“If I write about destruction it’s because I’m terrified of it”: An Interview with Geoffrey Hill
Six decades ago, when he was an undergraduate at Keble, The ISIS published some of Sir Geoffrey Hill’s earliest works. Today, he is the author of over a dozen books of poems and literary criticism. On the evening following his penultimate lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Hill spoke to us at his old college about his socio-historical awareness and artistic vision – which, like his ‘difficult’ poetry, is both exact and exacting.
To quote one of your essays, “Our contemporary ignorance results from methods of communication and education which have destroyed memory and dissipated attention”. In an age of unbridled materialism where we are constantly steered towards the internship mindset and bombarded with tantalising contracts from law firms and banks –
You may be bombarded with contracts from law firms; I certainly have never been.
In a university environment, the careers service seems to be –
The university environment is not the worst by any means. I think if there are educational aspects to this it begins long before university. Something has gone wrong in the communications system because, although television bombards us with historical romances like Wolf Hall and with channels such as Yesterday, which I do look at a lot, and fills us with endless details about the First World War and the rise of Nazism, strangely, this doesn’t seem to create a real memory bank in the public mind and it is as if things had to be rediscovered every five years, or re-narrated every five years. I don’t quite know how this happens. It is a very odd anomaly, that there should be so much about history on record – hundreds of hours of archive film about the First World War, for example, and shelves in Blackwell’s groaning with books on history – it is such a peculiar anomaly that this does not seem to have any equivalence in the public understanding of the past. Something that affects me quite closely: I was one of the first beneficiaries of the 1944 education act. I came from a poor family. My parents had left school at 13 and had no education after that. I was the first of a very large, spread-out family – all my aunts, uncles, and cousins all lived within a few miles of us – to enter university, and I was enabled to do so because of the very generous provisions, made both nationally and locally, to assist students whose parents could not in any way afford to send their children to university. I had a county scholarship from Worcestershire and coming to Keble from 1950 to 53 didn’t cost me a penny. And yet, as we built up to the election, for quite a number of years, both the government and the opposition had as their great rallying cry: “If you put us in, we will see to it that the children of the poor and the disadvantaged will not suffer in comparison with the children of the wealthy middle and upper classes”, which shows a complete oblivion to the way things were sixty years ago.
Do you think that is due to the fact that things are made simple nowadays?
They are made imprecise. And I don’t think it’s all trickery; I think it’s due to the fact that Cameron and Miliband and others, irrespective of their party, are themselves products of the derailed educational system. It is only people of my age, and maybe five or six years younger, who know how things were. But there must be plenty of documentary evidence, if only the people in Westminster would go to their well-stocked library and take out some relevant volumes.
You seem to see the way everything is systematised nowadays in terms of a kind of oblivion, or plutocratic anarchy –
It’s chaos rather than system. I do not think these people have deliberately set out to make diffusion of knowledge and diffusion of attention the mainspring of their polity; I don’t accuse them of that degree of cynicism, but I do accuse them of genuinely not knowing how the condition of Britain at present is affected by the dimensions of the past, nor do they seem to even be faintly aware of – and if they were faintly aware, I think they would not care – how the organisation of society, or disorganisation of society, affects the denotations and connotations of the English language. I mean, take a word like “creativity”, or “creative”: that used to mean; that used to be associated with creating things of intrinsic value. It now has come to mean, “believed to possess entrepreneurial skills”.
Is that to do with people now needing a kind of logic to structure information, so something has to denote something, but without being alive to the connotations of the word?
Well, the definition itself has to be possible within 140 letters – is that what it is? I don’t use it myself.
There are many horrible instances of this in advertising. There is a current one that is something like, “We are a nation united by creativity”, and, again, when they reveal what creativity is, it is banking enterprise; it is not the writing of music, or anything like that. It is exploiting one’s entrepreneurial skills in order to become rich.
And that’s not a public purpose, is it? If you’re talking about a nation –
Well it’s public as understood by a tiny nucleus of oligarchs – I use the word “oligarch”, and then people think that I’ve only taken the word up because it’s come into fashion for maybe about 15 years, with Putin in Russia and the oil oligarchs, but in fact the word was used a hundred years ago in the writing of two very intelligent social commentators, who are now thought of as old duffers or figures of fun. I mean G. K. Chesterton, who is now know solely for the Father Brown stories, but who was a very good social critic, and Hilaire Belloc, who, if he’s remembered at all, is remembered as the author of some somewhat dated comic verses. They were writing around 1910 or so, and they used the term “oligarchical” for the type of business enterprise which is exploitative and not contributive. Probably before you came to Oxford, I mentioned in a couple of the first poetry lectures how influenced I’ve been by a lecture given by William Morris at University College, in which he used the term “anarchical plutocracy”; his lecture was called something like “Art Under Plutocracy”. So the argument I am putting forth is itself about a hundred years or so – Chesterton and Belloc probably got it from Morris, and Morris certainly got it from John Ruskin, and so it all goes back to Ruskin.
Do you feel particularly attracted to Ruskin’s ideas? I’m only saying that because this is Keble.
And over the road is the Ruskin university museum. There is no connection between anything I think and my three years at Keble. I was certainly not asked to read Ruskin by my Keble tutor, and my Keble tutor – who was a lovely man, and very kind to me – was very much of the old school, and for him I wrote essays on Sir Thomas Browne’s “Urn Burial” and Jane Austen. I suppose the two most adventurous things I encountered during my Oxford years had nothing to do with the university, but rather with Penguin bringing out a selection of Ibsen’s prose dramas, and it’s astonishing how new Ibsen seemed to us then. About the same time, I think Penguin brought out seven or eight volumes in their D. H. Lawrence series, and I think it was reading Ibsen and Lawrence’s novels that I found much more intellectually stimulating that the subjects I was asked to write about in my weekly essay. And, of course, browsing the shelves of Blackwell’s. Certainly, I taught myself all that was necessary to know about how to become a modern poet by browsing these shelves, and thus I begun to teach myself how to become a modern poet maybe two or three years before I came to Oxford.
You were published by Donald Hall. Is that correct?
Donald Hall was president of the Oxford Poetry Society, and probably the moving agent there – no, not moving, an agent does move, and so we only need the word agent. The Society set out an arrangement with Oscar Mellor, a painter who had owned a little printing press about the size of an old-fashioned mangle – if you know what a mangle is: what mother used to squeeze water out of clothes – about that size. He lived in a cottage in Eynsham, and in order to keep body and soul together, he did a job in printing, and the Oxford Poetry Society established this little thing called the Fantasy Press poets.
What do you think the importance of small presses is, especially now, when literature has been overtaken by multinational corporations?
They’ve been overtaken by desktop publishing. I’m astonished that small presses – and I speak with particular admiration of Enitharmon Press – can keep going in an age of self-publishing. If you’re self-published, you don’t encounter any obstacle to your opinion of yourself; if you submit to a publisher, you do. I submitted my first collection to Chatto & Windus, whose reader was the then very well-known Cecil Day Lewis, and he refused it, and I was deeply hurt, but the delay was invaluable, for in my submission of For the Unfallen I had included quite a number of poems that I am now very glad I did not publish, and while I brooded about this insult to my self-opinion I, in fact, wrote some much better poems. My second try was with André Deutsch, a publisher then making a name for itself in the publishing of poetry, and they accepted it. My book was accepted at a second attempt, which, compared to some people’s experience, is very good.
You mentioned your first book, “For the Unfallen”: do you see yourself going back to that? Are you engaged in an act of revision?
One person only has noticed that at least one poem in For the Unfallen has been drastically re-written. He’s the only to have noticed; the other critics have not. So I went back, in 2012 or thereabouts, to a poem written in 1956, and I like to flatter myself that it is seamless: you cannot see the joins. Maybe that’s because the things that move me in terms of words and rhythms have not changed that much in the sixty years I’ve been doing this. My inner ear is still very much the same it was when I was twenty, and yet, of course, what the critics do say is how drastically my poems seem to change from book to book. The outward appearance may change, but the directing ear, I think, has not. I still hear and feel words and their connections as I did when I was twenty.
In a review of “The Triumph of Love”, Harold Bloom wrote of you as “always the heir of William Blake”, and in the ISIS Idol piece, of November 1953 –
I was a good-looking young lad, wasn’t I?
Yeah, we were talking about that. There, too, the writer describes you in terms of Blake: would you agree with this vision of Blake as your chief poetic forefather, or do you reject Harold Bloom’s hermetic concept of poetic ancestry?
I do have some debt to Blake – by the way, the person who wrote the ISIS Idol piece was a man called Anthony Thwaite, with whom I am still friends, and who edited the Larkin poems or the letters. He became very much the Larkin authority, and I’m still in touch with him occasionally; he lives in Norfolk. No, something came before Blake: it was a book published in 1948 or 49 called A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry: British and American, and it was edited by a not very good poet called Oscar Williams, part of the New York scene, and for about two or three years, until it disintegrated, I carried that particular book in my jacket pocket, and there was a time when I think I could have recited from memory just about every poet in that book, and it contained a very large number of poems and poets. I was particularly excited by a poem called “Ode to the Confederate Dead” by the American poet Allen Tate, born in 1889 – same age as my parents. I suddenly thought: “I know now how to write a modern poem without being untrue to my own feel for the English language”. I had started by trying to be like Edward Thomas and had failed wretchedly – as anyone would, I suppose, except Alun Lewis, who I mentioned at the lecture last night. Lewis could do it; I certainly couldn’t at the age of fifteen.
You described Edward Thomas as a metaphysical poet: is that something you rejected then?
No, it was a technical matter. I couldn’t find the equivalent for the strange lilt of an Edward Thomas poem, which seemed so throwaway and yet so pregnant with meaning. In any case, at that age, I thought “metaphysical” applied only to a certain number of poets of the early 17th century – I didn’t know you could use the term in other ways; I was very ignorant.
Anthony Thwaite’s anthology of poetry from the second half of the 20th century completely omits comparably difficult poets such as J. H. Prynne, and I was wondering what you think of this subcurrent of poetry beyond that of The Movement: poets that can be compared to you, in a way. In other words, poets who have resisted the reductive plutocratic anarchy.
With the greatest respect, I think Prynne and I have gone our separate ways. He’s certainly not interested in what I do and I’m not terribly interested in what he does. There was a young woman called Veronica Forrest-Thomson who I think was strongly influenced by Prynne, and who won a briefly known-about prize offered by the University of Leeds for promising first books. I was at the University of Leeds at the time but was not a member of the committee. She was very well, sort of; she died tragically young. She was married to a structuralist. She briefly had a name and I think there are other poets of that school who have been favourably noticed.
In any case, they are not really part of the mainstream.
Well I’m not of the mainstream, of course. It is difficult to know what the mainstream is: the mainstream is largely defined by whoever happens to be poet laureate at the time, but I want to be very careful with this, because in one of my early lectures I made a very polite reference to one of the mainstream poets and was savaged in the press. I’m very anxious not to name anyone.
Only a certain type of poet tends to be named poet laureate nowadays.
I don’t know. Let me put it like this: I think to be mainstream you have to demonstrate that you are reader friendly, and if you are understood or misunderstood to be reader unfriendly then you are certainly not mainstream. From time to time – every ten years or so – there springs up in the press or the radio a bunch of critical king-makers, and they strongly influence what is regarded as mainstream, and words like “arrogant” or “elitist” are directed at those writers who, in their opinion, hold themselves aloof in some unforgivable way from the reader who wants to be pleased.
It seems as though they miss the point, because I would say a great part of being an artist is being individualistic –
Well you can say they miss the point, but I can’t.
No, of course, but a critic writes of you that you often imply that yours is “a solitary voice hedged-in by philistine antagonism”: do you place great value on being solitary?
No, I wouldn’t mind if I were met by thousands of students waving banners with “Viva Hill” on them, as I believe Eliot was towards the end of his life; I see no particular benefit or pleasure in being solitary. It would be very nice to sell tens of thousands of copies and get the royalties, but if that’s not to be, that’s not to be.
Is solitude important for writing, though?
No, not at all. I can write anywhere. I wrote a couple of very good poems while waiting for my cataract operation. In this only do I resemble Jane Austen: I can write on the corner of the kitchen table, with people talking around me. No, and I think, in some way, this feeling that one has to be in solitude to write is rather pretentious. Even Wordsworth, that great solitarist, worked in very close harmony with his sister Dorothy, and relied on her prose diary notes to stimulate his own verse, like that meeting with the leech gatherer – a very great poem which shares certain turns of phrase with her notebook entry, and it is very interesting to see what details are of use to him. If I’m solitary, it’s force of circumstance that the guild of poets doesn’t really want all that much to do with me.
In The ISIS piece of 1953 it states that you would rather have been a composer.
I would. I tried to write music in my teens – awful stuff, utterly incompetent stuff.
Do you view art in particularly synaesthetic terms? Is music very important for your poetry?
It is important for me: I have a great need of it. One of my books, Scenes from Comus, is dedicated to Hugh Wood, the composer, who is a great friend of mine. I stole his title and used his motto theme as one of my epigraphs and dedicated the book to him for his 70th birthday.
Charles Ives, as well.
