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5 Reasons You’ll Love Reading British Novelist Geoffrey Hill
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5 Reasons You’ll Love Reading British Novelist Geoffrey Hill

Picture of Alice Barber
Updated: 28 December 2016
Many literature lovers may not think to seek beyond big names like Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney for their dose of postwar poetry, and this is a great shame. Geoffrey Hill is rather less studied, and a little more obscure, but has arguably one of the most unique, self-aware writing styles our nation has ever seen. Take a look at our top reasons why his poetry is so intriguing…
Geoffrey Hill © Poetrybyheart.org
Geoffrey Hill | © Poetrybyheart.org

A master of ambiguity

The way Hill writes is exceedingly clever; he seems to possess the ability to make you believe you are reading one thing, when in actual fact you are reading something quite the opposite. The poem ‘September Song’ is a prime example of this skill. Supposedly an elegy for an anonymous, ten-year-old concentration camp victim, the language of the short poem in actual fact demonstrates the way that art can become a true, even if unintentional, justification of cruelty. Although the pace is respectful, and the tone funereal, the bureaucratic language, employing words like ‘proper’, ‘estimated’ and ‘sufficient’, brim with the assertion of the precise economy with which the deed of the elegised child’s extermination was carried out, masking the vile reality of the situation. It is indeed full of ironies from the very title, which would perhaps be better suited to a romantic lyric, or even a pop song, and thus trivialises the child’s suffering. It clearly demonstrates how nothing can be appropriate after the world has witnessed such evil, for even in an attempt to honour the dead, every word is loaded with the validation and concealment of atrocity.

He is notoriously ‘difficult’ – which will make you look good!

Hill has been deemed ‘difficult’ by many a critic – but don’t let this put you off! His response to this allegation has been to note that the difficulty of his poetry actually gives credit to his readers, for it implies that they possess the intellect to interpret what he writes. Indeed many of his metaphors are oblique, but this only gives more creative power to you, the reader, to make of them what you will. Subtle allusions hint at deeper meaning; the osprey in ‘Genesis’ for example, which is ‘feathering blood’, may not at first seem particularly connotative of the warfare with which the poem is concerned. However, considered in conjunction with the ‘triggered claw’ with which it attacks its prey, the ‘feathering blood’ might conjure an idea of the spattering effect of a gunshot wound. So, flashing your copy of Hill’s works on the tube, or the bus, will show the world what a brainbox you are.

He is brutally honest

While it is certainly meaningful and reflective, Hill’s poetry is not one that attempts to moralise. It does not instruct its reader what to do, and where to go, and how to behave, but merely encourages them to contemplate the condition they live in. We are not told about what is right, or wrong, but merely that wrong unavoidably exists in the world, and we are advised how to deal with this sad fact. ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ is a poem that particularly deals with the issue of coming to terms with the inevitable evil of the world. In placing the celebrated Roman poet within the context of the Holocaust, Hill demonstrates the uneasy marriage of the artist with global scale tragedy. He asks what a poet is to do in the face of the perpetual repetition of conflict and violence that the ‘ancient troughs of blood’ indicate. The only conclusion to come to, according to Hill, is that ‘Things happen’, and all we can do is accept this. Some might call it pessimistic, but it is difficult not to praise the blunt realism.

Selected Poems © Yale University Press
Selected Poems | © Yale University Press

He is full of originality

Despite his profession, Hill his a distinct distrust of words. How about that for innovation, an artist who doesn’t trust his craft as far as he can throw it? Hill’s poetry, especially his early collections, is primarily concerned with the problematic position a poet was put in after the atrocities of the Second World War. A poet’s art is based on a fundamental belief in the power of words, but since the seducing of the masses of Hitler’s Germany had shown the potential dangers behind such rousing rhetoric, words had to be put on trial somewhat. Every expression was corrupt, for its implication in warfare, ambition, and egotism. Hill possesses an intense awareness of the newly fallen nature of words, especially in his first collection ‘For the Unfallen’. ‘Genesis’ is the first poem in the collection, and appropriately parodies the creation story, which, given that artistic men arguably become god-like creatures when they create their poetry, is apt for addressing the newfound pitfalls of art. In it, Hill demonstrates the distrust he feels towards his own creation, as the speaker despairs of the landscape that surrounds him, and recoils from nature.

A modest poet

One thing is for certain about Hill – that he cannot be accused of blowing his own trumpet. He is not a poet who flamboyantly brandishes his art, and he isn’t trying to sentimentally, yet egocentrically express himself. His is a modest type of poetry, and one that is constantly self-doubting the adequacy of its existence. ‘History as Poetry’ demonstrates this uneasiness, exploring the way representing the past via poetry might uproot what is best left undisturbed. Poetry seems an unwelcome awakening of the past as it ‘Unearths’ the ‘speechless dead’; the act of unearthing suggests a revelation of something that has been deliberately concealed, and wishes to stay so. Even the lily, traditionally a genteel image, its funereal association connecting it to notions of being at peace, reacts unfavourably. It ‘rears its gouged face’, like a distressed animal, at the unprecedented and unwelcome disturbance. So, here we have a poet who dares to question his own relevance, which is undeniably something to be admired.

By Alice Barber

Alice Barber is an English literature student and aspiring journalist who simply loves to write. She also has an incurable passion for theatre, and, along with being addicted to attending shows, currently produces for Green Door Theatre Company.