Geoffrey Hill, who died in June, believed in expressiveness not self-expressionby Sameer Rahim / July 20, 2016 / Leave a comment
On 29th November 2013, I interviewed the poet Geoffrey Hill for the Telegraph. Hill, who died on 30th June at the age of 84, was one of our great post-war poets—one with a deep understanding of the complexity of English history, faith and language. The occasion of the interview was the publication of Hill’s complete poems, Broken Hierarchies. The published interview had, necessarily, to cut out much interesting material, especially about Hill’s childhood in the Midlands, and his friendships with poets such as RS Thomas. Since his death, a number of people have asked for a transcript of the interview, which is published in edited form below. Also present was the poet’s wife, the priest and librettist Alice Goodman. We spoke at the Rectory in Fulbourn, near Cambridge.
Sameer Rahim: You are the son of a police constable. That heritage means a lot to you, doesn’t it?
Geoffrey Hill: Yes, it does. And of course the book [Broken Hierarchies] is dedicated to the memory of my father and mother. And also to the memory of an aunt I never knew. She had in fact died about 20 years before I was born. She died at the age of 15. She was my father’s beloved sister who had taken care of him after his mother died. And then she herself died with what was called then tuberculous meningitis. She was a very gifted artist, in a strictly academic way. That is to say she was absolutely splendid at doing the kind of exercises taught in British high schools around the turn of the century, around 1899-1910, and in fact we have a couple of her pieces of art in the house now.
My grandfather, my father, two uncles and two cousins were all in the old Worcestershire constabulary. My grandfather was a very formidable and gifted man. He had entered the constabulary I think probably in the very late eighties or early nineties as a constable, in the days when they wore bull’s-eye lamps on thick belts, and he retired as deputy chief constable of the county, which was the highest you could rise to from the ranks. The chief constable in those days was nearly always a retired army captain or retired army major who was brought in.
I think they would all be turning in their graves at the state of the police services at the moment. They were decent and honourable people.
SR: How has the police service fallen away?
GH: The evidence appears to be that it has.
SR: Were there many books in the house?
GH: No. My father rarely read. My mother was a very keen reader but she read circulating library novels. There was a reasonably sized bookcase filled with books. By the time that I went to Oxford maybe one shelf contained books that I had acquired in the sixth-form study of English. Particularly striking was a copy of TS Eliot’s Selected Essays, which for many years I had with my father’s neat board-school copperplate writing on the front: “To Geoffrey with love from Mum and Dad, Christmas 1949.” I had of course asked them for it. And I kept it until last year when I gave it to my grandson who has just entered university. But it was and remains a very treasured book and epitomises the reverence and awe with which people like my mother and father regarded education. They had both left school at the age of about 13 without any academic qualifications at all. My father was earning about three to four pounds a week as a village police constable. I went to the little village school, which was one of those Victorian buildings…
Alice Goodman: They’ve all been turned into houses now…
GH: …dated from about 1867 I guess or 1870 perhaps—the second education act. It was bleak; the lavatories were in the yard, very primitive. But the education I got there was benevolently stern and I think generous.
AG: What about your books? You read and were read to.
GH: Yes. Every Friday afternoon the headmistress read to us. She read to us from The Wind in the Willows, which I thought the most enchanting thing I’d ever heard. When I went on to the high school in 1942 everything was very scarce and I saved up about two years’ worth of my favourite comic, Radio Fun. In the little bookshop in town, I saw a copy of The Wind in the Willows priced five shillings, which was an enormous sum in those days. So I took all my two or three years’ wealth of carefully preserved Radio Funs and sold them for a penny each, and with that money I just about had enough to buy The Wind in the Willows. That was just about the first book I ever bought.
AG: You would be 11 then?
GH: I’d be 10. Comics were not verboten or secret. Surprisingly for me—I was pretty careless: I broke my toys—I kept these things in pretty good condition. I can still remember that. Apart from that there wasn’t much to do with one’s very small allowance of money.
AG: There were sweets.
GH: The only things that were readily available were things like aircraft recognition cards. Every week I would treat myself to a couple of aircraft recognition cards, which I would then put into an album. And even now I can spot an error at first sight when a television programme is showing a World War Two movie and particularly some of the documentaries that are made. So when a voice intones: “And here are RAF Lancasters setting out on a raid over Germany,” I immediately say: “No, no, no they are not–they are Liberators.”
SR: Did the war impinge on you?
GH: Oh totally. We got off very lightly because the village I lived in was about 11-12 miles from Birmingham, which suffered very heavily. But we would get the strays; we would get stray bombs.
AG: A couple of pigs were blown out of their sty but landed uninjured.
GH: Yes but we don’t want to get too elaborate. There was a daylight raid on the Austin motorworks, which was making aircraft parts.
AG: That’s the one at Longbridge.
GH: I’m pretty sure those were Dornier 17s or 217s. I can still remember one turning slowly over our house to make a second run in. It was a strange metaphysical super-reality. For years one had seen these sinister things, these black things with black and white crosses in books and learned that these were fearsome things. Then one ordinary afternoon one was out in the garden and here were these peculiar, businesslike, sinisterly businesslike winged things with these terrible black and white crosses. I can still remember the peculiar frisson of it. In a way, strange as it sounds, that incident—which can’t have lasted more than a minute and a half—has dictated for the rest of my life the way I have perceived certain juxtapositions of the real and the surreal in life. One is simultaneously terrified, appalled and curiously detached. Which is as good a description of a poem as I can think of.
SR: You saw Coventry being bombed?
GH: No. Saw the glow in the sky: a kind of pulsing glow. It was too far away to see it being bombed.
AG: Did you know what it was?
GH: I was told what it was. The elders were saying: that must be Coventry. And it was at night, and on the eastern horizon there was a reddish-bronzy pulsing light.
SR: Which you then wrote about in The Triumph of Love .
GH: Yes. Yes—though not in any naturalistic way. Again, it’s written about a bit surreally.
SR: You are of the generation that saw the footage of the death camps.
GH: Oh yes, oh yes. What I remember is a kind of jolt in the mind that was so powerful it was almost physical. And the sense that from henceforward everything would be dislocated. And I can still remember coming into the house one day in August 1945—can remember it vividly. Entering as I always did, through the back door into the kitchen, opening the door into the front room which was our living room, our dining room and my father’s office. He was sitting at his desk and he sort of turned round and said to me: “The Americans have just dropped an enormous new bomb on Japan. It’s called an atom bomb and it’s destroyed an entire city.” There again there was this feeling that between the back door of the house and the front, one had stepped into a new world, a new and terrible dimension of existence. I’m not saying I thought of it in those words, but it happened. Without wanting to sound grandiose about it in any way because I’m sure this was a very common experience with children of my age—in a way coming so closely together, the Belsen photographs in April 1945 and the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945, coming so close together the sense of … let me put it like this: I’m never interested in watching films of books by Lewis or Tolkien or JK Rowling because when they attempt to juxtapose the normal with the supernormal and the school room suddenly becomes a focus for evil or whatever, I don’t need it. I’ve had my fix. That frisson of almost incredulity, disbelief that something like that could change between the back door and the front window. If we were to go on to speculate how early influences influence the development of the mind during adulthood… it would have to remain for me speculation.
SR: When did you start writing poetry?
GH: I can’t really remember. I can tell you how poetry hit me. In the village I grew up in it was de rigueur to go to Sunday school, but I was not a faithful attender. And astonishingly one year I received a Sunday school prize for good attendance. By some fluke my Sunday school prize was Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. It was a very poor village and my copy was not some leather-bound gold-embossed book. It was a two-shilling book, published by the Daily Express, I think. [He laughs] But I took the Golden Treasury home and I opened it and I fell in love. I fell in love with the nature of the English language and with English poetry. And it seemed in an instant to me that to do something that might equal or exceed the mysterious beauty of these things; to bring out of nothing these realised creatures would be the most incredibly wonderful thing to do. Now I don’t think I showed any great gifts…
AG: You could scan and rhyme.
GH: Yes I could scan and rhyme correctly, but the contents of my poems were maudlin. Until the sixth form when I began to write some stuff I wasn’t absolutely ashamed of. Two of my teachers greatly encouraged my writing. But when I look at what Keith Douglas [was writing] at 15 or when I look at what Sidney Keyes was writing at 15, I realise that I was nowhere near their ability. One should look at a poem that Douglas wrote aged 15 on the Christian mummers. I just wasn’t in that league. But the day I was given the Golden Treasury one might say I never looked back.
It continues to seem to me to be a most marvellous thing to make arbitrary shapes out of semantics and metre and feel at the end that if you’ve done your work well there’s nothing to add and nothing to take away. There is a splendid sentence by the American choreographer Mark Morris, there’s a wonderful phrase from a recent interview: “I am not interested in self-expression. I am interested in expressiveness.” Well that put perfectly what I’ve been trying to say gropingly and inadequately for years. The idea that you write to express yourself seems to me revolting. The idea that you write to glorify or to make glorious the art of expressiveness seems to me spot on.