There was a time when I looked rather like Charles Ives. I feel great sympathy for him; I don’t love every note he has written. I do love his setting of the 90th psalms, and I love “The Unanswered Question”. But some of those experiments where he would have a brass band coming from one edge of the town playing a certain tune, and another brass band coming down the street from the other end playing an entirely different tune, and he would love to hear the strange discords and dissonances that these two bands created… Ives’ music is like that, which, to me, is just too cacophonic to enjoy.
Critics have detected great antiphony of voice in your poetry.
Yeah, that’s probably right. Yeah, good point – it takes off on what I was saying about Charles Ives very well. I think that is true; I hadn’t quite realised that so clearly. But some of my poems are like a brass band approaching from this end of town and a brass band approaching from that end of town, and, I suppose, for some people, that is a kind of unacceptable raucousness. I’ve no right to complain, because, as much as I admire Ives, I find some of his music just too way out, but if you were to look at Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti, you would find some love poems there written in the most heart-easing and simple terms. Admittedly, my opus is terribly big, but if you went through my collected poems looking for mellifluous poems, you would find a wide selection of poems that are as simple and direct as anyone could wish to hear – “Edging the meadow / The may-tree is all light and all shadow. / Coming and going are the things eternal.” – things like that. Beautiful stuff. But once one’s got a public reputation for cacophony, that’s it. Nobody is going to take the trouble to look for the mellifluous because I have been described on authority in some review in The Telegraph or The Observer: “this man does not write acceptably easy, amiable stuff”.
In relation to that public image: in yesterday’s lecture you stated that “a poet must have practiced many years, must have produced what is virtually a life’s work if he or she is to carry out effectively the kind of high-pitched self-accusatory self-justification that Yeats performs in the later books”. In “The Triumph of Love”, you write: “Shameless old man, bent on committing more public nuisance”, which is reminiscent of both Yeats’ “sixty-year-old smiling public man” and his “Wild Old Wicked Man”. I was wondering how you view the relationship between the public responsibility of a poet and his age.
Well, if I’m right about the weird ignorance – and, as I said earlier on, I don’t think they are setting out deliberately to cheat us – but this weird public ignorance of national memory, then I think the poet has a duty to create that national memory.
Who are you writing for, then? The dead?
I’ve said so, I believe. I’m writing for anybody who is able to make contact, and there is no point trying to write for those who, for whatever reason, are not going to make contact, but one hopes, I suppose, that, in a way, over time – to use that cliché about the pebble and the pond, you know – that the circles radiate outward but it would certainly be a fairly lengthy process and there may not be time for that. In a hundred years, the world will be so afflicted with climate change that the premises of the historical tradition to which one aligns oneself will be irrelevant. Who is going to bother about things like that when Keble chapel is one third under water, and a civil war is breaking out?
Is writing not for a future people, as a guide? Bloom, among others, has described you as a poet-prophet.
Dear old Harold! The noblest thing Harold Bloom ever said of me – and he didn’t say it in print, he said it when he was introducing me at a reading in New York – was “Hill is a great Christian poet of the Jewish diaspora”, which moved me very deeply, and is much more profound that anything he said in that essay.
This seems to be a perennial theme, because in your 1953 ISIS review of Blake’s “Jerusalem” –
That pretentious little piece…
Towards the end, you say that Blake’s voice, sometimes –
Yes, that he dissipated his voice in the prophetic books and that the greatest Blake is in the lyrics. There are long passages in Blake that read like a wasteland of proper names and seem to have neither meter nor rhythm. But the lyrics are tremendous. That reminds me: there is now a television commercial in which each line of “Jerusalem” is uttered by a different voice, and there is a female athlete, a singer, somebody who talks like a self-made Yorkshire businessman, and then the final line is spoken by a man in a Morris dancer straw hat, coming out of a pub and smiling complacently, and then the logo comes up: something like “English Tourist Board”. This great poem of protest is now used to advertise the English Tourist Board, and this is a radical maltreating of the gifts which have been left us: it is turning protest against exploitation into a war cry for exploitation, and it is abominable. To think in the way that I am thinking goes back to essays by Ruskin in which he talks about intrinsic versus extrinsic value; intrinsic value is hard to define and can’t be sold whereas extrinsic value always has a price on it.
In your 1953 review of “Jerusalem”, you stated that Blake sometimes reaches the voice of the Book of Job. Are you a consciously Christian poet, or rather one working within a continuity with an awareness of the importance of scripture?
Somebody, not long ago, wishing to put in a stiletto, said: “Hill has been called a great poet; he is not a great poet, but he might be the greatest Church of England poet”. I am not a Church of England poet. I’m married to a Jewish lady who is now an Anglican priest. The Church of England I find deeply irritating. My favourite books of the Bible are the Minor Prophets, and I like reading them in the facsimile I have of the Luther Bible, with woodcuts of men in ragged clothes casting down idols. I am, through an accident of circumstance, deeply immersed in Judeo-Christian thinking.
What about – particularly in terms of Judaism – the idea of exile, or poetry as something nomadic?
I’m sure that is a circumstance which I would have to agree with.
But then you said earlier that solitude is not something –
Not something I wish to cultivate, but something you find yourself stuck with. An antagonistic solitude, which has a lot to do with the Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible – the kind of solitude which is forced upon you, not the kind one would choose: like taking a solitary swim because it is good for the health. It’s the solitude of Hagar, the expelled wife of Abraham, the maidservant upon whom Abraham had illicitly begotten Ishmael, and sent her out into the desert to die where she was miraculously rescued by an angel. The Hebrew Bible is for that kind of exile. Solitude has been associated with regaining mental health ever since John Stuart Mill wrote about his reaction to Wordsworth’s The Preludes. I think Mill has a lot to answer for as a very influential thinker who left us with the impression that poetry is very good for curing nervous breakdowns.
Do you think there is a role of writing as, not necessarily therapeutic, but useful in constructing some kind of stability or unity of mind?
Not as powerful as music. I think music can be genuinely therapeutic without destroying its own integrity. It is a pattern of discord and harmony without any recourse to words being necessary. Once words are introduced, they – every word has a bit of itself that is rebellious to one’s desire to make easy use of it. Music has always seemed to me free of the taint of original sin, whereas words are full of it. That’s about the only strong tie I have to Judeo-Christianity: I profoundly believe in the reality of original sin.
Do you think poetry can extricate original sin through a self-aware use of language, or do you think it perpetuates it?
It does both. It can miraculously seem to offer some sort of blessing, and it can, when it is working at its very greatest, remind us of the inescapability of original sin.
Blake himself says that the Creation and the Fall are the same event.
He was very heterodox. There was a good little book on Blake, written about sixty years ago by a Marxist who traced his descent from the 17th century independent radicals. I don’t know how good his scholarship was but he wrote of very strange, tiny, independent sects. I believe the very last Muggletonian was alive until forty or fifty years ago. They were the followers of one Muggleton and they were apocalyptic; there was this sense in the 17th century that the Second Coming was nigh, and that England should cleanse and purge itself in expectation of this climactic advent, and so the Civil War was seen very much in those terms – as an act of purgation. I think it is in Samson Agonistes. Samson had this apocalyptic power and lost it by being seduced and then immolating himself by bringing down the temple of Dagon upon the heads of the philistines and himself. Milton also, I think, shared this apocalyptic feeling that the Second Coming was imminent, and would probably be no later than about 1710.
Are you quite attracted to that idea of destructiveness? There is a clear influence of Milton and of Yeats in your work.
I am appalled to think what may be coming upon the world; I am appalled by the worsening of relations between Putin’s Russia and the rest of Europe. People now look back at the 1950s as a very dull period, but I can assure you that, when I was up at Keble, and before, and after, we lived in the expectation that every day could be our last, that a nuclear war could break out at any time and that that would be it. We lived the real terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a wonderful relief when 1989 came along; there seemed to be reciprocity possible between Gorbachov’s Russia and the West. The terrible fear had gone, and now we have it coming back with those sinister-looking Russian bombers testing out defences all the time – it’s horrible. If I write about destruction it’s because I am terrified of it.
You seem very aware of impermanence in your poetry and lectures, especially in relation to war. One of your very first published poems – “For Isaac Rosenberg”, in a 1952 issue of “The ISIS” –
That thing in The ISIS has a very incorrect metaphor at the end, which I’d rather you didn’t ask me about. But Rosenberg has been very important to me. I discovered him in the anthology I was telling you about, but there was a little magazine called Nine in the early 1950s of very consciously European literature, introducing classical and European literature to philistine Brits, and there was a short review of Rosenberg’s selected poems in that which I found very exciting. It quoted some lines of Rosenberg that had not been in the Oscar Williams anthology, which I found very powerful, and I though “this is great stuff”. The only Rosenberg one could get in those days was a truncated version of the 1937 collected works, which omitted the letters and the essays. In my second year, I had a very nice room one floor up, next to the lodge, which I took over from the philosopher Brian Magee, who was a year ahead of me. He was the Keble poet: he published a book called Crucifixion and Other Poems, with the Fortune Press, and I bought a copy from him, and he signed it for me, and a few years ago I presented it to the Keble library. Brian may have been one of the first to publish me, in Keble’s magazine, The Clocktower – he says he was the first. My first Oxford poem arrived in The Clocktower or the liberal magazine, the Oxford Guardian – not that I was a liberal, but it printed poems, and one sent one’s poem out to whoever would print it. The literary editor of that was a man called Derwent May, who wrote the big history of the Times Literary Supplement and does gardening notes in The Telegraph. He was the first to publish me. I don’t think I sent anything into ISIS until probably the beginning of my second year.
