BOOKS: The Gaffer at the bar

Another Round at the Pillars: Essays Poems and Reflections on Ian Hamilton ed David Harsent Cargo Press pounds 20

`The Cyril Connolly of our age," says Peter Porter. "The poet, editor and critic of his generation," says Blake Morrison; a "commanding presence and modest absence ... Nothing got past him least of all himself." "Ian's graceful puritanism ... the carapace of intellect protecting the soft romantic centre", adds Colin Falck. And Michael Fried breaks into verse: "Your usual dozen perfect lines / A dozen eyedropper drops of cloudless pain / which taken internally would surely kill" ("Pain").

Ian Hamilton is 60 this year, and two dozen friends and admirers have gathered between these handsome covers to look back over his semi-legendary life and times, from the young Oxford turk whipping poetry's soft underbelly to the grand old critic, essayist and biographer of today, reclining on the masthead of the LRB, scourge of Poets Laureate, poets democratic and performative, poets who breed like rabbits and scatter their verse-droppings throughout the length and breadth of this scepter'd isle, nibbling on subsidised lettuce leaves and the trickledown culture dispensed by Saatchi and Saatchi.

Editing was clearly in Hamilton's blood. The young mastermind of the Oxford Poetry Society launched an undergraduate magazine Tomorrow, which soon mutated into The Review, the best poetry journal since Eliot's Criterion, Connolly's Horizon and Grigson's New Verse. Reputations were coolly assessed or dismantled, standards promulgated, a new style of poetry encouraged, by Imagism out of confessionalism: short, sharp, painful, oblique. "The reader is offered only the intense, climactic moment of a drama - the prose part, the part which provides the background data, is left to the imagination," Hamilton wrote in 1970, when his The Visit was published. Thus the Vietnam war flickered on-screen in a corner of the living room while the real business of suffering goes on centre-stage in the protagonist's head.

Literary journalism kept him going in between the famously few tight- lipped poems. The Review was made over into the larger and glossier New Review and became required reading throughout the 1970s, publishing Ian McEwan's early stories, Hugo Williams's lapidary, hedonistic poems, and giving early encouragement to Julian Barnes, Craig Raine, Martin Amis, Clive James, Jonathan Raban, Douglas Dunn and many more. It lasted 10 glorious and controversial years, operating out of a little office in Soho's Greek Street, handily adjacent to the Pillars of Hercules, which became the office extension.

"There was ... a streetfighter element to him," says Julian Barnes. "He stared people down in pubs. He offered to go outside with them if they wanted to prove their point. Hamilton drank all day and was never seen the worse for wear. Oh, and another thing: he never paid you. He told you your stuff was marginally OK, printed it with pained regret, and then sent you a cheque which bounced." John Berryman was actually thumped, we gather, or at least brawled with, though sadly there are no details. Several contributors observe that at lunch he smoked while he ate and was working on a means of smoking while he slept. "Eating" meant rearranging the food on his plate while getting in another couple of bottles and a carton to see him through to teatime.

"I don't like to inflict retrospective damage on his reputation, but he was ... very nice to me," adds Barnes. McEwan reports the same: he was "the Gaffer ... someone whose presence and example made you write as well as you were able." Williams says: "Almost single-handedly, with his high intensity lyric poems and equally high intensity reviews, he hacked a way out of the Movement and we all followed gratefully in his tracks towards a particular kind of emotional symbolism." This was loweringly dubbed Minimalism by some. It was meant to be morally bracing both on and off the page. "If a poem isn't there you'll never find it, no matter how hard you look," Hamilton remarked later. Peter Porter likened his poems to the masts of the scuttled German Fleet at Scapa Flow.

Craig Raine, who worked for a while as The Review's books editor, comes at the matter with a gnomic anecdote. As the Gaffer turns from the bar at the Pillars, Raine asks him how his weekend went with his estranged nine-year-old son, by a previous marriage. "He could hardly speak. His eyes were spangled with tears. `Great.' My own eyes filled. Then we recovered. And that was exactly how the poems were supposed to work. The laconic lifting into lyric, tight-lipped. Vulnerable. Irresistible."

Dan Jacobson turns in the only regular piece of literary criticism, fondly illuminating the "abrupt thwarting of narrative expectations ... an act of abstemiousness or self-abnegation which helps to convey a sense of irremediable loss". Michael Hoffman, who says he collects copies of The Visit like cigarette cards, suggests, "A bit of 1910, a bit of 1960, and a bit of 1860 in the stately Matthew Arnoldesque crumble of the iambs." In less admiring quarters the poems are sometimes suspected of being all snaffle and no horse. Hamilton doesn't appear in either of the recent anthologies from Penguin and Picador, but then neither do a good many other considerable poets. Maybe the jury is still out on his brand of reticent despair. Compared with Lowell and Plath, or the young R S Thomas, Hamilton's poems stay resolutely cornered, hanging in the air with a "medicated pang". Might he have got more of his critical freebooting and biographical adventurousness into his poems?

Blake Morrison points to the oscillation in Hamilton between "two poles: self-expression and self-effacement". This is true of all writers but especially so of one who closes his lips on his own pain and opens them in derision at that of others, eg Ted Hughes, of whom he has been "wilfully unappreciative" (Morrison), or Keith Douglas, thought to be less feelingful than his contemporary Alun Lewis. Hughes was scarcely cold in his grave when Hamilton wrote recently about his "cave man" persona and the "bestial unpleasantness" of his poems. This animus, like the one against the unoffending Salinger, who only wanted to keep his personal life personal, suggests that the notoriously sardonic manner can tip over into the grudge-fights associated with lesser mortals.

There's a blokeish strain in all this - the fags and booze, the football mania, the hard talk out of one side of the mouth - and the fact that there are no female contributors to this volume will convince some that he speaks only for a generation that is passe. The case for the prosecution is not the fratricidal one that put paid to the New Review, and not the chummy 1990s one that confuses some indignant, chopped-up prose with a poem, but precisely the gods of lyric and largeness-of-soul that Hamilton would want to be judged by.

For all that his put-downs invite retaliation, however, the kindly, hard- working, hard living Ian remembered here deserves the wag of friendship that most poets' tails will give. A starry list of contributors, including Pinter, Alvarez, Karl Miller, Clive James, Douglas Dunn, John Fuller, Simon Gray and Christopher Reid, attests to his widespread influence and the affection in which he is held. Who else promises never to be dull, never to sell us short, never to forget that rules and schools are no substitute for taste and passion? The abysmal level of poetry reviewing in most papers and poetry magazines reminds us how much we miss his acerbic intelligence. As the pillars fall down round our ears yet again we hope that a new voice is out there somewhere, training herself up on lyric and standards as uncompromising as his.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected