Poet Geoffrey Hill wins 1998 Kahn Award for Canaan
by Eric McHenry
To critics and scholars, Geoffrey Hill is "the great cellist of contemporary poets" and "the best British poet of the 20th century." His writings constitute "the most distinguished poetry of our time" and "stand with the work of Mandelstam and Montale."
To Geoffrey Hill, poetry is "a hobby that's got out of hand."
"It's not my bread and butter," says the UNI professor, recipient of the 1998 Kahn Award for his most recent collection of poems, Canaan. "In my University work, I am a straight-down-the-middle-of-the-line literary scholar. My job is teaching 16th- and 17th-century literature, in relation to religion and politics."
Nevertheless, Hill says he feels honored to have his avocation recognized with the $9,000 prize, which is conferred by a jury comprising University faculty and Esther Kahn, a BU alumna and benefactress. It goes annually to a BU faculty member who has produced a work of special merit and of broad public appeal in the arts or humanities. Last year's cowinners were University Professor Roger Shattuck, now retired, for his book Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, and Igor Lukes, UNI associate professor, for his history Czechoslovakia Between Hitler and Stalin: The Diplomacy of Edvard Benesť During the Crisis of the Thirties.
"The Kahn Award means all the more to me," Hill says, "because it is not given exclusively to collections of poetry. It is a great honor to have been chosen from an extremely wide range of disciplines."
Hill is a fiercely intelligent poet, and matters of conscience preoccupy him. He has written forcefully about the Holocaust in previous collections. Canaan finds him interrogating the contemporary character of his native England with cycles of poems titled "To the High Court of Parliament" and "Mysticism and Democracy," which are at once laments and stern reprimands. His lines almost never have single literal meanings that are easy to grasp; virtually every word is alive with secondary and tertiary implications. According to Rosanna Warren, UNI associate professor and chair of the Kahn Award jury, the complexity of the poems makes them all the more worthy of a prize honoring work with broad public appeal.
"Some of the critical readings of Hill tend to make him look like a really forbidding academic poet," she says, "but I don't think that's the real effect of the poems. They are learned poems, but I don't think their intent is to show off learning. I think, on the contrary, they're trying to explore spiritual worlds that are, in the final analysis, common. I think he's trying to create a common space -- a common linguistic and spiritual space, so that we, his readers, can enlarge our sense of what we can be as speakers and as thinkers."
The poems of Canaan are dense with Biblical, literary, and historical allusion. Many exploit traditional meters and structures without committing wholly to them. Series of 14-line poems invite comparison to sonnet sequences, but contain fractured lines and make their meditative turns in unexpected places. Hill says he does not consider them sonnets, although some critics who do have assumed he does as well.
"Geoffrey Hill is so profoundly original a poet," Warren says. "He's so conscious of his origins and the origins of his art and of making a permanent impression on the means of that art. All his life as a poet, he has been examining the terms he was given as a young artist. Everything is examined in Hill's poems, which is why they're so extraordinarily demanding. Metrical matters are deeply and subtly felt, as are etymological matters. One feels the Latin or Anglo-Saxon roots of words stirring in their present meanings for him."
"It's very hard for me to think of any poems that I've written -- as opposed to criticism and other things -- in which I'v