Was Oxford – and is it still – somewhere you can write productively?
Well, you must remember that, at that time, whereas Oxford could only boast of Hill and Anthony Thwaite and one or two others, Cambridge could boast of Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn. In many ways, Cambridge has, in the 20th century, thought of itself perhaps rightly as being rather ahead of Oxford. Empson was Cambridge; did Oxford have anyone comparable? Well, Auden, of course. But Cambridge has always prided itself in being sort of more adventurous than Oxford, and that has something to do with the fact that it can boast of people like Empson. Who was at Cambridge but Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Thom Gunn, and various others? At a time when Oxford could only field G. Hill and A. S. Thwaite and a few others. And Leeds, of course. From ’54 on Leeds was the great creative centre of English poetry.
Because, in about 1953, an American research student called Ralph Maud, who later did that book on the Dylan Thomas manuscripts, founded a weekly, cyclostyled, stapled magazine called Poetry and Audience, sold at a penny, which coincided with the establishing of the first resident creative fellowship in any university in England, tenable for two or three years, and the first fellow, who went up about 1950, was James Kirkup – at the time very well known as an up-and-coming poet – followed by John Heath-Stubbs, with whom I became friendly. He was at Queen’s at the same time as Sidney Keyes, and was followed by Thomas Blackburn, Jon Silkin… I was appointed to a straight, down-the-middle academic lectureship, and so there were these busy students, the Gregory fellows, myself… We kept getting students such as Tony Harrison. Jon Silkin stayed around in Leeds for years. It was a very, very active scene and people are now writing books about it; the Leeds poets are a subject.
Is that a school or movement you would place yourself under?
No, I objected. When I was presented as a Leeds poet, I said that I happened to live and work in Leeds but, if we were going to use place names, then I am not a Leeds poet but a Worcestershire poet. I don’t know that any of us consciously thought that we were the Leeds school but we have been called that ever since by people publishing doctoral theses. There is now a much sought-out Leeds poetry archive, which has sixty of my manuscript books. It has a whole pile of Tony Harrison, of Silkin. It is a very thriving secondary industry they have got going from a bunch of us who were very active there from about the mid-1950s to the late 1960s. Looking at the thing historically – if these things matter at all – then I think the Leeds poetry scene of that era is at least as important as the Cambridge scene, and probably rather more important than the Oxford poetry scene.
What do you think about the current Cambridge scene?
I don’t know very well. I live in a village seven miles out and I see, from time to time, in Heffers and Blackwell’s, little pamphlets on Cambridge poetry. I can’t honestly say that I take a very active interest and, you know, they certainly don’t seek me out.
Do you actively seek out any contemporary figures?
No! Absolutely not. I’m 83; I don’t have all that long left to live. I want to do my own thing. I wish them well in a vague sort of way, but I have no desire to found a Hill school. I am friends with people who were in Leeds in the 50s; I am friends with Jon Glover, who is the managing editor of Stand, and I am a patron or a friend or whatever of Stand – I give them some money. I am on very friendly terms with Michael Schmidt of Carcanet Press. They tell me about people they think highly of.
Is there a kind of writing you would like to see in the future?
I’d like to see a poetry which is highly architectonic and yet sounds spontaneous, as in Yeats. There’s always this sense of massive architectural control in Yeats, but out of it burst these spontaneous, ragged phrases. That’s what poetry should be like. I want poetry still to be rather like late Yeats and early Eliot. I don’t want it to be a sort of simpering drizzle. I really do want there to be some sense of order battling anarchy within the very structure of a poem. I think one of the most dreadful sounds in all of modern culture is what I will call the poetry recital chortle, and most contemporary poems seem to me to be written in order to arouse the desire of the listener to chuckle appreciatively. To be blunt, I can’t really stand that.