POETRY Geoffrey Hill Poetry International, South Bank Centre, London

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The Independent Culture
The opening night of this year's 10-day poetry fest at the South Bank Centre promised to be a feast of near-great poetry - Geoffrey Hill, the most single-minded hermeticist of post-war English verse, had been flown from Boston, Massachusetts, to give one of his very rare readings on his native soil.

So there we all were, poets, poetasters, poetry publishers, poetry critics and miscellaneous illegitimate others, preparing ourselves for what would surely prove to be one of the most mystically elusive (and densely allusive), cryptically impassioned auditory experiences of our educationally inadequate lives so far, when a man in a blue Terylene tie - not Hill himself, but another man - walked on with a tumbler of what, at first, I took to be a glass of... There were, it seemed to me, two serious possibilities - its lustrous ruby richness suggested either a half-decent cherry juice or a measure of Christ's blood fresh streamed down from the firmament; and by the way that Hill gulped and guzzled at it, I quickly settled for the latter. It was self evidently an example of the mystical poet transfusing himself in mid-stream.

A little later I learnt that it was Ribena, and my opinion of the man fell back to earth with a wallop.

What was a man of Hill's stature and Hill's emotional integrity and Hill's intellectual rigour doing drinking Ribena, for Christ-and-all-his-angels' sake? The answer was simple enough. Ribena is practically unobtainable in Boston, Mass.

Hill doesn't much enjoy poetry readings. And he doesn't go to them himself. In fact, he told us that he wouldn't have been present at his own if a contractual obligation had not tied him, hook, line and sinker, to the event. That much - and no more - he told us by way of contextualising himself. "I have no kind of small talk to offer," he vouchsafed to us quite early on, "which is very hard on you, I know..." he sighed, and we pitied him.

Several long gulps into the red stuff, and Hill began, first with a smattering of poems from the 1950s and onwards, and later with a selection from Canaan, his new book. He announced his intention to read from it with the chilly matter-of-factness of a man obliged to repeat the words of some business prospectus whose prose bores and wearies him. "I will now move on to Canaan," he said, mopping his brow with a white tea towel. "I will go through it in order. I will take poems that make some kind of continuity..."

And the restorative properties of Ribena were never quite sufficient to cause his face to crack into a companionable smile, not once. Though, as the hour-long reading proceeded, the settled air of gloom that had seemed to hang suspended above his head like some Old Testament cloud, began to lift a little, and he even managed a touch of drollery from time to time.

At one point he stopped reading, quite unexpectedly, and said: "Let us suppose that I have broken the string on my violin, and I have had to re-string it. It will give you a moment or two to relax..."

The most curious note struck by this most emotionally pent of public performers occurred just before Hill read a poem called "Pisgah", which, "if my scholarly memory serves me correctly", he said, mediating, as usual, feeling through scholarship, "was the hill from which Moses viewed The Promised Land."

That recollection reminded Hill of Housman, and of how that great pessimist used to gaze at the blue hills of Shropshire from countryside close to where Hill himself grew up. "It was a land you couldn't enter, but upon which you formed a myth of rural sorrow and unattainability..."

Hill paused, visibly moved.

"My Pisgah," he went on, "is that land around Bromsgrove in Worcestershire that I couldn't sufficiently appreciate 50 years ago..."

There was an unscholarly measure of pure nostalgia for a vanished childhood in that touching statement.