It’s Sir Geoffrey Hill‘s 80th birthday today. How shall we celebrate?
At first I noticed two appearances in the day’s newspapers – well, in fact, both were in The Telegraph. In the first, U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove hails Hill as “our greatest living poet” in the Commons. “Our” being… the U.K.? Or the English-speaking world? A.N. Wilson went further, calling him “the best writer alive, in verse or in prose.” That takes geography out of it.
The second is an article of dire prognostication, “Dithering Europe is heading for the democratic dark ages”: “However complacent we may be,” in the words of the poet Geoffrey Hill, “Tragedy has us under regard”.
Well, not much to celebrate there.
I turned instead to the Paris Review interview of a dozen years ago, conducted by one of his former students at Boston University, Carl Phillips, which begins with a description of the poet’s outwardly unassuming home in Brookline, Massachusetts:
To step into it, though, was to enter a number of seemingly disparate worlds: one part literal menagerie (two dogs, along with seven cats of varying degrees of forwardness); one part a kind of gallery—in the form of photographs on sideboards, walls, and mantles—of what is clearly central to Hill: family, ancestry, the need for the relationship between the living and the dead to be an active and ongoing one. Hill gave me a tour through them, now pointing out an infant cousin circa 1917, now his own parents, now his wife Alice Goodman, and their daughter Alberta, and now a friend riding her tractor through the Lancashire village streets.
When I first arrived, I was greeted by Alice (herself an intriguing mixture: the librettist for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, a translator of The Magic Flute for the Glyndebourne Opera, and a soon-to-be ordained Anglican priest). She led me into the living room where Hill arrived shortly, seating himself beside a life-sized dollhouse. We met in front of the fireplace, over whose mantle hung an amusing wedding gift: a copy of Hogarth’s The Distressed Poet. No way to explain it, exactly: I knew all would go well.
Then Phillips asked the inevitably question: “What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.”
Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.
So much for difficulty. Now let’s take the other aspect—overintellectuality. I have said, almost to the point of boring myself and others, that I am as a poet simple, sensuous, and passionate. I’m quoting words of Milton, which were rediscovered and developed by Coleridge. Now, of course, in naming Milton and Coleridge, we were naming two interested parties, poets, thinkers, polemicists who are equally strong on sense and intellect. I would say confidently of Milton, slightly less confidently of Coleridge, that they recreate the sensuous intellect. The idea that the intellect is somehow alien to sensuousness, or vice versa, is one that I have never been able to connect with. I can accept that it is a prevalent belief, but it seems to me, nonetheless, a false notion. Ezra Pound defines logopaeia as “the dance of the intellect among words.” But elsewhere he changes intellect to intelligence. Logopaeia is the dance of the intelligence among words. I prefer intelligence to intellect here. …
“Evil is not good’s absence but gravity’s
everlasting bedrock and its fatal chains
inert, violent, the suffrage of our days.” – Geoffrey Hill, Canaan