Let us begin in the deep end. Could you paraphrase this, or tell yourself what it means? (It's from stanza 56 of Geoffrey Hill's sequence of poems, Speech! Speech!)
Flanders poppy no trial variant. Does
my bad breath offend you? Pick a name
of the unknown ypres master | as alias.
Abandoned mark iv tanks, rostered by sex,
Marlbrough s'en va-t-en... frozen
entertaining the Jocks. Arrest yourself:
for grief of no known cause, excuse me.
I have had trouble before with this, and said so in print. If you came across the first sentence in a set of crossword clues with a figure 7 in brackets after it, you might spend a fruitless half- hour trying to find an anagram of "no trial" that meant "Flanders poppy". Jeremy Noel- Tod, taking note of my bafflement in the London Review of Books, stated in polite contradiction that "the passage is broadly coherent". Nearly two years on, I am beginning to come round to his point of view. There is still an abundance of allusion which I have yet to penetrate, but there is no gainsaying Hill's ability to write memorable, sonorous verse.
Now let's try something else of Hill's, this time from the much earlier "Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz", which appeared in his 1968 collection King Log:
"One cannot lose what one has not
So much for that abrasive gem.
I can lose what I want. I want you.
Now that, anyone with an ear would be compelled to agree, is, in the phrase that Hill likes to use to describe his verse, "simple, sensuous, and passionate". It is also intelligent - appreciate the graceful subtlety of dismissal in that second line, acknowledging that a gem, a thing of beauty, can also abrade. Look at the way each successive sentence is shorter than the last, as if narrowing to a fine point. All of these things it is poetry's responsibility to be, and it's why many people claim that Hill is the greatest living writer of verse in the English language, and has been since the death of T S Eliot.
On a typically dank Cambridge evening in January, about 200 people, some having travelled far, turned up to a lecture hall at the English faculty to hear Geoffrey Hill reading his own work. This is an event for those who care about such things. For the last few years, Hill has not been up to the journey from Boston to England when he has been summoned, by the judges of the T S Eliot prize, to read from his shortlisted collections, Speech! Speech! and The Orchards of Syon. If you wanted to hear someone reciting Hill's work from those collections, you'd have had to make do with me. I'd like to think I was up to the job, and that his failure to win the prize on each of those occasions (it is unprecedented to be nominated in successive years) was nothing to do with my rendition.
Hill's voice is as memorable and unmistakable as his poetry. He speaks in a low, precise, slightly inflected growl, like honey coated in rich yet bitter chocolate. His clothes - dark and slightly shiny, with the most unfrivolous bow-tie you will ever see - enforce the suggestion of a high Anglican bishop who prefers not to dress down on his days off. As for the bitterness, what we come to realise is that for all that there is something forbidding in his mien, there is a twinkle in the eye. Like many people who sound sepulchral, he can be very funny.
"Were I not professionally compromised," he tells us, "nothing would induce me to attend a poetry reading." He thanks us, and marvels at our "stamina" in listening to him for an hour and a quarter. But the time goes quickly, for Hill's verse catches the ear and draws us in. He also makes a point of reading those poems which celebrate love, or which are, to use that triptych again, simple, sensuous and passionate.
In Trinity College's stately guest rooms the next day, he warns me that has "no small talk". …