One of the most intriguing appointments in the academic world is that of the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University – a post held in the past by celebrated poets such as WH Auden and Seamus Heaney. The appointment is by election, and the voters are the members of ‘Convocation’, which includes all graduates and all staff of the university. Holders of the post have often been involved in controversy. The last appointment was made in 2009, but the winner of the election, Ruth Padel, resigned shortly afterwards amidst claims about a smear campaign against her rival, Derek Walcott.
This year’s winner was announced yesterday, and it is Geoffrey Hill. Hill is recognised as one of the most respected poets (writing in English) in the world. His poetic style is quite accessible – he has not abandoned metre and rhyme as many modern poets have – but the poems themselves are full of complex academic and intellectual matters.
This is how Geoffrey Hill has summarised the nature of poetry:
‘The poem is a struggle between truth and metre. . . . It is a meeting between message, rhythm and syntax, particularly the syntax of enjambment, and it is very rare that this combat leads to a triumph for the poet.’
Poets, if they understand the popular mood and are capable of responding to it, can play a major role in presenting the narrative of society at any given time. Geoffrey Hill is a fine poet, and I hope he will inspire a new generation to appreciate the importance of this art form. It is possibly a role we should also wish to see established in one of the Irish universities.