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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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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide