Friday, 7 December 2012

Tum te Tum Tum Tum te te Tum te Tum Tum

‘Let us make one thing clear: Geoffrey Hill is the greatest living poet in the English language.’
Nicholas Lezard in a review of Speech! Speech! in The Guardian 2001.

Michael Schmidt, Director of Carcanet Press made the same claim as he introduced Hill at the John Rylands Library, Manchester last night. It’s always intimidating to be in the presence of a Behemoth, a Leviathan. Acutely so in Hill’s Gandalfian presence with his white, Athonite beard and broad, bald dome. As the allusions and references tumble forth you realise that his wide, pink skull contains as much condensed wisdom as the hallowed shelves of the Ryland itself – a cathedral to the written word.

There were many luminaries in the audience, established poets whose works are anthologised or taught in schools. Contemporary poets who lecture, review, run workshops, present TV documentaries. Yet whose collective output Sir Geoffrey once described as so much ‘land-fill’. What acerbic comment and withering judgements would the great man deliver tonight?

We found him in more avuncular mood. The wind and rain was so atrocious outside that he deemed those who had ventured out on such a night to hear him already ‘converted.’ There were scathing comments about bankers, politicians and middle-brow Radio 4 cultural output. Earnest young people who accost him to query his emphasis on ‘form’ would be better joining the ranks of the City execs rather than pursuing the unforgiving angel of poetry ...

Geoffrey Hill lectured at Leeds in my undergraduate days in the 1980s. We were all in awe of him. I only heard him once as my module choices took me in a different direction. I only remember a single line, one he had repeated again and again. Thomas Hobbes on Sydney Godolphin, struck down by ‘an undiscerned and undiscerning hand.’

'Well done, brave Hobbit!' ... Ed Reiss.
I have a photo of myself and Ed at Bill's wedding bash but this isn't it.
Hill must have given this lecture many times. Ed Reiss, the cousin of my friend Bill, a lecturer at Bradford and a poet and reviewer in his own right, had heard it too. He completed the line for me when we discussed it at Bill’s wedding celebration in London. Ed was there last night and I was delighted to hear Geoffrey commend a review he’d written in Agenda.

I was queuing for the great man to sign my second-hand copy of his Collected Poems which I’d found already signed in a Suffolk book-shop. I’d joked with Simon Armitage beforehand (name dropper!) that it reminded me of the incident in Gig where he claims to have found a copy of an early collection he’d signed for his parents in a second-hand dump bin. Just ahead of me, Hill was commending the partner of the poet Frances Leviston for a review he’d written of his previous collection. In doing so he also cited Ed’s review as ‘exactly what a review should be.’

I called Ed over and Hill was generous with his praise. It was a solemn, almost holy moment. It was like watching Gandalf confer an honour on a valiant hobbit.

I went home content and with one abiding thought. To illustrate the English Sapphic metre of a wonderful poem by Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Geoffrey told us he would render the stressed syllable as ‘Tum’ and the unstressed as ‘te’. Imagine then, his grave and magisterial tone as he proceeded to declaim, ‘Tum – te – Tum Tum Tum   – te- te-Tum-te- Tum Tum ...’

Never have I heard a ‘Tum-te-tum-te-tum’ intoned with such Churchillian authority.
(And thanks to Ed Reiss for rendering the caesura at the heart of the dactyllic foot).

The Sidney extract came from Arcadia - 'If mine eyes can speak to do hearty errand/Or mine eyes' language she do hap to judge of ...'

As Lezard put it in that Guardian review (a cutting of which lay at the back of my second hand Collected Poems), ‘One may ask oneself what the hell Hill is going on about, but just listen to the glorious way he says it.’

Sir Geoffrey signed my second-hand collected poems a second time. ‘And again’.
‘Again and again in peace, let us pray to the Lord,’ I muttered, dropping in an allusion of my own. I first read Hill at school (Genesis), heard him at university, heard him again as the 80 year old patriarch of English verse. Resurgat.

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