When I looked back over copies of The Review it seemed to
me that there were three strands to it that you might like to talk
about. Thereís a kind of very intelligent and acute criticism of contemporary
verse, a line of well crafted metrical verse, and a strand of intuitive,
tending to be free, verse. I wonder how conscious this was?
Ian Hamilton: I think that
is probably fairly accurate. The critical bit was a way of defining
what we didnít want. The non-metrical element was an indication of
what we would like to happen. The metrical strain: well, that came
from a sort of rearguard impulse, a feeling that poetry must at the
very least be disciplined and technically interesting. Hence, we published
the poems of John Fuller: always well made, well crafted, and always
intelligent, poetically intelligent. They werenít sub-journalistic,
chopped-up prose like, say, the Group, or the Liverpool poets, but
they were still not quite what we were hoping to see happen,
which was I suppose disciplined free verse with connections to imagism
but with more human depth, more content.
Dale: One of the questions
which interests me, I think for this issue, is that, at the time,
it seemed to be an exciting, liberating idea -- after the Movementís
academic, arid verse. It seemed to me to be claiming a greater role
for the intuition and the emotions than was currently the mode.
Hamilton: Yes, the feeling
may have been that the Movement, by so successfully reacting against
fake emotionalism, had somehow discredited the idea that poems should
have emotional content.
Dale: Well, they hedged all
their emotional bets.
Hamilton: They had to at that
time because in the 1940s the thing had got out of hand; so the Movement
was a necessary kind of brake. And we came after the brake had been
applied. We shared, I think, some of the Movementís distaste for 1940s
rhetoric. But it didnít loom so large for us, that forties stuff --
it certainly didnít to me -- as it did to somebody writing in the
early fifties. I could see that it was there, an aberration that lasted,
what, five or six years? -- and this now seems a short time in the
history of poetry.
Dale: In your criticism, you
actually trace another 1940s line, from Auden through the war poets.
That makes a connection with this metrical strand of verse you were
using in The Review. Thereís a kind of logical progression
there I think.
Hamilton: Yes. In going back
to Auden, and tracing that line through to the Movement, it made it
easier for us to minimise the Dylan Thomas thing; to see it as an
aberration. -- But this didnít leave us with any viable models. We
had admired the craft and discipline of the Movement poets -- but
there still seemed to be a lot missing. So we started reaching further
back, to the beginning of modernism and, in particular, to the propaganda
of Pound; his propaganda in relation to the imagist movement, that
is to say. And we saw that we agreed with many of his basic tenets.
The problem then was: how to write the poems? We couldnít just order
Dale: No. This reminds me
of something I seem to remember reading in The Review or
somewhere by a Review critic: how itís much easier to say
how a poem is bad.
Dale: And as you get older
this problem looms larger, in my opinion. You cannot predict the kind
of poems that are going to impress and move you. They come in surprising
Hamilton: Yes. I think you
come to savour the accidental; you get less prescriptive. But thatís
inevitable, having seen so many excellent prescriptions fail. At that
age, at that time, laying down the law was pretty easy. It was a clearing
of the decks, in preparation for what you hoped would happen next.
Then here were these very clear decks. Time for the deck tennis to
Dale: Yes, if you actually
look back at an article like Colin Falckís ĎPoetry and Ordinarinessí
which is kind of semi-programmatic, when you analyse the Ďoperatingí
principles in it, itís not much of a programme. Itís not much of a
programme one could measure by or develop with; itís more instinctive,
Hamilton: Yes, as I say, there
was a wish to clear the decks, to make it possible for something else
to happen. If the something else doesnít turn up, then itís difficult.
I mean, if you look back to New Verse and imagine it without
Auden, you would have a much impoverished magazine, a magazine that
might seem almost wholly negative.
Dale: Thatís true, yes. One
canít make a movement out of nothing, one canít change directions,
even, without something to hold on to, and, of those so-called minimalists,
I would think that you and Michael Fried stayed closest to those original
principles of brevity, emotional impact.
