Sir Geoffrey Hill is our greatest living poet

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

Sir Geoffrey Hill in his garden in 2008. Photograph: Chris Floyd

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)

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