The Achievement of Geoffrey Hill

July 12, 2016

Geoffrey Hill: Poetry is a strange angle.


Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week,  the achievement of Geoffrey Hill. Geoffrey Hill died on June 30th, 2016, at the age of 84. He was one of the best known, but maybe for someone of his stature, the least read poets of his generation. He wrote in what is called the ‘high-style’; dense, elusive and intellectually challenging poems that sometimes reminded people of T.S. Eliot. What he lacked in popularity he made up for in critical regard. In the 1990s, Donald Hall for instance called him the best English poet of the 20th century. Whatever you might think of that, you can’t deny that Hill was a very serious poet. At a reading in London in 2009, he told his audience that poetry is a strange angle —


Geoffrey Hill: And has very little to do with enjoyment, actually. Great deal to do with joy, not with enjoyment. Enjoyment is patronizing and possessive, like the old archaic euphemism of a man sexually enjoying a woman’s body. When you enjoy a poem, you say you are mine, and you please me in my current mood. The angle of poetry says, sod off. Sod off!


Curtis Fox: And that was the patter between poems. I’m joined now by David Yezzi to talk about Geoffrey Hill and to read a few of his poems. David’s a poet and a professor at Johns Hopkins, the editor of the Hopkins Review, and a fairly frequent guest on this podcast. So David, when Hill died last month, you wrote on Facebook that Hill has moved you more than any poet in your lifetime. Tell us about him and why he moved you so much.

David Yezzi: Yeah, I think that’s really true. I hesitated to write that because it’s such a broad statement, but there’s something about his language that almost reveals English to me as if for the first time. It’s sort of a feel I get from reading passages of Shakespeare. There’s so much pressure and attention to the subtle charges of language and it’s sound play and ambiguities. I find it deeply moving.

Curtis Fox: I was interested you said that because Hill has this reputation, probably unfairly earned, as being a difficult poet. You don’t usually associate emotion with difficult poets. But he is an extremely emotional poet.


David Yezzi: And he writes about subjects of real violence and complexity and darkness. He will find words. Imagine that, he will find words to talk about the Holocaust, he will find words to talk about the blood shed on which England was founded and perpetuated. He’s able to look into the real dark recesses of history.

Curtis Fox: You met him I believe, once or twice. How did he see himself as a poet? He’s been praised as one of the great poets in English writing in the last hundred years. Did he see himself that way?

David Yezzi: I don’t know. Certainly he didn’t exude an air of self-importance.


Curtis Fox: I was watching videos of him and he’s very self-mocking.


David Yezzi: That’s right, he had a terrific sense of humor. Sometimes in his lectures and interviews he can sound very severe. He certainly had very deeply held convictions. But often as you say was not only self-mocking but even self-lacerating sometimes. Very forthright about his real difficulties with depression. It was in coming to America when he finally received treatment for depression that he began to write at much faster rate, there may have been some connection there. He said to me, we were having dinner one night, he had received an award and I happened to be in attendance, he said my only regret is that I didn’t get it sooner; in other words, the help for his depression and the medication for that.

Curtis Fox: He wrote quite a bit, especially in the last few decades of his life, perhaps after coming to America and receiving treatment for his depression. I looked at his collected poems in the library and it’s close to 1000 pages long. In this podcast we’re going to be able to give readers only a brief glance, the briefest sliver of something. But let’s start with the first poem in the first book he published in 1959. The book is called For The Unfallen and the poem is called “Genesis”. The poem is in five sections, let’s listen to the first two sections from a CD called “The Poetry And Voice of Geoffrey Hill” made by Cadman in 1979.


Geoffrey Hill: Genesis


Against the burly air I strode,

Where the tight ocean heaves its load,

Crying the miracles of God.

And first I brought the sea to bear

Upon the dead weight of the land;

And the waves flourished at my prayer,

The rivers spawned their sand.

