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Oxford professor Hill takes Carol Ann Duffy to task

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Oxford’s professor of poetry, Sir Geoffrey Hill, has rapped Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, over the knuckles over her linking of modern poetry with texting. In a lecture at Oxford entitled Poetry, Policing and Public Order, Hill, who was knighted in last month’s New Year honours, and is known for the “difficulty” of his own poetry, said: “When the laureate speaks of the tremendous potential for a vital new poetry to be drawn from the practice of texting she is policing her patch. And when I beg her with all due respect to her high office to consider that she may be wrong, I am policing mine.”

Hill went on to criticise the language of one of Duffy’s early poems that was quoted in an article in the Guardian, saying: “For the common good she is willing to have quoted by the Guardian interviewer several lines from a poem by herself that could be easily be mistaken for a first effort by one of the young people she wishes to encourage.

“This is democratic English pared to its barest bean and I would not myself have the moral courage to write so. My simultaneous incompatible response is this is not democratic English but cast-off bits of oligarchical commodity English such as is employed by writers for Mills & Boon and by celebrity critics appearing on A Good Read or the Andrew Marr show.”

After a grammar school education in Bromsgrove, Hill studied English at Keble College, Oxford before embarking on an academic career. Duffy was born in the Gorbals in Glasgow, in a  “bookless house”, and is now professor of contemporary poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Duffy has not responded to the criticism so far. Of course, she may do so in a poem.



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Adele Ward

Wed 8th Feb 2012 12:29

I have noticed that reviewers often try to pick out any poems in a good collection that aren't as 'heavyweight' as the others. I feel that some slight poems do deserve their place in a collection. They often have an important reason for being there - perhaps they chime with other themes and they also add the variety a full collection needs so long as there are only one or two. They are often the poems people name as being their favourites when they read a collection - those little poems that somehow really stay in your mind and say something to you.

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Adele Ward

Wed 8th Feb 2012 12:26

The thing is that Carol Ann Duffy can write both types of poetry, and many types in between. She can be complex and a heavyweight, and she can have fun with a slight poem.

Using different types of language, including dialect, has always been an important part of poetry.

It's very disappointing to hear a poet of the calibre of Hill being so dismissive of another significant poet in this way. Is he really saying poetry is only ever for heavy subjects in complex styles?

Poetry can be written for many reasons and I would have thought a poet would be likely to use it for the everyday as well as for the weighty. It's nothing like a literary novelist writing a Mills & Boon. It's more like a literary novelist also using prose in other ways.

I've never been able to enjoy Hill's work, but keep thinking I should persevere, but it doesn't interest me even though I read some pretty complex writing. Perhaps he just has nothing in common with me, judging by his comments.

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Solomon Scribble

Wed 8th Feb 2012 00:33

Just further evidence of how out of touch these dinosaurs are. That said, why she would accept the position of Poet Laureate in the first place and therefore need to justify herself to such people is beyond me...

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Charlotte Henson

Mon 6th Feb 2012 14:02

Thanks Geoffery, for proving to the doubtful among us that those scholars that work at Oxford are indeed snobbish gits.

What's wrong with poetry being compared to texting anyway? Adapt to survive and all that.

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Alan Gillott

Sun 5th Feb 2012 23:14

Six of one, half a dozen of the other! Hill has a point but probably for the wrong reasons. The very accessability of poetry encourages a lot of folk, including many with no ear for rhyme, rhythm or metre to write and perform their work. In music or art, lack of craft is usually quickly evident and the neophyte is discouraged or quickly takes lessons. Sadly, this doesn't occur in poetry, so many poets continue unaware that with a little effort they could improve their work and even contribute to the oeuvre.

According to the laws of good and evil, this creates a counter movement of brilliantly crafted but generally inaccessible poetry written by poets who have lost touch with reality. Somewhere in between, as in both music and art, there are the poets who have the right balance of craft and humanity who will go on to become part of the poetic legacy, to be read and enjoyed hundreds or even thousands of years hence. I suspect that neither Hill nor Duffy will be numbered amongst them.

Street patois, which is what textspeak is, is ephemeral, and is often inaccessible to the textees. The use of patois to establish time and place is good, as long as the poem does not become so time bound as to have no longevity. I'm not saying a poem has to be not of a time but of all time, but if it is immediately obscolescant that vitality isn't worth it. If a poem is vital, immediate, apposite, important, yet not comprehensible to the majority of readers, it fails at the first hurdle. A point I have to make to some writers who read incomprehensible self involved poems who when challenged state that it their poem so it doesn't matter if anyone else gets it: then why waste our time reading it to us?

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M.C. Newberry

Fri 3rd Feb 2012 16:00

Is your English an "oligarchical commodity"?
Or is being understood just an oddity?
Is being obtuse poetical good use?
It seems like a patronising nod to me!

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Anthony Emmerson

Thu 2nd Feb 2012 21:06

So, Geoffrey Hill is "lacking in moral courage." Let him write his "difficult" poetry, I'm sure it will encourage everyone to flock to his scintillating ouevre.

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M.C. Newberry

Thu 2nd Feb 2012 12:49

JC for Professor of Poetry at Oxford!!
As for writers of "difficult" stuff...
"It has to be a bitter pill
To be lectured so by Geoffrey Hill
Sounding forth in righteous huff he
Makes me sympathise with Ms Duffy!"
(should I transfer this to the "clerihew" discussion?!)

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Harry O'Neill

Wed 1st Feb 2012 23:15

Speaking of `difficult` (or any other) poetry:

The good thing about sites like this is that you have the poem in front of you and you can comment...or not.

If you comment then you`re free - within civil bounds - to say why you like it, or why you don`t.

It`s up to the commentator to make any mis - understanding clear (and the writer to clear it up).

A prime point is that both should address the question why they say what they say.

In this way we can make some progress in mutual understanding and helping each other.

(and -in John`s case - having a good laugh along the way)

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John Coopey

Wed 1st Feb 2012 22:55

I can see why his stuff might be considered "difficult". I can't make arse nor shit of what he's saying.

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Andy N

Wed 1st Feb 2012 16:04

interesting article.. Not particularly a fan of either but it does show to me still the barriers poetry has to go through still with the battles between generations..

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