SR: Did Oxford help?
GH: Yes and no. In terms of formal academic teaching I think not. In terms of becoming friends with other people who were as interested in poetry and poetics as you were and to whom you would show your drafts and who would show you their drafts, obviously yes. I was a self-taught expert in British and American contemporary poetry by the age of 16. Again we come back to my father. We used to come up to Birmingham twice a year as a kind of treat. There was in those days a long-established bookshop called Cornish Brothers. As always I headed to the back of the shop where the poetry was. And on the shelves was a thick, squat book with the title: The Little Treasury of Modern Poetry: British and American. My father bought me that. Within about 10 months I think I’d memorised just about every poem in that book. The poems by the Americans most excited me. I discovered the poetry of Allen Tate. There was a poem by him called “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” There were early poems by John Berryman, written long before the poems that made him famous… a long time before Dream Songs. Delmore Schwartz.
It was mainly the Americans. I thought they had got it in a way that the Brits hadn’t. I went up to Oxford deeply knowledgeable for my age in contemporary American and British poetry. But here I would like to pay tribute to the American poet Donald Hall who was four years older, on a post-grad fellowship. He and I met through OUPS [Oxford University Poetry Society] and he put me on to the early work of Robert Lowell and Richard Eberhart.
Both Eberhart and Lowell seemed to me to have the secret of writing verse that was simultaneously highly ordered, highly disciplined and yet full of the most exciting suggestions of the anarchic. I do owe him a great debt. Eberhart and Lowell have remained to me exemplars of how to write a particular kind of metaphysical lyric.
SR: What about the Movement poets?
GH: I felt no flicker of sympathy whatsoever.
AG: And it was mutual.
GH: No it wasn’t mutual because they hadn’t heard of me. But actually this is a very interesting bibliographical point. If you look at the first edition of Larkin’s The Less Deceived… which was published by subscription, if you look on the last page you will see Geoffrey Hill as a subscriber. But this was because a leaflet came my way inviting subscriptions. I knew nothing of Larkin. I thought in my helplessly idealistic way, a young poet struggling to get into print ought to be helped. And I have to say that there are two poems by Larkin that I like very much—they’re both very early—one is called “Wedding Wind” and the other is called “Next, Please.” The final line is: “In her wake / No waters breed or wake.” I thought that was very good, and I think I thought it was good because it’s Hill-ish. But for the rest? No. I thought they were dull and finger-wagging. And I disliked their prim moralising. The poets of an older generation I got on very well with.
One early evening I was in the rooms of the then president of the poetry society—either Donald Hall or Anthony Thwaite —the door opened and in walked the poet of the evening, George Barker. And trailing him one of the most extraordinarily beautiful men I have ever seen. A man, not slender, well built, with the head of a god and a great beautiful mass of silver hair. He was about 30. His name was David Wright. We remained very good friends until he died some 10 or 15 years ago. A wonderful man and a splendid poet. He again is someone whose name one does not hear anymore. One hears the name of a close friend of his who also became a friend of mine though not a close one John Heath-Stubbs. Does that name mean anything to you?
GH: David and Stubbsy were very good friends. And David at that time lived in a rented flat in a dilapidated early 18th-century house in Great Ormond Street. In the late fifties, I would often stay with David and his wife in this flat and he would take me around the Soho pubs, where the habitués were people like the painters Robert Calhoun and Robert McBride and George Barker and John Heath-Stubbs and occasionally Roy Campbell.
SR: Had your first collection been published by this point?
GH: No. My first collection was published in 1959.
AG: Apart from that little Oxford pamphlet.
GH: Oh yes, that pamphlet which is now selling for £700. Typical of me of course, I ought to have kept back a dozen. Of course I don’t have a single copy. It was—have you heard of the Fantasy Press?—it was a joint venture of the OUPS and an aspiring artist who did jobbing printing, and they created (Donald Hall was behind this) and they created this little series called the Fantasy Poets which came out three times a term in the form of a nine-penny pamphlet of about seven or eight pages. Ninepence in old money. My first publication was a pamphlet in that series, I think it was number 11: it had “Genesis,” it had “God’s Little Mountain,” it had “Holy Thursday,” and a couple of others that I didn’t retain, which I simply dropped. These are in the opening few pages of the Collected. This was in 1952.
SR: Do you remember writing “Genesis”?
