A Closer Look At… Sir Geoffrey Hill
Assuming the position of the University of Oxford’s Professor of Poetry position in 2010, Sir Geoffrey is the one to go to for poetry. Delighted I was then, when he came to the University’s Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre on a damp Tuesday evening to give a reading.
As his career as an academic began at the University of Leeds’ School of English in the fifties, then spanning three decades, the current Head of School, John Whale, gave a warm welcome back to Sir Geoffrey. Whale then harked back to his own days as a wide-eyed, sparky first year, excited to have such a well-established poet as a tutor.
As Sir Geoffrey took to the microphone he reminisced about the days in which Whale would have begun at the university, describing himself as the ‘School of English drudge’. But he is nothing of the sort. As Sir Geoffrey delved into his own favourite poets’ work, not wanting to take up the whole reading with that of his own, he brought them totally to life. With his bellowing, bounding voice, he emphasized every enjambed sentence, every sequence of alliteration and stressed every bit of assonance, in a way only a true poet would know how.
Sir Geoffrey showed his appreciation for such poets as Gerard Manley Hopkins, considered the master of modern verse, D H Lawrence, everyone’s favourite modernist T S Eliot and the ‘incomparable’, in Sir Geoffrey’s own words, Ezra Pound. It was easy to understand how Sir Geoffrey became such a remarkable poet himself, drawing from such fine influences.
When he did get round to reading from his own collections, Sir Geoffrey had the room captivated. It is so illuminating hearing poetry as it has been designed, each turn of phrase delivered as intended, not misinterpreted by the beguiled university student attempting to deconstruct it.
Dressed in all black, with a jazzy waistcoat and black Ugg boots, Sir Geoffrey epitomizes the Oxford Professor-cum-poet, with the fine line between his sheer genius and utter eccentricity difficult to see.
Sir Geoffrey made sure that most of the poems during the reading tied together, reciting elegies about various ex-University tutors upon their leaving the University, and Tony Harrison, whom he befriended when he was a student here at Leeds.
As he drew towards the end of his reading, Sir Geoffrey recalled his fond memories standing in the lecture theatre he was sat in, lecturing on modern poetry. His final poem, Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix, came accompanied with a humorous anecdote about thinking he was being compared to Jimmy Hendrix in a review, and finding out that it was unfortunately in fact U2. He then reveled in his use of the ‘f’ word, something he said ‘would not have been possible in ’54’. And I think we all certainly enjoyed hearing an 80-year old swearing too.