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Peter Dale

College Daze **

Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems, & Reflections on Ian Hamilton     At sixty it’s with trepidation that you contemplate any writing involving memory of events distant in time, ironically in this case, the Sixties. Long ago I decided to keep diaries only for appointments and the odd donné. I’ve little means of verification, even of dates, because, thinking my memory reliable then, I didn’t name or even enter every appointment. Now I doubt that accurate recall is possible. Trepidation is increased by finding that whenever Ian and I reminisce we frequently meet blank looks from each other over specific recollections. And finally, there is the danger of retaliation from your victim with superior memory power and or better records, especially those of a skilled biographer over those of a translator -- occupations neither of us envisaged then.

     Unsurprisingly I first met Ian in connection with the University Poetry Society. We were both in the last generation, after deferment, of those who were obliged to do national service. (It is his face I remember expressing shock at seeing some freshmen, straight from school, playing tag in the High.) He’d been trained as a teleprinter operator, I think, hence his skill as a typist and, presumably, the dogged clinging to his manual typewriter. Two-fingered cack-handers like me were happy enough to go for erasureless print-outs, the avoidance of retyping, the inevitable correcting-fluid and marginal additions. Ian was a year ahead at university. I did hospital, instead of military, service and since my college place was delayed two years I’d decided to go up early and work at the Radcliffe Infirmary.

     In those pre-college days I gate-crashed some of the Poetry Society meetings and came across Ian who seemed already to have something of a critical influence over some of the budding bards, partly because he edited his own magazine, Tomorrow. Robert Coleman Williams, Ian McLachlan, Stanley Golightly -- already published in the London Magazine -- and Clive Jordan were other names I remember. And another Ian, later Yann, Lovelock, my fellow Radcliffian and gate-crasher, whom Robert Coleman Williams once invited outside to be thumped over some vital issue of poetic quality. Anyway, he went Beat of his own accord. But without his neck I wouldn’t have intruded, then diffident and shy to the point when it could seem to others like distance or arrogance.

     My first college memory of Ian was of the Freshmen’s Fair at which the Poetry Society used to try to fund itself for the year by drumming up members like mad who dropped out just as madly -- or, probably, sanely. Over the public-address system, to attract would-be punters, he read Anthony Hecht’s ‘The Vow’ with repressed, passionate conviction. This was hardly noticed. With some fury he announced he would read it backwards because nobody ever listens. And he did.

     We were also linked by our connections with Oscar Mellor, painter, photographer, printer-publisher of the Fantasy Press, and -- mysteriously, without university connexion -- sort of de facto overseer of the Poetry Society. Ian lodged at Oscar’s, I think, for a time. I remember a somewhat shaken Ian telling how he had stepped out on to the landing the moment that the ceiling of the room had caved in and smashed the typewriter. Ian’s relations with Oscar -- as with relations between most poetry-magazine editors and their printers -- became somewhat strained. A projected Fantasy pamphlet of Ian’s may have faltered more over Ian’s perfectionism and unwillingness to publish than anything else. I suspect I was to some extent the unwitting beneficiary since Oscar sprang the chance of a pamphlet on me, presumably to fill the gap. But the manly Coleman Williams was Oscar’s favourite poet.

     Oxford’s regulations were a bore: gowns, gate-fines, battels -- the number of meat-pies you had to eat to graduate -- a year’s college residence, segregation of women, exeats to leave town in term, permissions for residence in vacs. Disregard for the last nearly got me sent down but that’s another story. Marriage was discouraged by the reluctance of the authorities to award grants to married students. Some of us found their reluctance a handy reason for delay. Anyway, you made other arrangements as Ian and Gisela did. Pauline, my girl-friend, lived at Sandford. With money in short supply, since our town rooms had to be kept on, we both stayed up in the vacs. The girls worked locally and I worked shifts at the Radcliffe. What Ian did I forget but I don’t think he took a job, at least never for long. Given the complications of life, including the three-mile cycle ride to Sandford, it was surprising how often Ian and I managed to meet.

