Yesterday at around lunchtime, I saw on Twitter that Geoffrey Hill had died. He was often called “the greatest living poet of the English language,” and many pieces have and will be written about his work and about his remarkable mind.
It hit me hard. I took one class with Professor Hill in my first semester of poetry school. I hadn’t known anything about either him or the subject of the seminar, Gerard Manley Hopkins, but my classmate Terry raved about both, so I signed up.
I didn’t have any sort of special relationship with Prof. Hill. He wasn’t a mentor or a thesis advisor. I was one of thousands of students he taught in his lifetime — but the experience of a student is so different from that of a teacher. We focused entirely on him, while his experience of us was naturally diluted by the group setting, and semesters blur into years and then decades. But Prof. Hill was a generous teacher with a fierce intellect, and it was such a privilege to get to study with him.
On our first day of class, we met in a basement classroom in a science building with hard tile floors, fluorescent lights, and terrible acoustics. We sat in a small cluster facing Prof. Hill, who was not pleased with the room and said he’d have it changed by the following class. Then he read The Wreck of the Deutschland to us in its entirety.
I’m pretty sure I became an English major because my first semester Milton professor read to us, and I don’t think I stopped smiling through Prof. Hill’s entire reading. He has a magnificent voice and rolled his “r”s. He thought poetry, and Hopkins in particular, had to be read aloud and felt physically. At the end of the reading, he gave us a bit of background and context on Hopkins, told us the basic shape of the course, and that was it. That was enough. I was hooked.
From the following Tuesday afternoon, we met upstairs in the religious studies building in a small seminar room with one large wooden table that we sat around. I remember the space as being particularly warm and welcoming — soft carpet in the hallway outside, the occasional sound of low voices, a large door made with a gold-tinged wood like the table. There were only about ten of us, and four of us (Terry, Nigel, Jim, and me) were in the creative writing program together as poetry students. With Prof. Hill’s guidance, we read Hopkins’ journals and poetry and discussed his work and his life and how he described his work and the preoccupations we saw across the two.
Prof. Hill was generous in his responses to our questions, even when they veered toward the personal. He thought his wife and teenaged daughter were both geniuses, and he told us about the languages his daughter knew and the deep questions that concerned her. He said he had spent 6 months writing his first sonnet — his first poem — and described how he had agonized over each word and line break and punctuation mark until he thought it held up. He spoke openly about how he thought antidepressants had unblocked him and how he was able to write more quickly than at any other time in his life. He told us about Tolkien and C.S. Lewis at Oxford — he’d taken classes with both. He was already using a cane, and when he’d give us a break halfway through each class, he’d stay in the seminar room while we dashed downstairs and across the street to buy snacks at the corner store. He’d give us money and ask someone to please bring back a Mango Tango Odwalla for him, which, said with his magnificent voice, careful enunciation, and accent, made me smile every time: “A Mango Tango or something similar, please.”
He was incredibly precise about language in both discussion and in critiquing our papers, but I never had the sense that he was being difficult. He had a reputation for difficulty, but he was trying to bend language to his will. We could (and did) spend hours discussing the difference between sensuousness and sensuality to Hopkins and how these ideas appeared in his poems and his journals as well as in life. Prof. Hill was trying to understand something, and we were accompanying him on his journey for a few months. No matter that he’d studied this material longer than we’d been alive — there was still something to understand and to witness, and we learned by watching him pick at a word or a line repeatedly until something new emerged.
After about a month in his class, I stumbled across an article about him that said he had started teaching in 1954, upon graduating from Oxford, and had been teaching ever since. It was 2004. He had been teaching for 50 years. This seemed like something that had to be marked in some way. I told my poetry classmates, and we discussed what to do. We agreed that Prof. Hill wouldn’t want a big fuss, so we shouldn’t tell the English department and try to organize an Institute-wide party for him, but he might enjoy a small fuss from his students.
We decided on a cake and a card. Terry bought the card, which the class passed around in secret and signed. I baked a carrot cake that involved pineapple and coconut and a lemon cream cheese frosting, basing the baking decision entirely on his love of Mango Tangos.
The next class, we told him we’d discovered that it was his 50th teaching anniversary, and that while he had received recognition for his poetry, we wanted to thank him as his students for his dedication to teaching. He was surprised, and he was gracious, and we kept it all very brief — a small fuss. Class went on as usual with pauses in conversation for cake. Before taking a bite, he’d announce it: “I’m just going to have one more bite of this excellent carrot cake” (Oh, those rolled “r”s — “carrrrr-ought” cake), and he’d nod once, gravely at me, in acknowledgment. And then we’d work.
I’m glad I had a chance to thank him directly for his instruction. For me, the best part of attending BU’s poetry program was learning a little something from a group of extraordinary poets and writers about how they read and how their scholarship nourishes their writing. A decade later, I’m still unpacking and applying what I learned in that intense and demanding year.
Last night, Andrew and I went to a concert, and I went to bed later than usual. At some odd hour, a long rumble of thunder woke me, and disoriented, I thought, “Professor Hill’s “r.” That’s what they were like” before falling back asleep. As Terry said in his remembrance, “It is so hard to think of his voice going silent—that rich, deep voice and that rich, deep intellect.” I’m grateful to have had the chance to encounter that mind in action, to have heard that voice, and to have glimpsed how questions and a deep dedication to answering them can shape a life and an entire life’s work.
Thank you again, Professor Hill. You are missed.