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

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