Thursday, February 02, 2012

Looking back at Geoffrey Hill

Portrait in Brighton by Hiro 1990
Portrait in Montparnasse 1966

During three days asleep with flu I hibernated with a hoard of remembered places and people, then woke up to my birthday - 57. My age - late fifties - now matches the decade I began to experience the world. There are people I'll never see again and others who may be dead. Rules I've ignored are drawing attention to themselves. I've begun re-reading books I first read 40 years ago.

Then Geoffrey Hill stepped unexpectedly into my nostalgic biopic - his comments about Carol Ann Duffy reminded me of an incident at school.

It must have been around 1970. I was carrying three books - The Mersey Sound featuring Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, Penguin Modern Poets 8 with Edwin Brock, Geoffrey Hill and Stevie Smith and an anthology, Georgian Poetry, first published in 1962. I bumped into my English teacher. She took them out of my hands and then her comment shook me. It was vehement. Personal. I couldn't like all of them. The Liverpool poets were in direct opposition to Geoffrey Hill. And I felt stupid. Confused. Because I liked Hill, I liked Patten, Henry and McGough. I liked Thomas (Dylan), Plath, Hughes as well as Cecil Day Lewis. And I felt like she was telling me off.

Hendrix was still alive (he died a few months later) shaking things up and life was good. I was 15, reading new poems, old poems, trying them out and listening to Joni Mitchell as well as James Brown, Alice Cooper as well as sweet Cat Stevens, John Mayall and finger in the ear folk songs.

I didn't get whatever was behind her attack. I still don't. Or perhaps it was that the 60s had chucked choices at the 70s that were just too threatening. That year, 1970, was just 25 years on from the end of World War Two and its hideous legacy.

Writers, musicians, artists were busting out of unbearable restrictions. For that reason alone, Hill's comments are alarming. Today's poetry partisans aren't heroes, they're protecting their turf. Too many of them are men, white, middle class and they are telling us off, just as my teacher did, with no good reason at all.

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