Poet, librettist and priest, the Revd Alice Goodman, reflects on the beauty of poetry and its importance to the relationship with her late husband, the renowned poet and academic, Sir Geoffrey Hill, who died in June.
‘Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to,’ the great American poet Frank O’Hara wrote, and continued, ‘if they don’t need poetry bully for them.’ My husband, Geoffrey Hill, belonged to the class of people who do need poetry. He used to say that his first consciousness of poetry came through the radio. ‘I think it was “South of the Border, Down Mexico Way.” I heard it and thought, “That is beautiful.” I was about seven.’
The first book of poetry that Geoffrey possessed—and that possessed him—was a prize for good attendance at the Sunday School of St Mark’s, Fairfield. Somebody had the imagination to give Palgrave’s Golden Treasury to the policeman’s son. Not a book of Bible stories, not an obviously religious book at all, but the classic anthology of English poetry. Looking back now, I wonder what that curate (St Mark’s only ever had curates) was thinking. He (it would have been a ‘he’ in those days) must have had some sense that all beauty is from God, and that the ability to see and express the created world and the truth of the human heart in a way that reaches across centuries and cultures, has intrinsic value. He must have thought there was no harm in a boy reading Shakespeare or Nashe or Sidney or even the Romantics, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Byron. Perhaps he even thought that reading and understanding poetry was a good preparation for reading and understanding the scriptures. People did think those things: once upon a time this was the principal justification for the study of the humanities. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into a Sunday School prize. Maybe the curate simply bought a well-known book to give to a boy who was in church every Sunday. Maybe all that followed was luck or Providence.
Poetry gives us a way of reading the world. Through its cadences, through its different ways of simultaneously conveying reason and feeling and the human senses, poetry makes it possible for people to express thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. On another continent, in a different generation, I grew up with poetry too. ‘The Jumblies,’ ‘Young Lochinvar,’ and ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ were, successively, my bedtime stories. Poetry in English, poetry in American, and the poetry of the liturgy: prayers repeated and psalms sung. Walt Whitman. Elizabeth Bishop. Frank O’Hara. When I converted to Christianity in my thirties, it seemed to me as if I had caught my faith from the depths of the language. John Donne spoke to me and so did Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, the translators of the English Bible, and all the anonymous preachers and mystics whose devotions shaped the common tongue from the time of King Alfred. Poetry gives those of us who call ourselves people of the book and of the Word made flesh an understanding of how those phrases might be comprehended and how they might be handed on.
And it gives us so much more. Geoffrey and I were together for thirty-five years, married for twenty-nine of them. ‘How does this line sound?’ ‘Have a look at this,’ we said to each other over and over again. We played with words. We argued accents and stresses, and the dovetailed enjambments of line-breaks. We scribbled on paper napkins at the dinner table. ‘You can’t do that!’ ‘Why can’t I?’ ‘It doesn’t work.’ ‘Oh, that’s lovely. I wish I’d written that.’ ‘If you’re going to write in bed, please use a pencil.’
This spring the workmen repairing the roof of St Vigor’s found a board on which some other workmen, a hundred and fifty years before, had taken a carpenter’s pencil and scribbled a bawdy rhyme. The parish donated it to the village historical society, and, in its place we put another board on which Geoffrey had copied a couple of poems in pencil: ‘Merlin,’ and ‘Before Senility.’ He signed it ‘Geoffrey Hill, Parishioner of St Vigor and All Saints. May 30, 2016.
Exactly a month later Geoffrey died: suddenly, unexpectedly, without pain or dread. On his desk I found the fair copy of last poem he’d written. It looks forward into the grim details of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. It looks forward into a time he would not live to see, making vivid the thickening of the leaves on the lime trees as July takes over.
‘Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to,’ wrote Frank O’Hara. ‘If they don’t need poetry bully for them.’
Happy National Poetry Day.
Revd Alice Goodman
Rector of Fulbourn and the Wilbrahams Parish Churches, Cambridge.
Listen to the Revd Canon Mark Oakley discuss the importance of poetry to faith here.