GH: Oh yes. In those days I wrote so little I worked out everything in my head before committing it to type. So “Genesis,” which was by my standards then long-ish, I worked on in my head while I hiked all over Worcestershire. This was in the summer of ’52. I can remember typing it on my father’s typewriter, and I made a few corrections on the typescript, but it was essentially as I had worked it out on my long walks. And I also remember writing “Holy Thursday” and “God’s Little Mountain” in that way. And in fact, in those days when I felt lucky if I had written a dozen poems in a year, I suppose I was. I guess I did work out this stuff in my head before putting it on paper.
SR: You started an academic career.
GH: Yes. Somewhat to my surprise I got a first in 1953. And somehow, I don’t know how, the professor of English literature at Leeds was looking for someone who was respectable but also a poet. And I received an invitation to apply, which I did and again… bearing in my mind the competition I was up against—I could, I won’t if you’ll forgive me, I won’t name the two other candidates at the interview—but they were both men and they were both people who became highly distinguished names in the following 50 years in the world of literature. Frankly I think one of them ought to have got the job. Because an Oxford first is neither here nor there: I think I was pretty ignorant—except in this narrow seam.
SR: He obviously saw something in your poetry.
GH: Probably. He must have done. Can’t think of what else he would have seen.
AG: Your charm.
GH: Oh, my charm, yes, bucketfuls of charm yes. This gauche boy…
AG: Quite spectacularly so. You were 25.
GH: No, I was 22. Yes I was an assistant lecturer at the University of Leeds at the age of 22. I was one year older than the graduating students and several years younger than the graduate students. Leeds was rich in new poetry. Ralph Maud, who became the master of Dylan Thomas studies, and who brought out that volume of Thomas’s notebooks, Ralph Maud was on a graduate scholarship at Leeds and he had started a weekly penny magazine called Poetry and Audience, to which I began to contribute almost immediately on coming up to Leeds. And it went through a number of vicissitudes but there is still a Poetry and Audience student magazine at Leeds. It costs somewhat more than a penny, but it exists. And of course Leeds poetry is now a research topic. People are writing PhDs on the Leeds poets. Tony Harrison was a student there when I arrived. He was in the Classics department. And Gregory fellowships had already been inaugurated.
SR: Did you have an affinity with Tony Harrison’s work?
GH: Again I have mixed feelings. I think The School of Eloquence has very very good stuff. And it was a wonderful idea—I think he got it from EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class—wonderful realisation of that idea of the School of Eloquence from the history of late 18th-century working-class radicalism, and to realise the wonderful play there is in that phrase the school of eloquence. If I remember rightly it was a subterfuge name—it was really a radical political gathering, but they called it the School of Eloquence in order to try to avoid the clutches of the secret police of the time. But to see that the School of Eloquence meant simultaneously writing poems as eloquently as you possibly can, and yet at the same time being subversive—all I can say is that I deeply envy him that stroke of insight, and I would have loved to have written a book called The School of Eloquence.
We’ve kept in touch, off and on, more off than on. And of course I do have three poems dedicated to him in the Collected in Liber Illustrium Virorum. You probably haven’t got there yet.
SR: I’m working my way through.
GH: You should really work your way backwards. Start with the last book and work your way back in.
SR: I contacted Christopher Ricks and asked him where a newcomer to your work should begin and he said begin with the first book.
AG: They are never of one mind those two: speaking as someone who has known them both for 30 years.
GH: We’re never of one mind.
SR: Opposition is true friendship.
GH: The Blakean thing. Exactly. I like and respect him but we are very very different.
AG: When I was young, as it were, and knew them both, it seemed to me that going from a Ricks to a Hill lecture, let’s say, was likely going from 78 rpm to 33 rpm. You had to make sure to change your needle and the speed. (You see I still think in LPs.)
GH: She means that Christopher was quick and scintillating and I was laborious…
AG: You were very slow, definitely.
GH: …laborious and convoluted.
AG: You got more into an hour than anybody else. The way your mind would be at the end of a lecture where you would think, you know when you’ve filled up your petrol tank in your car, you think you’re full now. You got that sense after 40 minutes of Geoffrey—that you’d received an hour’s worth of stuff and there was 20 minutes more to go in the lecture.
SR: Ricks also mentioned that he first wrote about you in 1964.
GH: He did. In the London Magazine. And very grateful I was. I can’t quite remember what his line was but yes I think that was the first critical attention I had received in such an auspicious context. The London Magazine was taken very seriously. To be in that—it really meant something.
SR: Over the years he has acted as an explicator of your work.
GH: Well yes, but other people have too. There are various books. There was a book on me published as early as 1985.
SR: That was edited by Peter Robinson?
GH: That’s right. And there was a book edited by Peter McDonald on the later work only a couple of years ago. There’s a book by Jeffrey Wainwright and others I’ve temporarily forgotten.
