Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Oxford Professor of Poetry

Having waited on tenterhooks to know who would be appointed Oxford Professor of Poetry (after Geoffrey Hill's name was mentioned as a candidate), it was wonderful to hear that Geoffrey Hill had indeed been appointed. What can I say? at seventeen I did some things my fellows did, like hang round the city centre at three o'clock in the morning spray painting walls and throwing bottles at plate glass windows, sleeping on doorsteps and generally living the teenage urban life. But while other A Level students were off to the pub, sometimes I would just go to the library and pick out any interesting looking books I 'hadn't read yet'. A crazy aim, as I had read so little - but more than most people I knew, who weren't adults so it wasn't quite as stupid as it sounded. The poetry section particularly attracted me (having been raised on Keats, de la Mare and others, and having written since 11, non-stop since thirteen). One day I came across a slim black volume with silver script in an unusual style. 'Mercian Hymns' it said. Well I certainly enjoyed hymns, was probably the half-baked thought, and so I opened it. I was at once struck with how beautiful and strange the language was - 'wergild', 'marl', 'gleemen' - I was at first intrigued, and then enchanted. Not long after I bought a copy - not that you could buy a copy of the book by itself, but I bought a 'Collected Poems' - which had plenty more wonders in store. I knew from the first that I was only skimming the surface of everything the collected books had to offer, and another poet was my 'favourite poet'. But I also realised, even then, that more would be made plain later. That with more reading, a better grasp of history, and simply growing up, that I would comprehend better the jewels within, as well as merely marvel at their sparkle. Within two years of graduating, it was proved true, and he became and is still, my favourite poet.

I never felt wronged, even then, as some writers or critics seem to, in not understanding everything at once - when I first discovered 'Mercian Hymns', (shameful or incredible depending on mood, as it seems now) I had very little but the vaguest notion of who Offa was. But it didn't matter - I still caught the general atmosphere, the juxtaposition of past and present, the time synch nature of the book (reflecting classic fantasy like The Dark is Rising sequence), the brilliance of the language, from the quirkiness of 'moldywarp' to the beauty of 'vertebrae of the chimera' to the startling and wonderful dropping in and out of modern colloquialisms or expletives to ancient words long unused, the archaeology and fauna and flora and geology all weaving past and present as much as the near-visions of the past or ghosts or whatever manifestations they are, with the identifications of the modern landscape 'overlord of the M5' and the present family of the 'staggeringly gifted child' the one 'always sick on outings'...(also redolent of fantasy serials). All bound together in a delicious and sophisticated yet obtainable tapestry.

After that 'Tenebrae' especially delighted with its 'Splendour of life so splendidly contained'. It rewarded and wove with a growing love of modern art as it filled in and expanded the 'colours of the mind'. 'Canaan' seemed to speak to me alone (of course it didn't, but as much great poetry, felt as though it did) as a 'constrained spirit'. Waiting for the 'strange legends to begin' (and reading of 'Praise and lament' at my Father's ashes scattering) at last came 'The Triumph of Love' (took me years to appreciate that one properly), 'Speech! Speech!' of which the most apt review was 'this will blow your head off', 'The Orchards of Syon' (I think one needs to be at a later stage of life perhaps not to find it depressing though?), 'Scenes from Comus' - pure masqued perfection! 'Without Title' which I've yet to get to the bottom of and 'A Treatise of Civil Power' which I love. It helps that he seems to choose some of the historical backdrops I love best as canvas to the poem's paints - Milton's light fantastic of the masque and Inigo Jones' set design being one of my hobby horses, also Stern Oliver (Cromwell) and the English Civil War, (Offa and Dark Age Britain now of course it goes without saying).

So it is that he is the poet whose books I look forward to and get as soon as they appear. I am now looking forward to 'Oraclau/Oracles' to be published by Clutag Press later this year. I can't think of anyone who writes so consistently work of such beauty, interest and endless fascination that rewards reading, re-reading, reading around the subject, chasing up allusions (I would never have read any of Disraeli's novels had it not been for a quote at the beginning of a poem!), reading aloud and generally growing up and maturing, than Geoffrey Hill. I am so pleased and delighted that he has been made Oxford Professor of Poetry because it seems to me such works cannot be given too much recognition, even in our 'diminished age', in a country however beloved with 'so many monuments but no memory'.

To order, got to; http://www.clutagpress.com/

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