The Trouble with Poetry
Collected Poems, Ian Hamilton, edited by Alan Jenkins, Faber and Faber, 160pp, £14.99 (paperback)
The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, edited by Ian Hamilton and Jeremy Noel-Tod, Oxford University Press, 705 pp, £40 (hardback)
The late Ian Hamilton was a famously tough critic, accomplished biographer, stringent editor and severe lyric poet. Hamilton has also been comprehensively mythologised as a literary hard man of 1970s Soho; a womanizing, Bogartian figure; a hard-drinking, chain-smoking hatchet man, striking his blue pencil through the MS of quaking, soon-to-be famous acolytes. As recalled in a recent elegy by Douglas Dunn, Hamilton was ‘Part-Al Pacino and part-Matthew Arnold.’ But as the myth dissolves, what will surely remain will be his sparkling literary criticism and high-intensity, scrupulously crafted poems. Editor of first The Review and the later and plushier The New Review, Hamilton was a self-proclaimed believer in the ‘miraculous’ school of verse, maintaining the poetic muse was an extremely rare bird. His poems are therefore notably small in number and short in scale. A rigorous self-censor, Hamilton reduced the lyrical impulse to its emotional core. The Visit (1970), his only stand alone collection, was almost grudgingly supplemented all of eighteen years later by Fifty Poems (1988), followed a decade on by Sixty Poems (1998). But as admirers like fellow poet Michael Hofmann would argue, ‘Hamilton’s slender oeuvre is worth others ten times as bulky.’ His early poems circle obsessively around two main subjects – the death of his father, when Hamilton was thirteen (The Visit’s original title was Father and Son), and a wife’s mental illness. While his subject matter would become slightly more capacious with time, Hamilton’s poetic beam remained narrow and unflinching.
Although an avowed enemy of the confessional literary mode, Hamilton’s poems flirt with a kind of thin-skinned sentimentality in their pursuit of emotional truth. But unlike Robert Lowell, the subject of his acclaimed 1982 biography, Hamilton, is careful to avoid revealing specific details about the addressees of his poems, which are biographically reticent, often to the point of obliquity, even when most emotionally charged, as in ‘The Recruits’:
You shudder as the silence darkens, till
It’s perfect night in you. And then you scream.
In his illuminating interview with novelist and close friend Dan Jacobson (published by Between the Lines in 2002), Hamilton defined his tactful poetic modus operandi: ‘I am creating the dramatic illusion of speaking as if to that one person alone… the addressee is non-specific, the reader doesn’t need to know much about the person, even though the poem is framed as if addressed to her.’ But Hamilton suggests the poems are also about ‘something else,’ adding: ‘They are poems about loss, about transience, disappointed hopes, if you like, about protectiveness, the wish to alter something that cannot be altered, they’re about the conditions of an entire life experienced in this local and precise way.’ A critic of the so-called ‘democratisation’ of poetry through strategies such as the creative writing workshop, Poems on the Underground, poetry slams and the like, Hamilton maintained a belief in the purity of verse as an undiluted art form. As he explained to Gregory LeStage in Poetry Review (Winter 1997/98): ‘Difficult complex poetry has become a minority art. There are still things in the best poems that cannot be found in any other form of literary expression. And it’s those things which are to do with the shapes and sounds of true poetry. They are to do with concentration and a strange combination of intense feeling and icily controlled craftsmanship. These are the kinds of things that excite me in poems – when I find them.’
As several critics have observed, Hamilton’s poems appear to give the reader a moral ‘permission’ to eavesdrop on a moment of emotional intensity or great familial sadness:
Your fingers, wisps of blanket hair,
Caught in their nails, extend to touch
The bedside roses flaking in the heat
White petals fall.
A wife’s mental illness, and a husband’s subsequent sense of powerlessness, almost becomes a metaphor for universal human suffering:
The world encircles us. We’re losing ground.