Hamilton: Itís odd, though,
that there was no really great discussion between us on all that.
I mean I used to talk to Michael Fried a lot and he was a great influence.
Before I met him I hadnít really clarified these things. I hadnít
read much American poetry and, of course, the presence of American
poetry is quite significant in the make-up of The Review.
It was being discovered then in a way. It wasnít generally discussed.
And then in 1959, you got Life Studies and Heartís Needle.
And around the same time, there was that anthology New Poems of
England and America. I remember a poem of Anthony Hechtís, ĎThe
Vowí, that made a big impression. To me these books, these individual
American poets, came as revelations. They did a lot to determine what
I then came to believe and campaign for. I sought an English version
of that. They seemed to have that quality of Ďheartbreakí, as Lowell
used to call it. They were also very disciplined; maybe over-disciplined,
in the case of Snodgrass. But, of course, also coming from America
at the same time there were the Black Mountain poets. They took some
sort of root here at around the same time. I remember little mags
like Migrant. Then came the Fulcrum Press.
Dale: In the first issue of
The Review, April 1962, you printed a dialogue between A.
Alvarez and Donald Davie. There Davis argues for Charles Tomlinson,
and by implication, for Black Mountain, doesnít he?
Hamilton: Yes. And, of course,
The Black Mountain poems had their roots in Poundian theory too but
they approached Pound by a completely other route. In fact, Pound
was a central figure in that discussion. Alvarez didnít in the least
see Pound as a founding father or as an originator of the line that
produced Lowell and Berryman. If anything, he saw Lowell and Berryman
as representing an anti-Pound position. Pound was an Ďartí man as
opposed to a Ďlifeí man. And I suppose what we were saying was that
Pound may have been an Ďartí, not a Ďlifeí man, but by following some
of his art principles and by injecting into the works some Alvarez-type
Ďlifeí you might get something rather wonderful.
Dale: It seems that, like
it or not, Pound was a pivotal figure of the sixties. The Review
went back to imagism and Pound, and tried to build on that. Agenda,
taking another route, went for some of Poundís more epic pretensions.
Both were an attempt to get around the Movement and to advance.
Hamilton: Yes, I think Agenda
had a much more scholarly and full-hearted response to Pound than
The Review ever did. The Review might have used
bits of Pound. We liked the polemical side; we liked the sound of
his sort of passion -- and we warmed to these largely negative tenets
he was expounding. We particularly liked his insistence that it was
extremely difficult to write a good poem, that a good poem wouldnít
happen very often. We were in a period when it was possible
for people to write -- as I think Peter Porter did -- that we should
have a kind of Kleenex poetry, a poetry that you could Ďuseí and throw
away. This was anathema to me.
Dale: Yes, well it used to
be called Ďverseí in the old days, that disposable stuff. A distinction
used to be maintained. In the modem period itís been confused.
Hamilton: In The Review
there was this feeling that a bad line was a crime against nature
or something. (Laughter.)
Dale: It still is.
Hamilton: On the other hand,
you can get tired of six-lined poems without a bad line anywhere in
Dale: Thereís that good quote
from Samuel Butler, isnít there? Ė that after seven or eight lines
most poets go groggy at the knees. IH; Yeah. Thereís a long way to
go after that. To the ninth line. (Laughter.) You may not return.
But can I come back to the Alvarez-Davie discussion? In it, the poem
the two of them agreed on was Lowellís ĎFor the Union Deadí. To Davie
that poem seemed to be full of history and memory and culture and
art and so on; he saw it as hard, objective, learned, and full of
ideas. Alvarez, on the other hand, saw it as a passionate poem, a
poem from the centre of a disturbed imagination. And yet they were
able to agree that it was a poem that mattered. I remember trying
to work out why it was that poem, rather than some other poem, that
they were able to agree on. It seemed to me rather over Ďmadeí, compared
to the poems of Lowellís that I liked. I donít think it was really
one of Alís favourites, either. Itís just that he was determined not
to give Davie an inch.
