Interview: Geoffrey Hill, Oxford Professor of Poetry
by Jessica Campbell
The process of interviewing Geoffrey Hill is almost more interesting than anything said in the interview itself. Hill chooses his words with astounding precision, and his answers employ the same level of scrutiny as goes into his poetry – where he invented new symbols of punctuation to indicate stress and pause. With such meticulousness, what Hill doesn’t say becomes as interesting as what he does.
We have to define what we mean by elitist: considerable confusion will arise unless we can get clear in our heads what ‘elitist’ means. If ‘elitist’ means belonging to some threatened hierarchy of the intelligence then I think that the poet has an obligation to attune her poetry in that direction. There is a largely unknown order of human beings who believe in that impossible thing: intrinsic value. One must work as if intrinsic value were a reality, even though I myself know no way of demonstrating its real existence.
Well I can’t assume that it does. Wordsworth was a hierarchist of the imagination and the unlettered man or woman can be as much a part of his world as Wordsworth himself. Moreover I do not think that there is any obligation on any person to be interested in modern poetry any more than there is to be grappling with higher mathematics- I speak as one who is to his deep regret a total dud at mathematics. This does not make me undervalue mathematics; I am just happy that it can be practised by those who are naturally gifted.
Not at all: I cannot understand the contemporary clamour which insists that unless poetry is popular it is somehow failing. Poetry will survive however few its readers.
Yes; it is important that poetry should be practised just as it is important that mathematics should be practised.
If they amuse people, all well and good.
Make sure you note that dumbing down is your phrase, I never said that. It could be but that seems to be the natural swing of society these days: you won’t get me to denounce it or protest against it. We live in a society dominated by commodity: there is a current commodity in poetry slams, so be it.
I’m not naming names. If theirs is the right decision their work will endure and if not it will not.
Almost certainly: it’s very difficult to break a habit of seventy years. The fascination of tinkering with rhythms and meanings and verbal structures is, after so long, a deeply engrained habit.
I think at certain periods in our history some good poets have felt they have a vocation to speak up for a political truth. Milton clearly did and the early Wordsworth did and each of them wrote prose treaties to engage with what they had understood as political truth. But political priorities change very rapidly and you have to understand Milton’s political writings not as some sort of divine abstract but as an engagement with the world of 1644 or 1658.
No: I would recommend a poet to avoid promotion because ‘to promote’ is a word of the advertising world. He or she [the poet] will inevitably work in some way into their writing their relation to the way things stand but that promotion of a cause is no more the function of a true poet than self-promotion.
I would describe myself as a sort of Ruskinian Tory. It is only Ruskinian Tories these days who would sound like old-fashioned Marxists. I read and re-read Ruskin, particularly Fors Clavigera and I am in profound agreement with William Morris’s Art under Plutocracy.
Very little. There was a brief period when the Church of England took me up after I published Tenebrae but subsequent books have once more put a distance between us, to our mutual relief I believe. However I adhere to certain old fashioned religious concepts such as the doctrine of original sin and therefore have been much influenced spiritually – not necessarily for the good- by St Paul, St Augustine, Luther and Karl Barth as well as the Hebrew prophets and the teachers of wisdom.
Certain aspects of dramatic structure and fictional structure can, I think, probably be taught. To the best of my recollection W. H. Auden thought that one could teach poetry in a very technical, hierarchical way. Several of the great poets made a living by teaching creative writing in American colleges and I can’t dismiss such a catalogue of eminent participation: John Allen Tate and Robert Lowell spring immediately to mind.
I can’t think that far ahead and I can’t say I know any up-and-coming poets. Not knowing such things is a weakness you will have to associate with my being in my eightieth year. But bear in mind that if I live that long [until the end of his tenure] I shall be eighty-three and when one’s getting that old one says cranky things.