Hamilton the poet – or at least the frequent protagonist of many of his early poems – is often cast in the role of impotent carer, looking on in anguish as first a father and then a wife slips out of his his life and personal control. Hamilton’s versification, predominantly iambic, can be seen as an attempt to impose some kind of order on emotional distress. As Christopher Reid wrote in his review of the original hardback edition of Hamilton’s Collected Poems (TLS, June 5, 2009): ‘Care for a suffering person and care for the niceties of versification are not, in truth, the same thing, but it seems that Hamilton wanted to make them so in his poems.’
Although Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) proved an early inspiration, Hamilton was later appalled by the American poet’s literary incontinence, as he populated his vinal volumes with dozens of unrhymed sonnets, while utilising private letters from his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, as poetic raw material. Lowell’s later work went against what Hamilton told Dan Jacobson were his ‘sculptural instincts’; his former literary hero seemed to have replaced lyrical shape with ‘his messiness, his willingness to sprawl and and sprawl.’ In fact, Hamilton’s definition of literary excellence was so severe that he admitted only ‘loving passionately about six poems in Life Studies.’ This can make even the most devoted readers question Hamilton’s unwillingness
to admit human specificity into his poems, which can be compressed to the point of lyrical obscurity. Fellow poet and friend John Fuller has defined this as ‘the starkly reduced lyric form favoured by Hamilton,’ while Peter Porter once compared Hamilton’s more gnomic lyrics to the flags of the German fleet at Scapa Flow. The reader has to enter an almost secretive contract with the poet, trusting Hamilton’s lyrical instincts to deliver, as in ‘Curfew,’ which even in its entirety only offers the submerged meaning of Porter’s flags at Scapa Flow:
And our silent house is listening
To the last sounds of people going home.
We lie beside our curtained window
What makes them do it.
In a sensitive reading of Hamilton’s extreme poetic reticence, demonstrated throughout his Collected Poems (Poetry London, Autumn 2009, No.64), Peter Robinson thought this steely self-control and regard for the suffering other meant that ‘the third point of the poetic triangle, the reader, suffers an acute undernourishment.’ Lack of detail, particularly about the sources of grief and human distress, Robinson argues, often denies the reader access to the heart of the poems: ‘Hamilton’s critical injunctions, motivated by the best and highest of moral-aesthetic reasons, are more or less ruling out the possibility both of art’s invitation and its the benefit to others.’ Hamilton in conversation, once revised Lowell’s famous dictum – ‘Yet why not say what happened?’ to ‘You want to say what happened, but not necessarily who it happened to.’ Even Alan Jenkins, in his illuminating introduction to the Collected Poems, notes that ‘Hamilton’s concern for the subject’s right to privacy makes for a poetry that is, for all its indebtedness to Lowell and other American exemplars, not just self-effacing but self-denying.’ Hamilton, of course, was acutely aware of the limitations of his severe lyrical instincts and the lack of ‘worldliness’ in his poems, admitting in his rueful preface to his Fifty Poems how he ‘used to crave expansiveness and bulk,’ but would inevitably admit defeat and return to his purer poetic instincts, asking, ‘Why push and strain?’ But despite his trademark lyrical severity, Hamilton did allow his often tongue-tied muse some slack in middle-period poems such as ‘Larkinesque’ and ‘The Forties.’ Unusually, the former poem even makes it to a second page. Apart from its title acknowledging the Hermit of Hull, the divorce court ambience of ‘Larkinesque’ also reflects a wry exchange in the older poet’s ‘Dockery and Son.’ Even more unusually, the poem’s final stanza seems to offer a wry auto-critique of Hamilton’s early poetic intensity:
As it is,
The morning sun, far from ‘unhindered,’ animates
The hands I used to write about with ‘lyric force.’
Now clutching a slim volume of dead writs.
Could we also take the final line as a corrosive piece of literary self-criticism? Whatever, such worldliness proved a temporary respite from Hamilton’s trademark lyrical intensity.