And where the streams were salt and full,

The tough pig-headed salmon strove,

Curbing the ebb and the tide’s pull

To reach the steady hills above.


The second day I stood and saw

The osprey plunge with triggered claw,

Feathering blood along the shore,

To lay the living sinew bare.


[Third section missing from online print]


Curtis Fox: David, the poet is obviously echoing the creation of the world in genesis, day one, day two and so on. In the first day he’s almost participating in the creation fo the world. In the second part he’s horrified by the violence of nature.


David Yezzi: It happens pretty quickly, right?

Curtis Fox: Who is this “I”? It’s not God. It’s I guess “I” the poet, witnessing the creation of the world?


David Yezzi: That’s certainly part of it, right. It is about poetry and about creation, artistic creation, as well as these largely concerns of the innate goodness or power to redeem in nature, which I think Hill questions, is skeptical about.


Curtis Fox: It’s interesting, when he describes the violence of nature he mentions “the osprey” and “the triggered claw”, which are wonderful images.

David Yezzi: Beautiful, yeah.


Geoffrey Hill: [Rereads third section]


Curtis Fox: Those bodies hooped in steal, the only thing that can mean are soldiers. He’s incorporating people into violence of nature.


David Yezzi: It’s a theme he keeps coming back to and back to. He seems to really announce what he’s doing and what he’s going to continue to do.

Curtis Fox: His poetic project. Let’s skip now to the fifth and final stanza which is about the sixth day of creation before the day of rest on the seventh.


David Yezzi: Yeah, this is an incredible section.


Geoffrey Hill:

On the sixth day, as I rode

In haste about the works of God,

With spurs I plucked the horse’s blood.

By blood we live, the hot, the cold

To ravage and redeem the world:

There is no bloodless myth will hold.

And by Christ’s blood are men made free

Though in close shrouds their bodies lie

Under the rough pelt of the sea;

Though Earth has rolled beneath her weight

The bones that cannot bear the light.


Curtis Fox: David, is there a spiritual accommodation of violence that’s happening here? He says “By blood we live, the hot, the cold

To ravage and redeem the world:

There is no bloodless myth will hold.”


David Yezzi: It was interesting, I just finished reading Virgil’s Aeneid. The founding of Rome necessitates a lot of bloodshed. In fact, the poem ends just as Aeneis plunges in his sword in victory. I think what Hill is saying is that in terms fo our history, and certainly in terms of the Bible because now he turns to Christ; there is no literature, there is no myth, there is no understanding of who we are as people, I think Hill is saying, that is convincing without the admission that the ultimate price in blood is always going to be a part of the equation.


Curtis Fox: Let’s hear another poem. This one’s from his second book, King Log, and it’s called “September Song”. It’s about a ten year old child who’s sent to the camps and dies in the camps during the Holocaust. This was recorded in Oxford in 2006.


Geoffrey Hill: And another poem called “September Song” which has the subtitle or epigraph, born 19.6.32—deported 24.9.42


Undesirable you may have been, untouchable

you were not. Not forgotten

or passed over at the proper time.


As estimated, you died. Things marched,

sufficient, to that end.

Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented

terror, so many routine cries.


(I have made

an elegy for myself it

is true)


September fattens on vines. Roses

flake from the wall. The smoke

of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.


This is plenty. This is more than enough.


Curtis Fox: That was Geoffrey Hill reading “September Song”, a poem he wrote in the 1960s but he was reading here in 2006. This is a very moving poem to me, though I’m not even sure why. The language is so dry all the way through, it’s so laconic that it’s really very of moving.


David Yezzi: The tone is really devastating.


Geoffrey Hill: As estimated, you died. Things marched,

sufficient, to that end.

Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented

terror, so many routine cries.


David Yezzi: The thing that stands out for me, and I just think every part of it is incredible and beautiful, but it’s that parenthetical right in the middle.


