Books: A growl in his voice, a twinkle in his eye

Geoffrey Hill rarely gives interviews. His poetry can resemble `someone flailing a bicycle chain about his head'. And, as Nicholas Lezard discovers, he never forgets a slight

Let us begin in the deep end. Could you paraphrase this, or tell yourself what it means? (It's from stanza 56 of Geoffrey Hill's sequence of poems, Speech! Speech!)

Flanders poppy no trial variant. Does

my bad breath offend you? Pick a name

of the unknown ypres master | as alias.

Abandoned mark iv tanks, rostered by sex,

Marlbrough s'en va-t-en... frozen

mud wrestlers

entertaining the Jocks. Arrest yourself:

for grief of no known cause, excuse me.

I have had trouble before with this, and said so in print. If you came across the first sentence in a set of crossword clues with a figure 7 in brackets after it, you might spend a fruitless half-hour trying to find an anagram of "no trial" that meant "Flanders poppy". Jeremy Noel- Tod, taking note of my bafflement in the London Review of Books, stated in polite contradiction that "the passage is broadly coherent". Nearly two years on, I am beginning to come round to his point of view. There is still an abundance of allusion which I have yet to penetrate, but there is no gainsaying Hill's ability to write memorable, sonorous verse.

Now let's try something else of Hill's, this time from the much earlier "Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz", which appeared in his 1968 collection King Log:

"One cannot lose what one has not

possessed."

So much for that abrasive gem.

I can lose what I want. I want you.

Now that, anyone with an ear would be compelled to agree, is, in the phrase that Hill likes to use to describe his verse, "simple, sensuous, and passionate". It is also intelligent - appreciate the graceful subtlety of dismissal in that second line, acknowledging that a gem, a thing of beauty, can also abrade. Look at the way each successive sentence is shorter than the last, as if narrowing to a fine point. All of these things it is poetry's responsibility to be, and it's why many people claim that Hill is the greatest living writer of verse in the English language, and has been since the death of T S Eliot.

On a typically dank Cambridge evening in January, about 200 people, some having travelled far, turned up to a lecture hall at the English faculty to hear Geoffrey Hill reading his own work. This is an event for those who care about such things. For the last few years, Hill has not been up to the journey from Boston to England when he has been summoned, by the judges of the T S Eliot prize, to read from his shortlisted collections, Speech! Speech! and The Orchards of Syon. If you wanted to hear someone reciting Hill's work from those collections, you'd have had to make do with me. I'd like to think I was up to the job, and that his failure to win the prize on each of those occasions (it is unprecedented to be nominated in successive years) was nothing to do with my rendition.

Hill's voice is as memorable and unmistakable as his poetry. He speaks in a low, precise, slightly inflected growl, like honey coated in rich yet bitter chocolate. His clothes - dark and slightly shiny, with the most unfrivolous bow-tie you will ever see - enforce the suggestion of a high Anglican bishop who prefers not to dress down on his days off. As for the bitterness, what we come to realise is that for all that there is something forbidding in his mien, there is a twinkle in the eye. Like many people who sound sepulchral, he can be very funny.

"Were I not professionally compromised," he tells us, "nothing would induce me to attend a poetry reading." He thanks us, and marvels at our "stamina" in listening to him for an hour and a quarter. But the time goes quickly, for Hill's verse catches the ear and draws us in. He also makes a point of reading those poems which celebrate love, or which are, to use that triptych again, simple, sensuous and passionate.

In Trinity College's stately guest rooms the next day, he warns me that has "no small talk". Of this I am already mindful. He has big talk. Yet he confesses to exhaustion and says "I'd rather talk about the weather," although the weather, even more miserable than it was the evening before, looks about as conducive to airy flippancy as the entire works of Dante. Or indeed of Hill's own oeuvre. (From his new collection, Scenes from Comus: "This is a fabled England, vivid / in winter bareness; bleakly comforting...") Still, it's a mildly surprising remark, for all that he is, as he puts it, "one of the awkward squad", not at ease in the company of those who make polite but inoffensive chit-chat. When, I asked him, did he first realise that?

"It was when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, attending sherry parties, and I found myself making vatic statements which aroused smirks." As his undergraduate poems began with lines like "Against the burly air I strode / Crying the miracles of God", you can see how and why he found the conversation of his peers irksome.

Hill is prickly, protective of his reputation, remarking that the respect he is accorded - best poet in the language etc, handsome audiences for his readings - does not seem to square with his royalty figures. He was also taken aback by the reception accorded Speech! Speech! He quotes a sample adjective of criticism that appeared in the Guardian at the time: "madness..." I fill in for him, "the madness of a first-rate mind", for I wrote the line myself. What I do not say, because I do not wish to split hairs, is that I wrote "I am tempted to dismiss this as madness," etc. But I do tell him, truthfully, that it was in order to take back such a remark that I requested this interview.

"Would you do that?" he asks. "That would be..." and I brace myself for "acceptable" or "the least you could do" but hear instead the word "marvellous". I also suggest that the extreme reaction to Speech! Speech! was not so much irritated dismissal as the reaction of someone who has picked up a plate which he did not know to be scalding.

"Well then, someone would put that plate down again pretty damn quickly," he concedes. It is true that the sequence is written with threatening vigour. It is the poetic equivalent of someone flailing a bicycle chain about his head. "In time," he says, "Speech! Speech! will be seen as one of the most necessary books for me to have written. It is for me the book I am most happy to have written. It is odd when you think of the way society runs on energy - or rather, a vis inertiae. When energy is presented to them they recoil from it in horror." And by "they", he gives me to understand with an unsettling look, he means "middlebrow critics".

There is an almost pastoral calm after the storm in The Orchards of Syon; but there is both calmness and meditative energy in his new collection, Scenes from Comus. It is futile to try and say what it is "about", but one of its themes is the survival of desire into old age; hence, perhaps, Hill's self-deprecatingly witty plea to the photographer to accentuate, if at all possible, his cheekbones. Comus is the offspring of Circe, the enchantress who turned men into swine, and Bacchus, the god of intoxication; he is also the anti-hero of Milton's Maske presented at Ludlow Castle, a cautionary tale about the delights of carnality. I ask Hill if he feels the spirit of Comus is abroad these days.

"If it is, it is with far less intoxicating beauty and brilliance. The great thing is that he is a demon, but the nature of that which he offers is of incredible beauty, which is why he is so hard to resist. If the commodity culture were to offer anything a hundredth as beautiful as what Comus offers there would be a compensatory element." What we have instead, he adds, "is a sordid, truncated media-speak".

He is anxious that I listen to Hugh Wood's Scenes from Comus, by which Hill was indirectly inspired; and I track a copy down in Cambridge just after our interview. It is not, as Hill's footnote to "Funeral Music" (from King Log) puts it, an "ornate and heartless music punctuated by mutterings, blasphemies and cries for help" but it is music to wrestle with. It is appropriate that Hill warms to it.

There is in Hill now a greater desire to explicate, whether this takes the form of stress marks in his verse, or his willingness to be interviewed. "Between 1952 and 1996 I was extremely unwilling to open my mouth," he says; but with age, and the extraordinary burst of creativity which he is happy to ascribe to a course of antidepressants, he has less of "this irrational dread of making a fool of myself"; he will even be so helpful as to tell us that the best way for the reader to approach Speech! Speech! is to listen first to Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner". The rejuvenation, both personal and lyrical, is as astonishing and welcome as that of Yeats.

Later on, he calls me up and reads to me some lines written about him by Andrew McNeillie some four decades ago. They might have been written about him last night.

his black shirt, in that artificial light

caught tenebrous hues, green as Baudelaire

's dyed hair; his pudgy face so queer

his brow so damp, as if he spent the night

in hell-on-earth, every day of the year,

and knew he was the only poet there.

`Scenes from Comus' by Geoffrey Hill is published by Penguin (pounds 9.99). To buy a copy (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

    £300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

    High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

    £70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

    Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

    Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

    £400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits