of preferably serendipitous reading. I exempt the Oxford Chair of Poetry and the Christopher Tower Chair at Christ Church; these are currently in very good hands and the emphasis on traditional teaching methods is probably firm. Auden used to hold informal sessions, for those who cared to attend, in a coffee shop in the Broad; that also I find entirely acceptable. I’m sorry to say that among early practitioners of creative writing degree classes in the States were people I greatly respect, such as the poet Allen Tate and the novelist Caroline Gordon. But at the time they were struggling to live by their wits, and were probably at their wit’s end.
Have you ever taught creative writing?
Once only; that was 50 years ago in the States. To teach creative writing well requires a particular kind of self-confidence which I didn’t possess. Looking back over so many years I feel more sorry for the students than for myself. It must have been a dismal experience for them also.
What is the public role of the poet? Are they historians or journalists?
Not quite in the sense that I think you intend. Obviously the poet’s public role is to be first and foremost a poet. But it is not ‘philosophically’ wrong for a poet to be deeply, or heavily, involved with journalism and/or politics; it all turns on the matter of intrinsic quality. The public role of the poem is to be a stronghold of the imagination. I wish in a way that I hadn’t read English at Oxford even though I obtained a first, which I doubt I would have done if I’d read any other school (well, history maybe). If I’d read PPE [Philosophy, Politics, and Economics], in which no doubt I’d have got a lower second or a third, I could have taught myself the necessary contexts for writing English poetry (I virtually did so, anyway).
How do you envisage your own poetry’s readership?
Impossible to say. When I see my half-yearly royalties statements I seem not to have a readership at all. Yet in 2006 when I gave a reading in the Sheldonian the place was packed, chiefly with young people. And at poetry readings I continually meet older people who bring for signing a copy of every book since For the Unfallen (1959). A few even have the frail 1952 Fantasy pamphlet. There are obviously devoted readers, but it’s all rather subterranean, a bit like wartime resistance. When you ask about “public role” you have to take into account this aspect also.
You have said that you admire poetry which creates “strongholds of the imagination” and that is why you tend to write “strong poetry”. Was this the type of writing you had in mind when you first began composing poetry?
No. I became a poet because at the age of ten or thereabouts (and long before concepts like “strong poetry” would have had any meaning) I fell in love with English poetry. I was brought up in a Worcestershire village where my father was the local bobby. I sang in the church choir and attended Sunday school. And that year my good attendance prize was Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Poetry, a Victorian bestseller. I might be impatient, even scornful now of some of its preferences, but to a boy of ten, it was a revelation and an initiation. From then until now there has been no escape. What I say latterly about strong poetry and semantics and the choice that poetry has, either to resist the pressures of the age or be imploded by them, these are my variants of Auden’s “dyer’s hand”; but the first reaction was total unjudgemental love. I should add that at Bromsgrove High School I had, as early even as the second form, a marvellous English teacher, Anne Gledhill, who was showing us Auden’s Look Stranger! poems.
Do you intend to reinvent your writing persona with every new collection?
Anyone reading through my Selected Poems might very well get that impression. The change in style between Mercian Hymns (1971) and Tenebrae (1978) was severe and intentional: from loping prose-poems to reined-back exercises in traditional forms, in particular the English versions of the Della Casan Sonnet (see F.T. Prince’s splendid The Italian Element in Milton’s Verse, 1954). I wrote The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy in rhetorical quatrains modelled on Péguy’s own. Poets who had liked Mercian Hymns—and I was surprisingly popular for a brief while—hated Tenebrae and The Mystery. I have to admit that, in changing about, I’m setting myself formal problems in order to see whether I can solve them, carry them through, to my own satisfaction (which can be pretty demanding). I think that people who in some odd way respect me bear with me; and that those who, for understandable reasons, don’t, don’t.
Is there any kind of unity across your work?
If there is unity it probably resides in a sense of gratitude to past, partly erased, national and international human intelligence and in my desire to celebrate it formally. I’m an in memoriam poet; have been since my earliest days, the days of the Fantasy Pamphlet in 1952. In the English 17th century I admire equally Hobbes and his great opponent Clarendon (and have written critical essays on both). I have learned much of value from a Catholic (Péguy) and a Confucian (Pound). Salman Rushdie says somewhere—I hope my memory serves—that he has always believed that literature should conduct an argument with the world. I’m drawn to writers who seem to me to be brave, beleaguered, and cheerful—like John Dryden.
What motivated you to write your most recent collection A Treatise of Civil Power?
The initial impulse to put together a book may be trivial. In the case of A Treatise I wanted a work that would resemble in appearance a pamphlet by John Milton: the likeness is evident only in the original Clutag Press edition; later printings by Penguin and Yale have lost it. I have summoned the presiding genius of Milton several times: he features in Canaan (1996), in The Triumph of Love (1998), and of course in Scenes From Comus (2005). I greatly admire his political sonnets. I believe that, were he alive now, he would be the people’s champion against plutocratic anarchy.
Until very recently I thought that I had invented the term plutocratic anarchy, but it appears to have originated with William Morris. A few days ago I happened upon the text of a lecture delivered at University College, Oxford in 1883 (“John Ruskin in the Chair”). Morris’s term, to be precise, is “anarchical Plutocracy”.
Anarchical Plutocracy destroys memory and dissipates attention; it is the enemy of everything that is summoned before us in Bishop Butler’s great pronouncement of 1729; “Everything is what it is, and not another thing”. Bad poetry, bad art, also dissipate the sense of things at once exactly and numinously understood. Great poetry is an act of unfailing attention; its frequently cited “music” must so be understood.