In his last poems, including those collected in his final pamphlet, Steps (1997), Hamilton returned to the sorrowing mode of his earliest work, but in lyrics tempered with an almost tangible sense of foreboding. Speaking to Dan Jacobson, just months before his death from cancer, on December 27, 2001, aged 63, Hamilton attempted to define his later poems: ‘They’re strange. They have a different atmosphere and are more otherworldly, in a curious way. As one has perhaps become. They are poems of later life. I could not have written them earlier. They maybe don’t have the urgency and tightness of the earlier work … well, precariousness is the feeling those poems seem to turn on. And yes, the feeling that it’s all coming to an end.’ This sense of precariousness is memorably captured in Almost Nothing, first published in the London Review of Books eight months before Hamilton’s death:
It doesn’t hurt but it belongs to me.
What do we call it then,
This something in the air, this atmosphere,
Borrowing heavily from the start of an 1844 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson called ‘Experience,’ the title poem of Steps depicts life as ‘a kind of stair,’ with the protagonist stranded in a metaphysical no-man’s-land, only to finally experience ‘this lethargy at noon/This interfered-with air.’ (Hamilton also told Jacobson it could be read ‘as a kind of cultural lament.’) Similarly, the literary shadow of Henry James falls across the page in ‘Biography,’ specifically James’ story, ‘The Middle Years,’ published in 1893, about a dying novelist longing for more time to pursue his creativity. Hamilton may have drawn much of this literary background from his research for his book, Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, published in 1992. In fact, several of Hamilton’s later poems have literary links, including ‘Dream Song,’ a direct reference to John Berryman’s extended poetic sequence, The Dream Songs, and ‘Resolve,’ with its echoes of A. E. Housman’s Last Poems. But the later poems are also distinguished by a quasi-religious or spiritual quality. Jacobson told Hamilton in their book-length interview that some of the last poems ‘suggest that you are speaking to God, a God who probably doesn’t exist and who wouldn’t answer anyway, about the mysteriousness of the place you’ve found yourself in; of what the place has shown itself to be.’ Hamilton chooses not to take up this line of inquiry, instead stressing a sense of personal ‘vulnerability,’ before, ominously, adding: ‘There’s a feeling of disaster in the air, which I now know I have felt for a long time.’
Typically, Ian Hamilton’s entry in his original 1994 edition of The OxfordCompanion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English ran to precisely three curt paragraphs, stating his date and place of birth, education, editorship of The Review and The New Review and his publication history. Calling his first edition a ‘map of modern poetry in English,’ Hamilton worked on the volume for five years. Almost twenty years on, academic and critic Jeremy Noel-Tod has expanded the original poetry reference book and granted his late co-editor a full page entry penned by himself, Neil Powell and Pierre Maldive, defining Hamilton as a ‘famously glacial poet,’ who produced a ‘spare oeuvre of measured reflections.’ The book has been rejigged to reflect the changed and changing poetic landscape with far more women and avant-garde poets represented and less emphasis on Hamilton’s focus on the creative ‘conversation’ between British and American poets. Some high profile entries - such as Seamus Heaney on Robert Lowell and Tom Paulin on Ted Hughes – remain, but the book’s scope is now geographically wider, taking in far more poets from countries such as South Africa, India, Australia and Canada. Online links are also available via a dedicated companion website. Omissions this time include Stephen Crane, Oscar Wilde’s lover, Alfred Douglas, and poet Mark Ford’s original entry on Bob Dylan. But as Adam Newey noted in his Guardian review of the updated edition, it ‘remains Hamilton’s book, retaining many of the acerbic judgements and off-piste observations that make it such a pleasure.’ Hamilton’s edition reflected his own, often rigid criteria of literary rights and wrongs, typically giving a hard time to experimental verse, Adrian Mitchell and the Liverpool poets (categorising them as the ‘enemies.’) Given his strong allegiances to Lowell, Hamilton’s introduction – much longer than Noel-Tod’s – wrestled with the literary divide between Britain and the USA. Hamilton also mused on the question of literary longevity, a theme he would explore at greater length in his posthumous, Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets (2002). But ultimately, Hamilton considered his 1994 guide ‘a kind of documentary-entertainment,’ rather than a critical anthology, adding ‘I will not mind at all if it is read for fun.’ More than a dozen years since his death, Ian Hamilton’s Collected Poems and revamped verse companion suggest his uncompromising literary spirit is still very much alive.