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Poets at the University of Leeds

Poets at Leeds

The period from 1950 to 1980 was particularly significant in terms of poets and poetry at the University of Leeds. The pioneering Gregory Fellowship scheme, inaugurated in 1950, enabled the presence of up to three artists in residence at the University; one of whom, in the view of its patron Eric Craven Gregory, should always be a poet.

In addition to the Fellows in Poetry, there were a number of student poets in the University during this period, many of whom went on to establish national and international reputations, including Tony Harrison, Ken Smith and James Simmons.

Jon Silkin studied for a degree in English Literature at the University following his tenure of the Gregory Fellowship in Poetry. There were also a number of poets amongst the University's academic staff: Geoffrey Hill perhaps being the most well known.

Hill's presence at Leeds can be seen as part of a longer tradition of writing at the University, and perhaps within the Department of English Literature in particular. The first verse anthology published through the Department of English was A Northern Venture (Leeds: Swan Press, 1923), followed in 1924 by Leeds University Verse. Contributors included Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfred Rowland Childe, Herbert Read, and J.R.R. Tolkien, amongst others.

Romana Huk, in her essay 'Poetry of the Committed Individual' (1996), has argued cogently that the poets present at the University during the period following the Second World War consistute a 'Leeds School.' This notion was also hinted at by Geoffrey Hill when the future of the Gregory Fellowships was under discussion in the late 1970s. (1) Certainly, the poets' contemporary manuscripts and correspondence would appear to reflect their shared experience and associations whilst at Leeds and later.

A major unifying factor was their indebtedness to Bonamy Dobrée, Professor of English Literature at Leeds from 1936 to 1955. He was responsible for bringing many of them to Leeds, and maintained a close interest in their careers.

Another unifying factor was Jon Silkin's little magazine Stand, which was edited from Leeds between 1960 and 1964, and remained strongly connected with the University until his death in 1997. It is now published from Leeds once again under the editorship of Jon Glover, another Leeds poet.

The inherent value of the 20th century poetry archives at Leeds, included in the Leeds Poetry 1950-1980 project, lies in their capacity to support research into the poets' lives and writing method, enriched by recognition of a degree of shared experience. The national significance of the poetry and related activities centred on Leeds is underlined by links between poets such as Peter Redgrove (Gregory Fellow in Poetry 1962-1965) and 'The Group', including Philip Hobsbaum, who encouraged workshop activities.

The Leeds Poetry collections provide an insight into the vibrant literary life of a northern city over three decades, centred on its growing red-brick university.

(1). Geoffrey Hill, Letter to E.M. Fox (2 May 1977). Leeds University Archive, Senate Planning Committee, Group on the Gregory Fellowships, Correspondence file (1974-1977).