Eyewear believes that the English poet Geoffrey Hill (pictured) is the greatest living poet currently working in the language of Milton, and will rank with Pound and Eliot as one of the major poets writing since 1914 (that is, the last 100 years or so). I have loved his passionate, intelligent, religious poems since I came across "Genesis" by him when I was thirteen or so (he signed last evening my childhood, treasured copy of the Longman's Poetry 1900 to 1975, where I first read his work and swooned). That poem, which he wrote at the age of 20, and is the first (suitably) in his Penguin Selected, is the one that, more than any other, made me want to write poems of my own.
So, it was a treat to see him read, and talk, last night at the London Review of Books bookshop in Bloomsbury. Hill, who claimed to have taken four tranquilizer pills of some kind, was on grand (grand, not good) form. He seemed furious with the shop for having "curtailed" his reading time to 30 minutes, as he kept reminding the attentive serious audience of 80 or so, so that there would be time to sign and sell books after. It did seem odd to limit such a great poet, who wanted to read more. Hill read just four our five poems, mainly from his latest collection, A Treatise of Civil Power - "On Looking Through 50 Jahre im Bild: Bundesrepublik Deutschland", "In Memoriam: Gillian Rose" (whom he never met, but wished he had), "Before Senility" and "Coda", as well as a few from Scenes from Comus. He mostly talked. He was very open. He expressed disappointment that he was thought of as a difficult poet. He said he did not underestimate the intelligence of his readers, as recognising the intelligence of fellow citizens was a profound act of democracy. He said that his ars poetica was to forge "covenants with language // contra tyrannos".
Hill, during the rich Q & A, admitted he was working on a Death Bed version of his complete works; that he loved the work of Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas (he said he was proud to be partly Welsh, a fact recently uncovered), and Rosenberg; that he believed the BBC was good on holding politicians to their word, but not poets, that most contemporary poetry was "crap" and "loose"; and that he had an erotic attachment to his own work. His presence was commanding, almost magnetic. We were in the company of genius, generous, humane, wrathful and prophetic. If God was from Bromsgrove, he might be like this.
His last commandment? When asked if he had any advice for a young poet (a classic, good question, after Rilke surely). Hill: "Don't". Laughter from the room. Then, pausing, he retracted that severity, and said, poets need to read hundreds of poems, and learn them by heart.
Hill is often misread as being cold, heartless. He is not. The code to his work is in his fervent love of poetry itself. How poetry cries the miracles of God.