The Strongest Voice; Geoffrey Hill Is More Than a Poet's Poet. He Is the Finest English Writer Alive

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Byline: DAVID SEXTON

THE biennial David Cohen British Literature Prize for a lifetime's achievement is the most distinguished award for a writer in this country.

The recipients so far have only added to its status: Harold Pinter, VS Naipaul, Doris Lessing, William Trevor and Muriel Spark. There is another author who deserves to be added to this roster: Geoffrey Hill.

It is the opinion of a former literary editor of this paper, A.N. Wilson, that "Geoffrey Hill is probably the best writer alive, in prose or rhyme, in the English language." Plenty of lesser men have said as much.

George Steiner has rated Hill as "among our finest poets", Harold Bloom has called him "the strongest British poet now alive", and Christopher Ricks, a long-term admirer, judged him "the best poet now writing in England", even before Philip Larkin's death.

Yet Hill remains a poet's poet, reputed too obscure for a wide audience. One hapless anthologist, Kenneth Allott, included him in a book of contemporary verse with the comment that he understood him "only in the sense that cats and dogs may be said to understand human conversations".

Certainly Hill has always made high demands on his readers. He disdains "the poem as an anecdote, where language has a deft, satisfactory, empirical function, inoffensively conveying the gist of an interesting experience", which neatly disposes of nearly all his contemporaries. Instead, for Hill, "the language is the situation".

"In handling the English language the poet makes an act of recognition that etymology is history. The history of the creation and debasement of words is a paradigm of the loss of the kingdom of innocence and original justice. If we can accept that image to any degree, then it seems to me we can simultaneously accept the genuine possibility of consolation in art and be sceptical about the possibility of ultimate consolation."

Geoffrey Hill was born in Bromsgrove in Worcestershire in 1932, an only child, the son of a police constable. At the age of eight, he witnessed the Nazi bombing of Coventry; all of his work has been strongly marked by a sense of the violence in European history.

"There is no bloodless myth will hold," he says in the first of his adult poems, Genesis.

After reading English at Oxford, Hill taught at Leeds, then Cambridge and, for the past 14 years, in Boston, Massachusetts. He publishedhis first collection, For The Unfallen in 1959, and his second, King Log, nine years later. For most of his career, he has been a costive writer, publishing little, always angrily fending off anticipated criticism. He has recently said that he believes it was an "undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder" that gave him such a "terror of utterance".

Since 1992, his condition has been treated with drugs and he has been much more fluently productive, issuing four volumes of poetry in the past six years, Canaan, The Triumph of Love, Speech! Speech!, and now, The Orchards of Syon. Some of Hill's admirers have felt his recent work to be inferior to his best - but The Orchards of Syon will change this. Published last week, it is, unmistakeably, a masterpiece.

Consisting of 72 sections of 24 lines each, the poem takes its title from "The Orcherd of Syon", an early 15th century translation of The Dialogue by St Catherine of Siena, originally made for the nuns at the monastery of Syon in Barking. …