SR: Would it be fair to say that King Log, your 1968 collection, was haunted by atrocity?
GH: It would. But I would immediately add: what is exceptional about that? I think it expresses a common apprehension. For a start we were all terrified that we would be annihilated. The Cuban Missile Crisis was appalling. We all really believed we would be blown to nothing in 24 hours. And in some sense the international situation has never seemed quite so terrifying since. But it really was a horrible existential week. And simultaneously one had serious grounds for thinking one would be annihilated and also this odd bit of the brain that says this couldn’t possibly happen, could it? That was, whenever it was, 1962, 1963. If there is apprehension there it is a shared experience with millions of others. Whenever the missile crisis was, King Log didn’t appear until 1968.
SR: There are a number of elegies, requiems, in memoriams—in paying tribute in this way do you feel you are paying a debt back to those who have gone before?
GH: Yes. That has always been very strong and it has got only stronger as the years have gone on. The lecture I’m giving at Oxford on Tuesday is going to be called “Poetry and the Democracy of the Dead.” The Democracy of the Dead is a phrase I took from—would you believe it—GK Chesterton. It was a phrase used by him maybe four or five years before the outbreak of the Great War (about 1908 something like that) and again it’s post-1870 education acts, it’s coterminous with some of the later education acts. I think there were two education acts in the first decades of the 20th century out of which grew the kind of country high school that I attended. I think my high school was founded in 1906 or 1912 and is a product and is the equivalent of many other schools of that type, created in market towns and country towns to educate mainly through scholarships, mainly the children of the lower classes. And a very good thing they were.
SR: Tell me about “September Song.”
GH: That was uncanny. I went to an exhibition of children’s art from Terezín [a Nazi concentration camp] in Leeds and I was looking at this little work of art and I just saw that her dates were: “born 19.6.32—deported 24.9.42.” Of course 19.6.1932 is one day after my birthday—I was born 18.6.32, and there but for the grace of God… why am I here and she not? But I’m not claiming any special faculty of perception in saying this. It seems to me—the irony is that critical convention is that one is elite and obscurantist whereas in truth one is writing as clearly as one can of common experience. One’s crime, if I may go back to the Mark Morris quotation, one’s crime is in being concerned with expressiveness rather than self-expression because self-expression is democratic and expressiveness is elitist. I think that’s how they work it out, if they bother to work anything out.
SR: There is a relevant phrase in “History as Poetry”: “Lazarus mystified.”
GH: Don’t think I understand it myself.
SR: What do you do to Lazarus when he is raised? What is it from his point of view?
GH: Exactly. Yes. That sounds a better précis than I could have given.
SR: I’ve always loved “Funeral Music 4,” especially the mention of Averroes.
GH: I used to be able to quote all my old poems. Yes I said somewhere that I found Averroism enormously attractive at one stage because it seemed to sublime away individual guilt. The idea that it was all intellective, and that on death one rejoined the great intellective, the universal mind. Then one thought how such a view could be creative of all sorts of ruthlessness. Of an inability to sense the value of the individual and that probably the shortcomings are more powerful than its virtues.
SR: The poem also speaks to the idea that the soul is indestructible. You are often described as a Christian poet. Is that accurate?
GH: Well it’s a tag isn’t it? They tag you with a convenient epithet. I’m reasonably au fait with the Christian documentation. That is I’m quite able to use theological terms.
AG: Communicant but resentful.
GH: When did I say that?
AG: You didn’t. I just said it now.
GH: It sounds like me.
AG: I’ve been married to you for some years. You can communicant.
GH: I’m resentful of the implications of Christian theology. Can I say that I dislike the Church of England in so many ways without harming you?
AG: You need to say at the same time that you go to Her services, you kneel at Her altar…
GH: Who’s her?
AG: The Church is always female—our mother the Church. Like that well-known saying: “The Church is a whore but she’s our mother and we love her.”
GH: I don’t really want to be very much quoted on religion.
AG: It’s a double thing. It is a real ambivalence.
SR: Do you find something in religious language?
AG: I don’t think it’s just the language; it’s the stuff of it itself because Geoffrey’s mother’s family were religious. I’m not sure your father’s was: your father’s were just Church of England. But your mother’s were genuinely…
GH: Zealous non-conformists.
AG: It’s more than just the language, and there’s real ambivalence. That is why people like RS Thomas and Rowan Williams both loved—and in Rowan’s case love—Geoffrey’s stuff so much because it expresses the things about the Church and about the faith that they felt but…