Jeff Hilson has been a major actor within Innovative Poetry in London through the period since 2000. With Sean Bonney and David Miller he co-founded Crossing the Line in 2001, a poetry reading series based in London, initially downstairs at the Poetry Café, with a wide range of figures reading, to an audience always heavy with their fellow poets. Jeff Hilson's teaching of Creative writing at Roehampton University has established him with a major reputation as a nurturer of poetic talent (teeshirts bearing the legend "Hilson School of Poetry" have been sighted). He has also edited one of the most important anthologies of recent years, The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (Reality Street, 2008) — sonnets remade for a whole new world.
Most importantly, though, he is a witty and haunting poet, whose performances of his own poetry engage, astonish and amuse his audiences. His poems combine "found language", from sources such as literary or natural history or of course poetry itself, with lively contemporary speech and attitude. His early published work provides an ironic commentary on the traditional English poetic subject of Nature — the poem sequences are constructed from fragments of language used to define & describe grasses (A grasses primer) and birds (Bird Bird), worked up into longer collections of fragments. In stretchers, the range of source materials is expanded, but Hilson also matches this to a single repetitive formula: 33 short lines refusing narrative coherence (but not narrative) and enforcing a true heteroglossia, a creatively conflicting range of voices, from the bus, the pub, the book, the dream.
His most recent book of poems, In the Assarts, is centred around what were historically waste places, newly cleared land where people could live free lives. In a series of rough sonnets, Hilson jumps between the past roots of our culture and landscape and our messy present day — to show what is similar, what different, what tragic, and what comic (especially). It is poetry about the idea and the reality of present-day "Englishness" — and being English, does not take itself seriously (but is, inside, deeply so). The poet Tim Atkins, whose brilliant "translations" of Horace and Petrarch likewise show us ourselves through anachronism, violent tone-shifts and sheer comedy, describes thus In the Assarts: "Jeff Hilson's hilarious, tragic, wobbling, witty poems mix the high seriousness of Stein, Spicer & Ceravolo with the pleasingly ridiculous Englishness of both Stevie & Mark E. Smith. . . Reading [them] is like encountering Buster Keaton in a codpiece staggering down the Walworth Road clutching a handful of Clifford T Ward & Krautrock albums whilst being pursued by Francis Picabia & the Sheriff of Nottingham. Hooray! Jeff Hilson's happy project is the most exciting in contemporary British poetry."
Hilson has achieved a poetry which is both learned and unlearned, lewd and ludicrous, loud when he reads it, never laudatory. Yes, the word "ludic" hovers around here — it is a solemn and obsessive game, serious and comic, an invented ritual which engages you through its vitality and humour, and which could boast "All human life is there." What in some ways started as a formalist patterning of found language has grown into a quite lovable account of our life in language. It does you good to encounter or hear Jeff Hilson's poetry.
Peter Philpott, February 28, 2012