Saturday, December 4, 2010
Poetry as Perjury
Yesterday I had my last tutorial of the term. It’s hard to believe nine week went by so quickly and now we’re saying goodbye to the Victorians, and staring straight across the table into Christmas’s sloe gin eyes. So now I have a little bit of time to I have to catch up on the things I missed.
Last Wednesday Geoffrey Hill, the newly elected Oxford Professor of Poetry, gave his inaugural lecture at the Exam Schools titled “How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester”. In our excellent seats (claimed a tad overeagerly, unsurprisingly, an hour before) we had a good view of not only the new Professor, but also of the various distinguished people, writerly people, who flooded the room in their London coats, newspapers tucked under their arms, with definitive noses and eye pouches. I recognized Hermione Lee, most of my lecturers, a man who may have been Philip Pullman – I couldn’t help wondering why everyone didn’t just come in with name tags on their lapels.
Tolstoyan, Darwinian, Hill sat in front of the microphone with a chest cold – “a stupid, stupid infection…my chest, not poetics” – and with precise, enunciated punctuated consonants gave a pessimistic, ironically rousing, lecture. As the “Professor of Perjury”, Hill compared himself to a “traumatized old man”, said that contemporary poetry does not require any encouragement from the university and compared the “national treasure” of British contemporary literature to a landfill. Hill made it clear that he would not be using his post as a podium from which to air his own poetry – saying that to do so before “a captive audience...[would be] abhorrent”. Instead, it would be a place to give a sense of his own poetics. He spoke about Shakespeare, Sidney, Eliot, and the American critics of the mid-twentieth century: R.P. Blackmur, Lionel Trilling, and Allan Tate.
“The greatest tragedy of the last sixty years is the extinction of the ontological reader,” Hill said. Like his writing, Hill's voice dripped with extreme severity.
Hill has been accused of obscurity, and he spoke clearly about his belief that “the emotion of art is impersonal”, that his advice to young poets is to be inventive rather sincere, and that “relevance and accessibility strike [Hill] as words of very slight value.”
The satisfaction of listening to a poet who is both erudite and wrathful was only increased by the various expletives Hill volcanically produced when misspeaking or misreading, crumbling the Dumbledoresque image he conjured up when peering over his glasses. I’m vastly looking forward to Hill’s next lecture.
If you’re interested in Hill, read Greg Wolfe’s editorial statement from a past issue of IMAGE, and then give Hill's daunting poetry (his newest volume is Oraclau/Oracles) a try.
Photograph by Andrew McNeillie here