No 2 - 1974
The Varsity Match
A Poetry Chronicle, Essays and Reviews by Ian Hamilton. Faber £2.95
White-shield Worthington was still
Around and we’d got time to kill
(Pages were harder than beer-mugs to fill.)
We broke the tape
Playing bar-billiards until
The thing took shape.
THUS JOHN FULLER, in January 1973, recalling how perhaps ten years earlier he and Ian Hamilton, with presumably one or two others, prepared themselves for the assault on literary England that was subsequently carried through in the pages of Hamilton’s magazine The Review. Ten or twelve or perhaps fifteen years before, those same Oxford pubs where Fuller and Hamilton drank Worthington, had seen John Wain and Kingsley Amis, with presumably one or two others (Wallace Robson? Arthur Boyars ? sometimes Philip Larkin?), preparing for the assault that, by way of Wain’s radio programme New Soundings, established itself as ‘the Movement’, recorded in Robert Conquest’s anthology New Lines and George Hartley’s magazine Listen. Ten or so years before that the plotters in the pubs were Sidney Keyes and Drummond Allison; ten years earlier still, they were Wystan Auden and Stephen Spender; and ten or so years after John Fuller and Ian Hamilton they were, I suppose, Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop and Gareth Reeves.
I may be wrong about some of the details, for I was not present on any of these occasions. But the general picture is surely accurate; for the last fifty years each new generation of English poets, as the ‘generations’ were subsequently to be understood and talked about by journalistic commentators, was formed or fomented or dreamed up by lively undergraduates at Oxford, who subsequently carried the group-image to London and from there imposed it on the public consciousness so as to earn at least a footnote in the literary histories.
Earlier than any of these, and a more massively successful take-over bid than any of them, had been one that originated not in Oxford but Cambridge — the famous and all too abundantly documented Bloomsbury Group. This assault however had been on an altogether wider front, and was not exclusively nor even mainly a literary movernent; in particular it lost its predestined poet when Rupert Brooke died in 1915, and subsequently the best it could do was to co-opt, never very securely, the Oxonian American T. S. Eliot. At any rate, ever since that Cambridge take-over in the 1920s, every new putsch has come from Oxford and has picked up its Cambridge recruits (Christopher Isherwood in one generation, Thorn Gunn in another) only afterwards, and incidentally.
But (it may be said) are there no universities and university-towns in England apart from these two? There are; Poetry Nation is edited from one of them, as Critical Quarterly is from another, as Jon Silkin’s Stand from another. And the literary life of England would be in a healthier state if we had to allow for the possibility that at this moment two or three literary-minded students in Manchester, two or three more in Newcastle, two or three more in the University of East Anglia, were planning a take-over of literary London such as has been planned in Oxford time and again, and carried through from there successfully. But there is no recorded instance of such a putsch from any redbrick university, nor any reason to think that things have changed so as to make one likely; and as for the new universities of the 1960s, some of us who were involved in setting them up dared to hope that indeed they might break the Oxbridge stranglehold on our literary life — a hope very quickly dashed as one after another of them showed that their interests lay quite elsewhere, in the sub-politics of self-righteous confrontation.
However that may be, and wherever the assault may be planned, the objective has to be London. William Webb has for many years worked wonders with the Book Page of the Guardian, as a literary forum, which, though edited from the provinces, is not provincial in taste. But that is the only weekly or even monthly publication of which one can say as much; every other publication in which a literary reputation can be made or unmade emanates from London. And we all know which these influential organs are — the merest handful: The Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, the Listener, the London Magazine, the Observer; together with, much more dubiously, the Spectator, Encounter, the Sunday Times. Precisely because the positions that matter are so few, it is entirely feasible for a group to secure one or two sub-editorial chairs and a few reviewing ‘spots’, so as to impose their shared proclivities and opinions as the reigning orthodoxy for a decade. It is altogether fatuous to cry out at this as scandalous; it is inevitable, given the smallness of England, and the economic advantages of metropolitan centralisation. Quite simply, these are the facts that have to be borne in mind by any one who, like Ian Hamilton ten or twelve years ago, wants to affect the level or the direction of the nation’s literary taste. From a careerist’s point of view the magazine by which the group identifies itself before the public — in Hamilton’s case, The Review — is only a means to an end; in its pages, as in the debating-chamber of the Oxford or the Cambridge Union, the young critics put on their sparkling performances so as to be noticed by those who dispense the metropolitan plums. How successful Ian Hamilton was can be seen by checking how many of the names that now turn up regularly in the journals listed above, first appeared in the pages of The Review.
John Fuller, in his gay and engaging poem, ‘To Ian Hamilton’, made no bones about the fact that he was celebrating a success-story:
The Fat Men quivered at your glance,
Careers destroyed by your advance.
Still you are wooed at every chance
Like an heiress . . .
