British Poet Sir Geoffrey Hill has died at age 84, his wife confirmed on Twitter this morning.
Please pray for the repose of the soul of my husband, Geoffrey Hill, who died yesterday evening, suddenly, and without pain or dread.
— Alice Goodman (@AliceGoodman17) July 1, 2016
Hill, who had often been referred to as the “greatest living poet in the English language”, leaves behind him an extensive corpus of poetry extending back into the Fifties. Oxford University’s Professor of Poetry from 2010-2015, Hill was also a respected critical essayist, winning the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2009 for his Collected Critical Writings.
Hill’s distinctive, esoteric style means he has often been referred to as a “difficult” poet. But Sophie Ratcliffe, writing for the New Statesman in 2007, argues that this is not the case.
It is frustrating that so many descriptions of Hill’s poetry describe him as a difficult poet. The characterisation distracts from the fact that he is, and always has been, among our greatest broken love poets.
Peter Popham, writing for the NS in 2012, agrees, drawing parallels between Hill’s work and Game of Thrones, and arguing that it is time a wider audience discovered his poetry:
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 politics 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.