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
Sunday 18 April 1999
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.
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