And indeed Fuller’s 144 lines of skilful light verse were themselves part of a ceremonial triumph. For his poem, when published in the Listener for 25 January last, was followed by a review of the tenth anniversary issue of The Review, and of fifteen ‘essays and reviews’ by Ian Hamilton assembled into a slim volume under the title, A Poetry Chronicle; and the whole act of homage was high lighted on the cover of that issue of the Listener under the rubric, ‘The Critic as Hero’. Nor was the Listener alone. A ground-swell of enthusiastic applause for The Review, and for Hamilton as its guiding intelligence, had been gathering for several years; and indeed for that very tenth anniversary issue of The Review, the editor had issued a questionnaire asking poets and pundits to identify hopeful developments in English poetry through the 1960s, thus inviting flattering tributes which came gratifyingly to hand. A success-story indeed! No critic’s first book of criticism (or rather, more strikingly and more precisely, no reviewer’s first assemblage of reprinted reviews) could have been received with more respect and attention than Hamilton’s A Poetry Chronicle.
Good luck to him, therefore! Such success is not achieved without skill and patience (nor, I’m glad to say, without talent — but we’ll come to that). In particular, even when the competition in any generation is by curious tacit consent limited to the University of Oxford, there is sure to be competition: two or three other young men, in the same Oxford pubs at different times, are sure to be hatching their plans even as you and your chums hatch yours. In Hamilton’s case the competitors were William Cookson and Peter Dale (with a few others no doubt) who were hatching their Agenda before ever Hamilton and John Fuller and their friends, having tried and failed with a magazine called Tomorrow, began to work out the shape of The Review. Though Cookson was never (as it turned out) in the race for the metropolitan plums, his Agenda remains, for The Review, its worrying rival; as it was, John Fuller informs us, from the first:
At least ten years ago there were no
Worse than those who, sipping Pernod,
In Lallans ruined the Inferno
With tips from Pound.
Like many another of Fuller’s sprightly stanzas, this one is written in a sort of code; but one does not have to be much of an initiate to decode this one. Agenda, defiantly and indeed with wearisome predictability devoted to the programmes of Ezra Pound, and calling notably often on Hugh MacDiarmid and Tom Scott as contributors, committed on sound Poundian principles to not seeing poetry in English in isolation from poetry in other tongues (hence, ‘sipping Pernod’ — though in fact Agenda’s foreign connections are more often Italian than French), remains to rival The Review long after it has been decisively outstripped in worldly terms. It remains the flea in Ian Hamilton’s ear because William Cookson’s historical perspective is longer than his — reaching back to the founding fathers of ‘the modern movement’, and loyal (now that Pound is dead) to such lonely survivors as MacDiarmid and David Jones. By contrast, Ian Hamilton’s historical imagination reaches back no further than 1930; and his one attempt to account for an earlier monument, his essay on Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’, has seemed — even to a sympathetic reader like his Listener reviewer, Alasdair Maclean — to be somehow missing the point.
In this foreshortening of the historical perspective Hamilton was following the precepts of one who for a long time seemed to be the mentor or avuncular presence behind The Review: A. Alvarez. The first issue of The Review featured (that seems to be the appropriate word) an unscripted dialogue between Alvarez and myself — an item which I am resigned to seeing described as ‘famous’ or ‘sparkling’ or ‘memorable’, though it was a notably unconsidered performance both on Alvarez’s part and on mine. Like nearly everything else that ever appeared in The Review, it has been made to do double duty, and is readily available in a selection reprinted from the early issues of the magazine, entitled The Modern Poet. Accordingly, I am not going to give my impressions of it, beyond remarking that at one point I was trying to make us take our bearings from at least as far back as the generation of Pound and Eliot, and Alvarez was responding that that was all a long time ago and much water had flowed under the bridges since. Specifically, Alvarez tried (and failed) to get me to admit that Robert Lowell’s translations were thoroughly in line with Pound’s, and better; that, for practical purposes (so I interpret him), a study of Lowell would do as much for English poets of the 1960s as a study of Pound might have done. Ian Hamilton learned this lesson, and through most of the years of The Review Lowell was the standard by which other poets, British or American, were measured and found for the most part wanting. The first piece in A Poetry Chronicle, a review from 1965 of Lowell’s For the Union Dead, puts the case as firmly as possible:
There is no other poet writing at the moment who can match the dense visual accuracy of Lowell’s best work; his concentration is insistently upon ‘the stabbing detail’, his intense demand is always for ‘the universal that belonged to this detail and nowhere else’ — nothing is inertly factual, nothing is neurotically corrupted; there is fever but no delirium. By an immensely subtle process of reverberation, his images seem to seek each other out, not to be wise so much as to be confirmed in tragedy, and they are interpenetrated in a structure tight enough to encompass their full range of connotation without any loss of urgency.