     At the time of the Cuban crisis a Trotskyite friend of Ian’s, renting the room next door to him in 99 Woodstock Road, rushed off in Spanish War style to defend Cuba. Ian suggested that I take the vacated room. His poem ‘The Recruits’ was a reaction to the crisis.

     I remember being surprised to see a vase of flowers in Ian’s room and was told that Gisela had put it there to brighten the place up. This showed a gentler aspect to Ian which I should have noticed by then but had not. It rather shook me because Pauline would not have risked trying such a thing in my room. It would have been a concession to ‘poeticism’ and the vase would anyway probably have ended up being accidentally spilt. Ian’s vase showed a naïve would-be sophisticate that it was possible to be a modern poet and like a flower or two.

     Sadly,Woodstock Road brings memories of Jon Silkin who died as I was preparing this piece. He used to come up to sell Stand by main force about the university and stacks of the magazine gathered on the landing outside our rooms. Mrs Rose, our landlady -- who would not accommodate girl-students because they were untidy -- was always complaining of these piles and being reassured that Jon was coming to remove them. One morning I heard this complaint being uttered on the landing and opened my door in time to see Ian fling his wide to reveal Jon. Five-foot one, he fitted Ian’s sofa comfortably and had slept through the racket until this moment. Needless to say the piles of magazines hardly diminished. Ian informed me that to save time it had been decided to boil the eggs in the electric kettle and make the coffee or tea from the same water -- which perhaps showed an unusually practical side to his nature and is one of the few known examples of Ian ever cooking. As for his practicality in other directions, I’m still always surprised by ‘The trellis that needs fixing, that I’ll fix.’

     An impractical side was revealed one morning when I encountered him on the landing with half a small loaf of stale bread in his hand which he had put out on his window-sill facing the back from which the five other gardens mentioned in ‘The Recruits’, could be seen. ‘The buggers haven’t eaten a bit.’ It didn’t seem to have occurred to him to crumble it for the birds.

     But 99 can’t have been an easy place for Ian in his final year. The house was full of mainly second-year students making hay. There was, unusually, a lesbian Trinitarian theology student smuggled in by the near-alcoholic David Hamill in the cell-like basement room. Alex Cockburn was on the first floor -- visited by Jane of the generally acclaimed legs; opposite, Steven Itscovitz, researcher into lasers and David’s drinking partner. On the ground floor was Clive Jordan, also in Ian’s year, who wrote reviews for Tomorrow and Agenda. On occasion when all the women showed up the house must have rocked. And there was the usual student night-time typing of last-minute essays. -- And speaking of nights, Ian regretted that you couldn’t smoke while sleeping. Apparently he’s now nearly mastered that art. To crown it all, Ian had a bout of flu during finals.

     Unfortunately, though, my room, the largest and emptiest, was often the common-room. I got a better lock in the end, having set fire to the carpet with the electric fire in the struggle to eject a would-be habitué. The fire reminds me that once Ian set the back of his trouser legs smouldering by standing too close to his own fire.

     The first editorial address of The Review was here at 99 and the piles of The Review remained beside Stand long after Ian moved out late in 1962 to Beechcroft Road. Having submitted a poem to Alan Ross at The London Magazine I received a rather bemused rejection letter from him mentioning that there was another poet at the same address and did I know him? He seemed to doubt there could be two of us in one place.

     A Beechcroft memory was of arriving one afternoon to be encountered by Ian’s benign bewilderment and puzzled amusement at a stray dog they appeared to have acquired by the dog’s choice. Yeats, it’s recorded, moved Pound up in his crazy zodiacal system, having discovered him feeding the stray cats of Rome. Jon Silkin, of the peaceable kingdom, somewhat surprisingly found the dog less easy to take. On our leaving, Jon from the street gave the beatitudinous, raised flat-palm farewell, endemic in the Sixties, and Gisela, grinning on the step behind Ian, without his being aware, gave a solemn parody in reply.

