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Sir Geoffrey Hill is our greatest living poet

Yet it's strange how few people seem to know his work, writes Peter Popham.

It was in Afghanistan nearly 11 years ago that Geoffrey Hill came back to me. The war was the biggest story in the world: I was the Independent’s south Asia correspondent and, as the Taliban fled Kabul, I filed seven days a week. Meanwhile, colleagues were dropping like flies – four killed with the Northern Alliance, a personal friend and three others butchered on the road from Jalalabad. And all this among the untended debris of earlier wars, the blocks of buildings so shattered and hollowed by bombs and mortars that only their skeletons remained.

Everything – the treeless hills, the hovels in which people lived, the smashed-up university, the ubiquitous weapons – compounded the impression of a land degraded and debased by centuries of abuse by mischievous foreigners. And here we were, glad forward party for the next lot.

In all my years out of England, I had never been homesick but now I got it bad. And nostalgia attacked me in an odd way – peppering my brain with snippets of half-remembered verse by the poet who, with blazing eyes, had lectured us on Shakespeare when I was an undergraduate at the University of Leeds.

Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds . . .
(From “The Laurel Axe”)

Never had poems brought such balm – balm and longing combined. I discovered that I was desperate to get out, to get home, and the desire stood before me, expressed in the form of Hill’s words:

November rips gold foil from the oak ridges . . .
The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don
bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges . . .
(From “Damon’s Lament for His Clorinda, Yorkshire, 1654”)

Fast-forward ten years. My 18-year-old son is trying to interest me in Game of Thrones. He has read all the doorstopper novels and watched the television adaptations and is evangelical about how good they are.

Slowly I find I’m getting hooked. In this medieval fantasy world, parts of which strongly resemble northern England, everyone is closer to the edge than we, more than 60 years into the great European peace, will ever understand. Torture and death are just around the corner; honour, courage and loyalty face the sternest tests.

Then, with the harrowing public execution, in sight of his young daughters, of the good Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, as sturdy a northerner as ever strode through the Dales, I was back with a jolt in the world of Geoffrey Hill:

Processionals in the exemplary cave,
Benediction of shadows. Pomfret. London.
The voice fragrant with mannered humility,
With an equable contempt for this world,
“In honorem Trinitatis”. Crash. The head
Struck down into a meaty conduit of blood . . .
(From “Funeral Music”)

Hill sings peerlessly of England but it’s never just “immaculate music”, as it has been called. Terrible things happened in our green land, too, things we are ever more adept at forgetting – “a nation with so many memorials”, as he writes in “The Triumph of Love”, “but no memory”.

Game of Thrones is only an elaborate fantasy but it plays cutely on those notes of pain, guilt, doubt and dread of which Hill is a master. And his vocation is to make us see that we don’t escape the nightmares of our history simply by sur viving and forgetting them: we trample the earth where these things happened, our mouths are filled with the words that justified and consecrated them.

“A field/After battle utters its own sound/ Which is like nothing on earth, but is earth,” he writes in “Funeral Music” on the Battle of Towton of 1461, a battle known as the bloodiest in Engish history. “Blindly the questing snail, vulnerable/Mole emerge, blindly we lie down, blindly/Among carnage the most delicate souls/ Tup in their marriage-blood, gasping ‘Jesus’.”

In October, Hill returned to Leeds and gave a reading to mark both his 80th birthday and the gift of his archive to the university library. The poet who wrote and published so little 40 years ago has been replaced by an older poet of stunning fluency. “I used to write seven poems a year,” he said. “Now I write seven poems a week.” Lack of time is one reason: “In the past, I would wait 20 years for a line,” he said. “I can’t do that any more.”

For decades, scholars have been describing Hill as the best living British poet, so it is strange how few people seem to know his work. The standard explanation for this is that he is difficult. Being difficult, his harshest critics go on to call him an elitist and hence, in an ugly leap that usually involves dragging in Ezra Pound, a bit of a fascist. Attacks of this sort have built a firewall between the poet and his potential readership.

This is a pity. If a wider readership were merely missing out on some colossal old bore, the stigma of elitism wouldn’t matter. But Hill is a wonderful poet, unsurpassed in his earlier years for his lyric gift and ever richer, funnier, denser, more acerbic in the volumes that have flooded from his pen recently.

The argument about elitism is a tragic hangover from the age when our national culture was under the sway of a sort of prescriptive populism – a form of condescension that produced the New English Bible and figures such as Philip Larkin, whose reactionary po - litics went hand in hand with an insistence on being instantaneously understandable to everybody.

Why should we expect to understand poems at a single sitting, as if poetry were under the jurisdiction of the Plain English Campaign? We think nothing of exerting ourselves to learn a language or master a new software program – why should it be regarded as anachronistic to demand a fraction of such effort to understand a poem? If a poet has something to teach, poetry lovers should be prepared to make the effort to learn.

Hill has never worn his politics on his sleeve but he is clear about the dangers of deliberate simplification, quoting the dictum that “tyrants always want a language and a literature that is easily understood”. “Tyranny requires simplification,” he maintains. “Genuinely difficult art is truly democratic.”

All of which is to erect another discouraging firewall between Hill and a wider audience. Yet, in an age when a little light research is as easy as saying “Google”, when a book-length annotation of Hill’s most difficult (and amazing) long poem “Speech! Speech!” is available for nothing on the internet, we really have no excuse for not diving into this man’s extraordinary oeuvre.

Peter Popham is the author of “The Lady and the Peacock: the Life of Aung San Suu Kyi” (Rider Books, £20)

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis