Geoffrey Hill: a poetry reading
Geoffrey Hill reads his poems in Emmanuel College
The mental furore of our sedentary, Cantabrigian lives allows us to tumble in and out of different worlds using only our brains and eyes. We spend most of our time static and silent, poring over words written by people who might live only a few hundred metres away. Despite their proximity, though, they feel very distant. That is until we see one in front of us, sweat leaking from his aged body.
It was a drizzly Monday on which the brilliant, prolific and much praised Sir Geoffrey Hill (Professor of Poetry at Oxford) took the stage at Emmanuel College. He began by dismissing the expectation that he should read only his own poetry. "Poetry readings have nothing to do with the poet who is reading,” he said. “They are a separate thing.”
Expanses of silence passed between these sonorous reverberations (Geoffrey Hill doesn't speak, he puts forth his voicings) and the first reading. He drank a sip of water and wiped the sweat from his brow. An old man's toil.
He started with two poems he had written in the past few days and then moved quickly on to some Sidney. "Petrarchan sonnets are better than Shakespearean," he announced. It was difficult not to believe such an assertive claim – especially when he justified it: "There is a treachery inherent in making the whole organic point of a poem come to fruition in an ending couplet. It's silly, like two Jack Russell's mating."
He read and spoke brilliantly, alternating dogmatic assertions about force and form with little anecdotes – the bewildering realisation that he had misunderstood U2 as Jimi Hendrix (his Improvisations on Jimi Hendrix might have been something quite different); the discovery that his life must be worthwhile because someone thought his translation of Montale better than the original.
Most of the audience had doubtless heard his peculiar voice on youtube already. And many had probably spent some time studying his poetry. Yet seeing the “moribund” Geoffrey Hill (or so he described himself) reading brand new poems as beads of perspiration leaked out of his bald head was not the same as either of these. The glossy laminations of complacent library study were exposed by his physical proof that studying a corpus of poems is not the same as studying the work embodied. He was right, going to a poetry reading is about something other than the abstract poet. It is about that poet dominated by the body, voice and mind of a real life person.
Don Paterson is reading on Wednesday the 16th of May.