Poems Are Not Selfies

Daniel Johnson traveled to Oxford to profile Geoffrey Hill, the university’s Professor of Poetry, describing him as a man born out of time:

By the time Hill came on the scene … the landscape had been transformed: the line between poetry and prose had been blurred, the laws of prosody had been suspended and poets were marginalised by or subsumed into other art forms, such as popular music. Poems too became primarily vehicles of self-expression. Like everybody else, poets had to compete for attention and celebrity. As schools no longer taught their pupils poetry by heart, the handful of verses that retained public affection acquired the status of secular icons. New poetry seldom achieves such recognition, for the very good reason that is rarely memorised or indeed memorable. Poets instead strove to reinvent their functions: as performance art for highbrows, icing on the secular wedding cake, or therapy for the deserted, the desolated and the dumped.

Against this, Hill champions a poetry of ideas:

“It is public knowledge that the newest generation of poets is encouraged to think of poems as Facebook or Twitter texts — or now, I suppose, much more recently, as selfies.” The mention of such an improbable neologism from such a source elicited an embarrassed titter from the audience, as if Hill had caught his academic peers indulging a secret vice.

“The poem as selfie is the aesthetic criterion of contemporary verse,” he continued. “And, as you know, in my malign way I want to put myself in opposition to this view. That is to say, the poem should not be a spasmodic issue from the adolescent or even the octogenarian psyche, requiring no further form or validation.” Hill came back to the theme in his vindication of [Gerard Manley] Hopkins, whose sonnets did not, he expostulated, deserve the condescension of posterity: “I do not think that they are Hopkins’s selfies.”

The underlying reason for Hill’s rejection of poetry as pure self-expression is that he sees such narcissism as beneath the dignity of his calling. He preaches, rather, what he has practised ever since his youth: a poetry of ideas. It is this determination to place ideas at the heart of his work that sets him apart from even his most celebrated contemporaries.

In a Paris Review interview over a decade ago, Hill defended “difficult” art in similar terms:

We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.