Dale: I remember reading somewhere
an American critic who said it was full of American primary-school
textbook history, that it didnít have the impact for Americans that
it seemed to have, at the time, for the British. It seemed to work
somewhat because the history was less familiar to us. The same with
phrases like Ďprowl-carsí. Where Lowell used a word like that it sounded
really vivid, but if itís standard American commonplace, itís no more
vivid there than Ďpatrol carí is here. So there was a slight Ďslippageí
across the Atlantic about the impact of these things.
Hamilton: Yes. But when you
started to write and when you looked around at the so-called senior
poets of the day who would they have been?
Dale: Well, we both started
in the fifties. I went back to the thirties because the war years
were missing for young people and really contemporary material was
difficult to come by. My unbookish father bought Spenderís collected
for my first book of verse. He was probably a better influence, bad
as he was, than Dylan Thomas! He led to Auden,
Hamilton: When New Lines
came out in 1956 how old were you? 18?
Hamilton: But were you aware
of the anthology?
Dale: I wasnít fully aware
of it until I got to college. Then I remember being irritated by the
number of poems in it that mentioned words like Ďpoemí, Ďpoetí, Ďwriterí,
Ďverseí. It seemed to me arid, navel-gazing.
Hamilton: I remember being
bowled over, thrilled by Dylan Thomas when I was sixteen or seventeen.
I began writing dreadful Dylan Thomas type poems. And later on, after
repudiating Thomas, I wanted to recapture that Thomas-type excitement,
to find something like it in the anti-Thomas poems I then began arguing
for: these new, clear, disciplined poems of the future. However bad
Thomas was, he did, at that age, have a lot of glamour and excitement.
Dale: Yes. I did read a lot
of Thomas, then, too. He didnít have much effect on what I was trying
to write because I felt his kind of vocabulary was beyond me. But
I felt, reading him, that poetry was something important, that it
mattered. And, going back to Pound, I had the same feeling with him:
here was a man who believed that poetry was vital. You didnít get
that feeling from the Movement.
Hamilton: Yes, but it was
hard in the early sixties to stand up and say Ďpoetry is importantí
without sounding like a throwback to the forties. The Movement had
that effect. In 1962, you would rather have been like Larkin than
like Dylan Thomas. But you didnít want to be like Larkin either. There
was something very attractive about the Larkin-Amis debunking but
there was also something it missed out on, something one prized but
could not name -- not without embarrassment, not without some Movement-inspired
fear of sounding arty and pretentious. One was torn. So one stuck
to what felt genuine -- poems about personal experience, poems that
made no great emotional gestures but were Ďfeelingfulí.
Dale: Two prose writers, Orwell
and Salinger, were influences both on the Movement and on The
Review. Phoniness was the great fear.
Hamilton: Yes and then anti-phoniness
turned into a new sort of phoniness: the poet as ordinary guy.
Dale: Nevertheless, some of
the sixties poems produced a quality that has been missing since,
a comp1ex of feeling with a straightness of form. But there were tendencies
already moving away from that, ultimately towards Martianism, another
kind of academic diversion movement.
Hamilton: Well, Martianism
came much later... and had something to do with a reaction against
the sub-Sylvia Plath thing. I mean Plathís death and the ensuing glamorisation
of Plath. There was this whole cult of psychic breakdown; of mad,
spectacular self-expressionism. I think people like Craig Raine came
along and looked at all this and thought letís get back to Auden,
letís get back to Wallace Stevens, letís get back to poetry as invention,
poetry thatís made up as opposed to poetry that draws remorselessly
on personal experience; letís have some play, letís have some of these
lighter, wittier things that have been lost. This was not to my personal
taste but one could see how it would happen. In the early seventies
when people like Craig got going there might have seemed two ways
of being a bad poet -- the sub-Plath way or the sub-Liverpool way.
If this is so, then one can hardly claim that The Review
had much of an impact -- although we were nearer to Plath than Liverpool.
It might even be said that Plath, in her very best poems, was what
we would have wished a Review poet to be like. But we also
wanted Review poets to stay healthy. What about Agenda
though? Did you feel that your magazine was at the centre of things?
Dale: No, we felt fairly embattled.
I think we implicitly at least made large claims for poetry. We might
at the time have thought we were trying to kick things forward but,
looking back, it feels, almost, as if it had been the last throw of
Ďliteraryí culture, really, as we knew it, the sort of culture that
took poems off the page without audio assistance. We were fighting
for the Ďcentralityí of poetry but we were not central. We may have
felt we were standing on a rock and rejecting a lot of ephemeral stuff.
But a tidal wave of it was going to come over us at any minute --
and did so. More so now.
Hamilton: Yes. Well, on the
matter of pop culture I remember articles in The Review by
Clive James about song lyrics, and about e. e. cummings, about how
lovable he was and so on. So there was a weakening of the original
stance as The Review went on -- which is partly why it ended,
I suppose. There seemed to be such a chasm between what was really
going on in the general culture and the impact that the poems we were
printing were likely to make.
Dale: Yes, but Agenda,
which had many of the same attitudes as The Review, is still
going and, to a large extent, has ignored popular culture for a kind
of Ďliteraryí culture.
Hamilton: Well, itís the only
way. To ignore it -- if youíre going to be there at all. The alternative
is to take it on in a hostile way as we did with our attacks on Adrian
Mitchell and those people. We ridiculed them, poured scorn on them,
as if from a height. But that would not have been a possible position
to adopt ten years later. It was possible in 1962 but not in 1972.
Dale: You probably wonít like
what Iím going to bring up now, my mentioning this, but if you look
back to an early copy of Tomorrow --
Hamilton: Oh, Horovitz, yes.
Dale: Tomorrow magazine
contains all the seeds of the sixties, almost. Youíve got Horovitz,
youíve got Sladen, beat-type poets like Wollen and, in reviews, an
advocacy of tight poems, minimal, like Middletonís ĎAlbaí. And much
Hamilton: Yes. Thereís Roger
McGough in there.
Hamilton: About the moon being
like a fried egg, or something.
Dale: So the sixties mix was
going quite early.
Hamilton: Well, I think of
Tomorrow -- in terms of my literary biography -- as pre-literate,
as before Iíd read anything really. I was susceptible to all the stuff
that was buzzing about. New Departures was already going.
I think Horovitz felt I let him down by going to the other side. He
was a rather compelling figure around the place, though, with his
bicycle, with his bag of New Depurtures. He was two or three
years older than me, and there was a sort of glamour to what one might
call the little mag. life-style. Jon Silkin used to show up in Oxford
with his holdall full of magazines, Stand. There was that
little-magazine bug that I had. -- It seemed like a terrific adventure
to run one of these magazines, put it out and lick the stamps (Laughter.),
parcel the envelopes. So there was that whole aspect to it. As to
content, to some extent we worked that out as we went along -- we
were in our early twenties, after all. I think if you study the very
early issues of The Review, it would be unclear how this
magazine was going to go. The identity gets clearer as it goes on,
but there were always odd components. There were John Fuller, Francis
Hope, who had no particular taste for Lowell and Crane or any of those
people who were admired by Michael Fried and Colin Falck.
Dale: That kind of division
can be useful. Cookson and I differ over various issues, authors.
It does keep the thing alive.
Hamilton: Well, itís probably
whatís kept Agenda alive in some ways, hasnít it?
Dale: Well, I think so, yes.
Hamilton: I often canít work
out what Agendaís attitude is; I mean you sometimes seem
to like things I wouldnít expect you to like.
Dale: Yes. We found that with
The Review, too. The problem is everything printed in an
issue appears to bear an equal weight of decision.
Hamilton: You have special
issues on writers I wouldnít expect you to have special issues on.
But then, on the other hand, youíve got to keep going. Presumably
this comes out of whatever chemistry you and Cookson have going. Who
can tell? Well, you can tell, presumably. (Laughter.)
