It’s difficult now to reconstruct the order in which I discovered different writers in my teenage years. At 15 I started writing poetry. Reading serious literature began soon afterwards. I consumed it as quickly as I could, lurching between states of delirious absorption and brittle, snappish judgement. My boyhood reading, the Arthur C. Clarke or Ray Bradbury paperback on my bedside table, was displaced by a stack of books that contained Nabokov, Lowell, Yeats, Beckett, Dickens, Hardy, Larkin, Eliot, Carlos Williams, Joyce, Chekhov, Chatwin, Kafka, Heaney and on and on in quickly changing combinations. I do know that I read a few of Geoffrey Hill’s poems in an anthology of modern British poetry that we had at school and that an English teacher had mentioned him. This teacher had abandoned Cambridge and a Ph.D. on Hill and Larkin, and he spoke about both poets in the tones of someone recovering from too long an exposure to their powers and personalities: exasperated, overawed, mocking, proprietorial, affectionate.
I bought my copy of the King Penguin edition of Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Poems (1990) at Skoob Books, then located in Sicilian Avenue in Bloomsbury. Skoob was my bookshop and that journey from the suburban eastern reaches of the Central Line to Holborn was one that I made often. It transported me thrillingly into the sphere of art and literature where there were paintings to see and places where writers had walked and sunlight struck through the branches of plane trees between high and elegant façades and streets paused in meditation around squares with famous names and independent adults went about their lives. Sometimes in London I get again the feeling I had then, that freshness of setting out into a world already achieved and in place but inviting and mobile with possibility. When I do, I hear the opening of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto – we had an LP of it at home listened to a lot at that time – that zest of enterprise and invention in an established form.
The book, a paperback, didn’t much resemble the other poetry books I had, most of which bore a portrait drawing of the poet beneath the title surrounded by the grid of double fs of Faber and Faber, a solemn sort of wallpaper that indicated serious literature inside. Hill’s poems had the size and feel of a novel. On the cover was Gauguin’s rendition of Jacob wrestling with the angel from his Vision after the Sermon. On the back, Hill himself scowled out from under a supremely confident comb-over in an author photograph with no hint of warmth or welcome. Licence was granted for this attitude by the words of praise around it, the first of which, from Michael Longley, declared, ‘He is a profound genius, the best poet writing in English.’ Other encomia came from the likes of George Steiner and Christopher Ricks. This was ideal. Profound genius was all I was interested in and the difficulty that my teacher and the cover copy warned me abo
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