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.

Hill spoke deliberately slowly so I can’t miss or mistake a word. He is also very considerate: when naming critics or texts he offers to spell them, then checks that I have caught up with him before beginning a new train of thought. At times, however, he sounds as though dictating to a machine: ‘As I said at my lecture it is only Ruskinian Tories who would sound at all like old fashioned Marxists, period. I read and re-read Ruskin- comma- particularly- and now I’m going to spell something for you: “F-o-r-s”, new word, “C-l-a-v-i-g-e-r-a” ’. He often asks me to repeat his answers back to him, insisting that I change a word or watching as I scribble out one phrase and replace it with another. Half way through our meeting he asks if I intend to write up the interview as a question and answer or to paraphrase him: when I admit I am undecided he responds that he will not consent to its publication if it is paraphrased. He agrees that the interview can be accompanied by an introduction and in exchange I promise to quote him directly.
Hill is intensely concerned about being misrepresented; though he never refuses point-blank to answer my questions he often evades them, picking up on any imprecise wording. When asked, for instance, whether he would defend the right of the poetry to be elite he spends several minutes defining ‘elite’, and – while he never gives a direct answer – he seems finally to support the idea. Again Hill’s poetry reflects this interest in how imprecise language can alter meaning:  ‘To dispense, with justice; or to dispense / With justice’. Finally, no interviewer could fail to comment on Hill’s voice – it sounds as I imagine God would sound: deep and authoritative and rather wry. Though I fear he’d hate me to say it Hill is, ultimately, as appealing as he is unnerving.
You have famously defended the right of art to be ‘difficult’: would you therefore defend the right of poetry to be elitist?
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.
What if we say that ‘elite’ means university educated?
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.
Does it matter if poetry is unpopular?
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.
Then is it worth pushing poetry as an art?
Yes; it is important that poetry should be practised just as it is important that mathematics should be practised.
What do you think of the new poetry trends such as slams and stand-up poetry?
If they amuse people, all well and good.
So you don’t see them as a ‘dumbing-down’ of the art?
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.
What is your opinion of contemporary poets like Carol Ann Duffy whose work is relatively accessible?
I’m not naming names. If theirs is the right decision their work will endure and if not it will not.
If you thought that none of the poems you wrote from now on would ever be published would you continue writing?
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.
You discuss politics in many of your interviews and lectures and you’ve said you admire Milton’s political sonnets. Do you think it’s the poet’s duty to educate the public?
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.
Do you feel you have a duty to promote certain political values?
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.
You have been labelled alternatively as right wing, Marxist and Christian: how do you define yourself as a poet?
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.
How much does your religion define you as a poet?
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.
Can poetry-writing be taught?
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.
Finally, who do you think will succeed you as poetry professor?
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.