Dale: Iím not sure. But yes,
the idea of disagreement is an interesting one to consider because
in the sixties there was visible disagreement, and it wasnít anything
pussy-footing, really. Attitudes were stated quite vigorously in many
places. If you look at some of the early issues of Phoenix
and The Review, and Agenda. Statements were made
quite forcibly about what was and should be. It seems to me, in a
way, that in a period when you get that kind of conscious disagreement
there is more chance of poetry than if you are in a situation of career
poets with circuits and venues and judging committees to be filled,
and viable incomes to be made in a big boat that mustnít be rocked.
And multicultural approaches might be misunderstood to seem to warrant
an Ďanything goesí laissez-faire. Itís difficult to know. This is
one of the problems of a magazine going on a long time like Agenda.
You canít keep up with all the new trends and magazines; many of oneís
white hopes fade; the psychic energy for issues becomes more husbanded.
Commitment to oneís own view looks stultified.
Hamilton: Well, I would have
thought so. I certainly think of The Review as being something
that I did in my twenties and that I wouldnít be able to generate
that kind of excitement again.
Dale: There are some interesting
remarks in your preface to Fifty Poems, that Iíd like to
reflect on. You speak of being a poet of a Ďmiraculousí kind. I wondered
when I read that whether you were, in a way, trying to avoid using
the kind of Gravesian concept of muse poetry, or something like that.
Poetry isnít subject to the will and the intention, and one has to
wait and one may wait for ever and nothing come. Itís pretty close
to the idea of inspiration and the muse, isnít it? Or is it?
Hamilton: Yes. Itís another
way of putting it.
Dale: Were you conscious of
avoiding the idea of the muse?
Hamilton: No, no, I canít
remember being conscious of it, but I suppose I must have been. I
canít really say.
Dale: Thereís another interesting
phrase in that introduction where you speak of once thinking that
poems could do something about the death of people. Reading it, one
can say, well, yes, a poem can be a memorial, can keep the memory
fresh and so on but did you mean it in any more mystical way than
Hamilton: Well, I think I
once had the illusion that in writing a poem one might be able to
reach into areas that ordinary real-life speech could not reach into.
Say that the subject of a poem is the suffering of another person.
I think I believed that by writing that poem, there might be some
mitigation of the suffering. One knew that in life ordinary speech
made little difference, couldnít save the other person from death
or from illness. Poetic speech might work differently. Some magic
seemed to be required. While writing a poem, one could have the illusion
that one was talking in a magic way to the subject of the poem. One
might even think that this is doing some good, making things better.
And then, of course, you know it isnít. You wake up and find it hasnít.
Dale: Although you seem fairly
negative about it now, that kind of feeling still has a kind of therapeutic
value for the composer, doesnít it? I mean the illusion that you have
actually got through does alleviate the emotional pressure within?
Hamilton: Yes, and then there
is the poetry, the idea you may have made something in the
Dale: Yes. And one of its
lasting attributes may be some therapeutic quality for certain readers
who need it.
Hamilton: Well, if so thatís
all to the good, but pretty secondary, I would say. Weíre talking
like A.E. Housman now -- readers bristling when they shave.
Dale: Are we? We would never
have been confident enough to speak about it like this in the sixties.
Hamilton: Well, probably not...
But we did, in a way. We would say: this is a real poem. We know it
when we see it. The concept of inspiration had been discredited. It
was very difficult then to talk about inspiration, about magic. But
they hadnít gone away: we did believe in the idea of the good poem
as rare, mysterious, inspired, etc. Itís just that our way of saying
this was to talk about genuineness, authenticity. We kept the mystical
thing well hidden. Our way was to say: any fool can see that
isnít a poem. (Laughter.) It might be an intelligent piece of writing
but it isnít a poem. And so they say: well, why isnít it a poem? To
which came the obvious reply: well, it just isnít and thatís that.
