Michael Gove’s love of Geoffrey Hill was probably not reciprocatedby Jeremy Noel-Tod / November 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
In his 1946 essay “The Constant Symbol,” Robert Frost proposes a startling analogy between poetry and politics. Imagining the path that leads to the White House, Frost sees it beginning with the “small commitment” of choosing between two parties, only to end “multifariously closed in on with obligations and answerabilities.” To be president, Frost proposes, is to resemble a poet who decides to write a sestina, a troubadour form in which the same six words have to be repeated six times according to a strict pattern.
Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators,” in other words, are world-class negotiators with language. Some, of course, cut corners. “Loving parents, learn from me, / If your children crave TV / Tell them, OK, what the hell, / You can watch it for a spell… / IF YOU READ A BOOK AS WELL. / (A proper book, you’ll understand, / Like the volume in your hand.)” These grimly jovial rhymes have haunted me through the verbal torture of Brexit. Their author, Boris Johnson, had a hand in that too.
As a poetry critic with an addiction to the news, I can’t help seeing a connection. The hollow doggerel of Johnson’s The Perils of the Pushy Parents (2007) is no more a “proper book” than I’m prime minister. Not a syllable has the subtlety, the suggestiveness, the lightly sounded depth that makes poetry—even in its simplest forms—poetry. Compare the spray paint-thin untruths of the Vote Leave campaign, and the hashtags that have been strapped like sputtering rockets to the Johnson premiership so far: (“#GetBrexitDone”).
A taste for the chewier varieties of verse, however, is no guarantee of greater probity. Also signing off on Vote Leave’s claims was Michael Gove, who as secretary of state for education once wished Geoffrey Hill, “our greatest living poet,” a happy 80th birthday in the Commons.
Gove’s admiration for Hill was almost certainly not reciprocated. The late Oxford Professor of Poetry was a dogged activist for difficult eloquence. Asked for his views on the 2015 general election campaign, he told Newsnight that “simplification in communication was the invention of Dr Goebbels.” His last sequence, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, published posthumously this year, was preoccupied by what might be called the complicity of simplicity.