     In my final year we met when we could but, amid the varied pressures, I was anxious not to plough my finals since a good degree would be, I thought, the likeliest route towards time to write. Roy Fuller has a couplet in ‘Chinoiserie’: ‘I’ve tried to take care that being a poet /Didn’t get in the way of my making a living.’ But Ian’s and my worries were the other way round. He, too, was having a hectic time establishing his freelance career, writing, lecturing and making sorties into literary London -- with a camp-bed of mine that fitted in a duffel bag.

     We occasionally met in a pub before Ian was due to give an extra-mural or WEA lecture. It was amusing to see an uncharacteristic reluctance on his part towards the scotch because he wanted to avoid having to go for a piss in mid flow or vice versa.A post-1965 memory of an intake problem is of a meeting in the Pillars of Hercules when Ian was exercised over whether it would be okay to take a bottle of wine to dinner at a teetotal friend’s.

     In thinking about this piece I managed to ferret out some of our uncollected early verse; depressing measures largely, not helpful reminders of our discussions, though I was amused to find a sonnet of Ian’s and one of Michael Fried’s. But then things became clearer. We hadn’t discussed these poems with each other, but rather the general situation for poetry, and drafts of verse in process that would appear in our first books. -- I still notice some of the joins in both books.

     In Oxford around the opening of the Sixties it was too easy to publish poems. There were so many outlets: Isis; Cherwell; Oxford Opinion; Gemini -- rather fugitive; The Oxford Mail, even; The Fantasy Press; Michael Horovitz’s circus, New Departures, pushing performance; William Cookson’s Agenda; and, yes, Ian’s Tomorrow which he now considers his ‘pre-literate’ phase. And in case of emergency I had brought a dilapidated printing press up with me.

     Having swanned around the town for so long I found it easy to place material and published too readily. Of course I can’t stand the stuff now. Ian of course couldn’t stand it then. What changes? -- Certainly not the terrible.

     While I was busy publishing my own rubbish he was busy publishing other people’s. I forbear to mention names like Horovitz, Wollen, Sladen, McGough among them. It shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise, then, to discover I was sharing a prize poem spot with John Fuller in the last Tomorrow. (If I remember, £1 - 10 each; a dish of spag. bol. was 12 1/2 pence.) But I was surprised by one of Ian’s choices of judge, Thomas Blackburn, who had never impressed me. -- Neither of us then knew that this was our ‘pre-literate’ phase. Though Ian would say to me: but you, you bastard, never like anyone’s [poems]. I set a good example. He was later similarly charged by others, with similar exaggeration.

     Initially I’d acquired an impression, that later many others mistakenly found, of Ian as a somewhat off-putting figure. He, we, liked to wear black, then. Black duffel coats were almost de rigueur. But you don’t see so much of your own blackness. He could appear distant and unforthcoming when maybe only preoccupied, doubtful or bored. His criticism seemed to be offered with such assurance that at first one felt it was based on intellectually sound and rigorously held criteria rather than the more human, imaginative, sensitive and intuitive intelligence from which it actually came. It took a few discussions and exchanges of drafts to discover this. It always seemed as if a badly written poem hurt him; that showing him one was almost an insult or moral failing. But I can remember worriedly puzzling over the contents of issues of Tomorrow trying to find the criteria that linked the poems -- and feeling inadequate when I couldn’t see a coherence.

     Our discussions of each other’s drafts were always of detail and never reached overall approval: the odd awkward phrase or rhythm -- suggestion and counter suggestion for hours. It may have been a case of poets manoeuvring like porcupines mating but there was a shared conviction that real poems, the perfect utterances, were few and far between, that the chances of this or that one being absolutely right were remote. In his biography of Lowell, Ian has the wonderful phrase ‘the imaginable moral power of perfect speech’. The poems that go through you like a blade of ice are not often those of students or of the ignorant armies clashing in the literary media.

     The things we said seem fairly commonplace now. If you need a second sheet, it’ll be no good. Cut that. Cut it down. That rhythm’s wrong. Junk that rhyme. That’s not real. That’s not genuine. Nobody says that. Never did we say: lengthen it. Ian did pay me the backhanded compliment of saying that I rhymed well -- adding: but why? I’m pleased to note that he uses more rhyme again, not always where expected. Steps -- in an interesting direction.

     And talking of second sheets, his method of composition amazed me. Most poems, I think, he shaped in his head until something viable emerged for typing out. But if he changed or developed something, out would come that sheet and in go another. He must have used scores of sheets on some poems, many with only a line or two on them.

     The Movement was the current thing but neither of us was much impressed, except with Larkin; the Beats, too, and performance poets were emerging much to our unenthusiasm; energetic Ted Hughes was impressively different from the caution of the Movement but left us with considerable doubts. Gunn seemed to offer something, though the toughie stance was a bit wearing and the form sometimes heavy. The Americans, Lowell, Roethke, Hecht, Snodgrass, Plath, seemed to offer the chance of something more viable in some way -- ‘feelingful’, a favourite word of Ian’s; and early imagistic, critical Pound was a good besom for sweeping away much debris. Roethke’s ‘The Lost Son’ impressed both of us and he visited the Poetry Society. I remember him saying in the drinking session afterward: ‘My little finger has more spirituality in it than the whole of Tom Eliot!’ -- waggling it with his other hand.

     Roethke also struck a chord with us when in his reading, packed to capacity and more, he announced a title, saying: ‘ “I Cry, Love! Love!” -- I got that from Blake but I cut it down a bit.’ -- By one ‘love’.

     I remember few things that occurred while Ian and I in turn were involved with running the Society. It was a custom for the committee to entertain the speaker to dinner before the reading. Sometimes there were more people at the dinner than the reading. It was embarrassing when committee members excused themselves after the dinner and we traipsed off to a meeting with only three or four in the audience. One visiting poet, asked over dinner what he most disliked on such occasions, remarked that he was irritated by chairmen who forgot his name during the introductions. At the meeting, the chairman appeared to forget this poet’s name. No one knows now whether it was a genuine lapse. Ian can be very absent-minded but it could have been a fine example of his humour, so often quietly and wittily used for deflationary purposes.

     Blackmur, a critic that interested us both, came to speak at the university and was invited to the Society. In his lecture to the university, attended by many of the English dons, he remarked that, as he was speaking on ‘The Waste Land’, his lecture would be constructed in a form similar to that of the poem. I for one could not detect too much similarity. Blackmur was known to like Italian food and at the dinner in the La Roma where we could thus respectably order our staple-because-cheap spag. bol., we were amused when he announced spaghetti should be eaten Anglo- Saxon style and chopped his all up -- into a form similar to ‘The Waste Land’ that this time we understood.

     When preparing to publish The Storms I was going to dedicate it to Ian but he pointed out that he couldn’t then review it. The problem was solved by my hiding his name in an acrostic in the half lines of a dedicatory poem in Anglo-Saxon metric, allowing him to be suitably underwhelmed. No one at the time taxed me with this dodge though my editor, Kevin Crossley-Holland, translator of Beowulf cracked it, telling no one.

     Ian also complained wryly that I had anticipated him to the title which he had been contemplating for his book.

     I close with memories of a workshop for the Borough of Sutton LEA which I shared with Ian and Peter Porter on the 6th and 7th July 1972. In the afternoon discussion of the first day Ian parodied one of the hand-out chunks, the section of Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ that begins: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion’, etc. Ian simply replaced the talismanic repetition of the words ‘emotion’ and ‘personality’ with a series of less and less plausible juxtapositions which showed without ado the flimsiness and infinite variability of that form of argument. The final afternoon session next day was for requests from the students for favourite poems to be read. One asked for ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’. Peter and I passed up the invitation and Ian with impressive equanimity took up the task of sight-reading aloud the six pages -- a long stint for a so-called minimalist.

** Originally published in Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems, & Reflections on Ian Hamilton. Edited by David Harsent. Cornwall: Cargo Press, 1998. 43-52. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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