There was a certain amount of that. If pressed, we might go on to
say: all right, I will show you why it isnít, and we would start criticising
this or that or the other bit of it or break things off from it. With
a real poem, we would say, you canít break things off, you canít throw
them away. You canít take whole lines and ditch them, you canít snap
off stanzas, and so on. (Laughter.) A real poem wonít allow you to
do that. Thereís nothing to break off: and the reason we know itís
a real poem is that when we tried to do that to it we werenít able
Dale: Yes. The problem is,
though, that vandals also can break bits off most things. There are
flaws in some of the greatest poems. But the idea of the rarity and
the inspiration of poems leads to two further reflections. First of
all, itís a kind of lunatic concept to have a career poet because
you canít base a career on what is virtually a form of Ďluckí.
Hamilton: I have my doubts
about this career thing. But youíve kept publishing, carried on publishing.
Dale: I have written too much.
But you have worked in other fields of literature as a writer and
Iíve been teaching. In a way, thatís why Iíve done so much Ďtranslatingí.
Hamilton: Well, youíve stayed
out of reviewing, writing criticism, and so on, largely, compared
Dale: Thatís true. But I think
translating is perhaps just as destructive. Thereís an awful lot of
time looking things up, checking things out.
Hamilton: But youíre still
making Ďmusicí if you like. If you compare yourself to a musician,
you would say that you are keeping in practice.
Dale: Yes. But poetry may
be one activity where practice doesnít make perfect.
Hamilton: But I sometimes
feel like that. I mean I havenít practised my piano for a year --
so what does that mean? It must mean that Iím a pretty funny sort
Dale: Well, with teaching
I am kept away from writing most of the time. But things happen under
pressure in the mind that oneís barely conscious of, I suppose.
Hamilton: Perhaps not enough
happens in my mind. Thatís my problem! (Laughter.)
Dale: More like too much on
your plate. But in thinking of this issue of Agenda, I took
down a book of Edward Thomas -- who is said by Longley and certain
people to be the true English tradition that was diverted by the modernists.
I went through his Collected, counting the poems worth preserving
and I would keep about thirteen; of those possibly only two, perhaps,
would make the ultimate grade. I was surprised that there were so
Hamilton: Well, thatís quite
a high count.
Dale: Yes. When you think
of the number of books of poetry that are published per week, or by
some single publisher, like Bloodaxe, you know this is just not on.
So what is it? (Laughter.)
Hamilton: Well, time has passed
and these thirteen poems are what we choose to preserve: this body
of work. But what if there had only been thirteen poems? There wouldnít
have been enough for a book. And Edward Thomas would have disappeared
in the files of some periodical. I sometimes think that a poem printed
in a periodical might as well not have appeared at all. It has a life
for that week. There are poems I read in periodicals that I quite
like and then I lose the periodical and I canít remember where I read
it and I never see it again. -- If I remember who wrote it I wait
for him to produce a book and there it is. If you donít produce books
or canít get it together to produce a book for ten, fifteen years,
or something, itís difficult for the poems you do write to have any
kind of life in the world -- while you wait for the next one to come
along. (Laughter.) I think we should have a revival of pamphlet publication,
or broadsheets. For under-protected poems! (Laughter.) But look at
Lowell: acres of rubbish.
Dale: Absolutely, the proportionís
gone wrong with Lowell, the proportion of garbage to good.
Hamilton: Yes. It toppled
over into pure garbage for a stretch. I think that in Lowellís case
being prolific was damaging. I think it may have harmed him in the
long term, harmed his durability, this over-production of bad stuff
at a late point in his career. Over-production of bad stuff in early
poems isnít too damaging. I mean two sonnets a day, or whatever he
happened to read about in the newspapers.
Dale: But to go back to The
Review. It ended in 1972...
Hamilton: Yes, and you could
say that it was a victim of its own stringency, of its insistence
that good poems happened very rarely. This meant, of course, that
it printed very few poems. It also meant that the enterprise had its
own destruction built into it. The Review poems tended more
and more towards the aphoristic, the epigrammatic and so on. They
werenít taking on dramatic or narrative challenges or even much of
an emotional challenge; in the end they were just admiring their own
brevity. This was in the later issues. And thatís really why it stopped.
There wasnít any evidence that this was going to get any better. It
had reached the point where it should stop.
Dale: And so must we.