Hamilton has since condemned the Lowell who wrote Notebook — ’just rich enough to keep reminding us of what is being wasted’. He has not, so far as I know, committed himself to any opinion of the three interconnected Lowell collections published this year: History, For Lizzie and Harriet, The Dolphin.* Those who have read the devastatingly hostile review of these last in The London Magazine, a review by Geoffrey Grigson (whom The Review has in the past treated with great respect), will be agog to know Ian Hamilton’s opinion of these volumes, particularly as they seem to represent no new development on Lowell’s part but only a pushing further of the principles and practices that Hamilton found so admirable in For the Union Dead. I return to ‘the Varsity match’, to Oxford’s unbroken series of uncontested victories, to the match that will surely go down in history as ‘Hamilton’s’, and so necessarily to the shorter historical perspective in which such parochial triumphs can figure large. Though plenty of people, especially self-congratulating Cambridge purists, envy Ian Hamilton his triumph, none of us has the right to do so: the rules and conditions of the game being as I have described them, he played the game more adroitly and patiently than his rivals, and so he has emerged as victor ludorum. Fair enough. One thing however we can ask of him: since his own career is best described (admittedly with some comic disproportion) in terms of putsch and brand-image and take-over bid, he ought not to use such terms with pejorative intent in describing the activities of others. Yet this is precisely what he does in a piece called ‘The Making of the Movement’ which, originally a brisk and accurate piece of journalism for a short-lived series of revaluations in the New Statesman, has already been reprinted once (in the Carcanet Press British Poetry since 1960) before re-appearing in A Poetry Chronicle, and may, for all I know, have enjoyed yet other leases of life in the U.S. or Australia or somewhere else in the English-speaking world.** Here, following a lead given by one of the Movementeers (as he acknowledges, though something less than handsomely), Hamilton decides, of the 1950s ‘Movement’: ‘it was a takeover bid and it brilliantly succeeded’. So it was, and so it did. What else was The Review? And what else, what more, has it done?
After all one thing the Movement did was to hoist into prominence, and keep there, the poems of Philip Larkin. And Hamilton is content to be orthodox in admiring Larkin with very few reservations — in this, it is only fair to say, differing from Alvarez. It may be thought that in the 50s Larkin didn’t need group-support; that he could have won his wide audience and his by now almost institutional status, unaided, on his own merits. One cannot prove this, nor disprove it. But the fact is that The Less Deceived was published not by Faber but by that institution of the Movement, George Hartley’s Marvell Press. And it is worth putting it on record that a version of that collection had earlier been rejected, by the Dolmen Press in Dublin. (The Irishmen who turned it down, Liam Miller, Sean White, Tom Kinsella, rejected Larkin for the same reason presumably as the Scotsman Tom Scott rejects him now — see Scott’s letter in the Listener, 19th April 1978. Larkin’s English admirers do not recognise how non-exportable he is, even within the British Isles.) In any case, whether or not Larkin needed support, he certainly got it — from Robert Conquest, George Hartley, John Wain. And what comparable collection has The Review group banded together to promote? The only possible candidate is Hamilton’s own book of poems, The Visit, of which sure enough one of his Review team, Michael Fried, wrote that ‘It is impossible to imagine a poetry more naked in its means or more lyrical in its essence. The Visit is a magnificent book, on a level with Life Studies, Ariel and The Far Field, and perhaps more exemplary than any of them.’ And certainly The Visit was acclaimed not much less fervently than A Poetry Chronicle was to be. (The T.L.S. said that it ‘marks an epoch’.) But there are no signs that it has found and held a following, as The Less Deceived did.
One of the most striking things about The Review, as a poetry magazine, is how little poetry it has printed. As I have suggested, its purpose was not to promote poets, but to promote critics, or rather, reviewers. Nevertheless in each issue the poems performed a crucial function; that they be few, and those few short, was very important. For this reinforced the harsh tone of the reviewing so as to create the illusion of critical rigour, of severe standards. The illusionism succeeded, and Ian Hamilton is now a by-word for severity. For ‘grudging’ read ‘exacting’, for ‘narrow’ read ‘rigorous’, for ‘impatient’ read ‘fearless’, and for ‘hasty’, ‘urgent’. This too is a Varsity Match; Oxford’s insouciance matched with Cambridge rancour, out of the defunct Scrutiny. The match was first made by Alvarez, when he reviewed poetry for the Observer; Hamilton learned it, and perfected it. In Alvarez and Hamilton alike, what emotional reality there is behind the effectively contrived posture is mostly impatience. ‘One has to bear with ...’, ‘one gets slightly weary of . . .’ — these phrases (used of a poet whom in the end Hamilton grudgingly approves) are typical. I WANT IT NOW, a title from Kingsley Amis, is the motto that should stand at the head of Ian Hamilton’s criticism, as of Alvarez’s; they are the spokesmen for what, in Pound’s words, ‘The Age Demanded’:
The ‘age demanded’ chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the ‘sculpture’ of rhyme.