Geoffrey Hill:(I have made

an elegy for myself it

is true)


David Yezzi: We’ve read the epigraph, we know this is for someone who was deported in September of 1942. The poem tells us that they were then killed in the death camps. Yet, in the middle of the poem, he turns and says but the elegy is for me. I find that so devastating and honest and curious. He’s sensing a deep loss. Even though he wasn’t there, he begins to mourn himself, his own humanity in light of this.


Curtis Fox: I was shocked by that too. That’s really the turn in the poem. “(I have made

an elegy for myself it is true)”. It seems so bizarre. It seems at first narcissistic until you think well, what is he saying there? But what is he saying there? That some part of himself has died with this child?


David Yezzi: It’s that and then it’s something more. With Hill it’s usually two or three things. I think what he’s also saying is how much can he mourn this kid that he didn’t know that lived in a different part of the world when he was barely old enough to know much about these things. Isn’t it really only ourselves that we can elegize in that way? I think he’s admitting that his powers are limited to address this sadness on the subject.


Curtis Fox: He doesn’t say who the child is, he just gives us the dates of the child’s birth.


Geoffrey Hill: born 19.6.32


Curtis Fox: Just out of curiosity, I’m going to stop and look on Google and see if that’s the exact dates of Hill’s birthday. So Geoffrey Hill was born on June 18th, 1932, so it’s a day after. That’s interesting. And then deported, we don’t know whether this child was killed on this date. Probably not. Deported on September 24th, 1942, ten years later.


David Yezzi: Presumably he’s looking at documents so it wouldn’t have been necessarily recorded when the child died, but it would have been recorded when he was put on a train or whatever.


Geoffrey Hill:

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable

you were not. Not forgotten

or passed over at the proper time.


Curtis Fox: And then after this odd introjection about the elegy being about himself, he brings the poem back into his present.


Geoffrey Hill:

September fattens on vines. Roses

flake from the wall. The smoke

of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.


Curtis Fox: That’s a powerful line because the smoke, especially from the crematoria in the camps, this is harmless smoke compared to that smoke, it just evokes both smokes at the same time. Then he ends really enigmatically to me.


Geoffrey Hill: This is plenty. This is more than enough.


Curtis Fox: That moves me, I have no idea why or what he’s intending to get at there.

David Yezzi: There is something about the pull back to the present in which the fires are now harmless, vines are now fattening, there’s a kind of regeneration and fecundity. I find that very upsetting, that things can continue. That the world didn’t stop, that somehow nature is overgrowing these things and the cycle continues of life. “This is plenty”. That again is one of Hill’s ambiguities; this is plenty, this is bounteous, and this is plenty, as in enough, as in almost too much. And then he goes onto say “This is more than enough”.

Curtis Fox: It’s a kind of survivor’s guilt. Even though he didn’t personally experience the Holocaust, he took it so personally that he feels guilty about it. That’s not an uncommon feeling to feel. David, we just barely barely brushed the surface of Geoffrey Hill’s poems. He doesn’t write only about violence and the Holocaust, he writes beautifully about love, and even about Princess Diana. He wrote quite a bit about her, surprisingly. For listeners who like what they heard here, and want to get more of Geoffrey Hill, where’s a good place to start?

David Yezzi: There’s a Selected Poems that came out not too long ago from Yale University Press. The first real book I got which I love, it kind of is the first half of his career, is New and Collected Poems: 1952-1992 from Houghton Mifflin. It’s certainly one of the selected poems or that early collected poems that really I feel will last.

Curtis Fox: Thanks David.

David Yezzi: Yeah, thank you so much.

Curtis Fox: Geoffrey Hill died on June 30th, 2016. David Yezzi’s latest book of poems is Birds of the Air. You can also read some of his poems on our website As always, let us know what you think of this podcast. Email us at [email protected] Also, please let your friends know what you think of it on social media. You can easily link to it on SoundCloud. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

Yezzi looks into Geoffrey Hill's poetry upon Hill's death

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