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Geoffrey Hill: the poet's public burden

April 30, 2009 |  5:41 am

Geoffrey-hill Who is that man glaring out of the book pile? Is he the same one I knew in school? He is.

Geoffrey Hill’s "Selected Poems" (Yale University Press) comes with a confrontational cover -- not disturbing like those you learned about here -- but with the British poet’s face looking agitated, if not angry, at the thought that you might dare to reach and pick up his book.

I had the privilege of studying with Hill: He was genial, good-humored and tended to rephrase our dumb questions so that we sounded much smarter than we were. Once, to begin a session, he set up a CD player and played the music of John Dowland; for 10 or 15 minutes, we listened to an unnatural-sounding male falsetto accompanied by lute, before Hill went on to discuss Dryden. It was lovely.

That was the private man. Hill's view of the public obligation of the poet has always been strained. Some poets are activists, like our state’s new laureate Carol Muske-Dukes, who hopes to take poetry-writing to prisons and youth groups. Not Hill. In "Selected Poems," from "Speech! Speech!," he writes of technology:

No time at all really a thousand years.
When are computers peerless, folk
festivals not health hazards?...
...Dystopia
on Internet: profiles of the new age;
great gifts unprized...

Yet despite his opposition (or ambivalence) to the public and its modes of communication, he still has many fans, and fansites.  He draws traditional forms of critical acclaim: Hill recently received the 2009 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. There's a Facebook page dedicated to discussions of his work. He's on YouTube. Andrew Nixon, at Think of England, provides a recent (January 2008) interview Hill gave to a French interviewer, which contains this biting remark:

The great poet has no social function. The mediocre, yes, he finds himself delivering fashionable platitudes to the public. The true poet is completely isolated.

Which brings me back to his scowl on that book cover. It's the mask he uses in order to produce his poetry. Read me, it seems to say, but otherwise keep your distance.

-- Nick Owchar

Hill photo credit: Chris Floyd / Contour by Getty Images

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