These are harsh words; to justify them, let readers compare, towards the end of A Poetry Chronicle, Hamilton’s review of John Fuller’s The Tree That Walked (old obligations have to be discharged!) with his review of MacDiarmid’s Collected Poems. Or consider his irritated restiveness when confronted with Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs.
If literary London needs, for several years at a stretch, an arbiter of poetic taste (and apparently it does — once the arbiter was G. S. Fraser, then it was Alvarez, then it was Hamilton), could we have done worse, these last years, than have Ian Hamilton to put up with?Indeed we could; much worse. What is too seldom realised is that the prizes of this position are after all puffing — certainly in monetary terms, and even in terms of power. Who cares about poetry after all? Precious few. And this means that the people who scheme for this eminence, and in lucky cases get it, are after all men of principle; compromise as they must and do, still the motive behind their manoeuvres is a concern for poetry — that is to say, for what they understand as poetry, for that sort of poetry which they can respond to. To see the quagmire from which Fraser and Alvarez and Hamilton have lifted us, each in his turn, one need only look at the hapless young man in the Sunday Times who, entrusted with a poetry roundup every few weeks, finds each one of ten assorted poetry books a work of curious genius or great talent. There was a time (I can just remember it) when that sort of lax and beaming bonhomie was the order of the day; the hastiest and most wrongheaded discrimination is better than that, better than not discriminating at all.
But Hamilton in any case has talent, has courage, has integrity — though only Fuller perhaps would hail him as ‘Most incorruptible of men’. He has other virtues. He is young enough to grow, and for good or ill to change his mind. He must have had an open or half-open mind about the Black Mountain poets when he got Charles Tomlinson to guest-edit a special issue on them; now he is implacable about them. Accordingly The Review is not monolithic first and last: A Poetry Chronicle includes a very hostile essay on Empson’s poetry which is interestingly at variance with a special issue of The Review devoted to Empson, in which that least co-operative of interviewees hilariously frustrated the attempts of Christopher Ricks, his interviewer, to crown him with ceremonial laurel. And there are other instances of difference of opinion or change of opinion; differences and changes reflected sometimes in changes of personnel — Ricks and Gabriel Pearson and (most notably) Martin Dodsworth are ex-contributors whose possession of longer historical perspectives than Hamilton’s seems to have made them quit his team. At any rate Hamilton is capable of learning from experience, and changing his mind.
He has another virtue which, though negative, is still welcome: he appears to have no political axe to grind. ‘Do you . . . sit?’ Thus I remember did A. Alvarez interrogate, with sudden access of gravity, Ian Hamilton and his companion when, in St. Pancras station, we all sat at lunch before proceeding to tape the far-famed dialogue between Alvarez and me. Already, I dare say, the question is indecipherable: it had to do with C.N.D., the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and with its ‘militant’ wing, Bertrand Russell’s Committee of 100, citizens who not only marched and shouted but defiantly sat down in the roadway at demonstrations, and gallantly forced the coppers to pull them out of the way. (I did not march, and wasn’t even a member of C.N.D.; but, characteristically, no one asked.) As I recall, Hamilton and his friend replied with modest blushes that yes, sit was what they did. And that, I have always supposed, defined the political stance of The Review: left of centre, with a yawning opening towards the further Left; prepared to participate in the sub-politics of ‘confrontation’, but without much heart for it. If I am right, this interfered with Ian Hamilton’s criticism hardly at all; an excessive indignation at Eliot’s intellectual and social snobbery is the only sign of it that I can see in A Poetry Chronicle. Other contributors to The Review were not so circumspect: and in another place, for instance, I have remarked upon the alarming political guilelessness of Colin Falck.
Finally, Ian Hamilton can tell a hawk from a handsaw, when he allows himself time and space to do the job properly. Thus the best thing in A Poetry Chronicle is the longest item in it, a rambling essay, ‘The Forties’, in which he worries painstakingly about just what can be claimed for temporarily forgotten poets of the Second World War, like Alun Lewis, Julian Symons, Bernard Gutteridge.
When all is said and done, however, one is left wondering at the parochial self-regard which has somehow elevated The Review, a slim magazine at best, which seldom rewarded its subscribers with an issue according to the promised schedule, as a notable achievement of literary Britain in the 1960s. From any non-insular standpoint, Agenda, so much less vivacious and entertaining, has an infinitely better record. We really are a small nation, aren’t we? And the Varsity Match won’t soon be expunged from our social calendar.
* I am told that Hamilton has committed himself on the latest Lowell collections, arguing that taken together they represent a recovery from Notebook.
** It was, just to complicate matters, singled out in Agenda (by David Harsent) as having ‘obvious (and immensely welcome) virtues’.
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