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Ian Hamilton in Conversation with Peter Dale

(** Originally published in Agenda 31.2 (Summer 1993): 7-21. Reprinted with permission of the author. **)

Peter Dale: 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 them up.

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.

Hamilton: Yes.

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 places.

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 begin.

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, intuitive, personal.

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 sight.

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?

Dale: Yes.

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 else.

Hamilton: Yes. Thereís Roger McGough in there.

Dale: Yes.

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 that?

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 process.

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 to.

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 to me.

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 of pianist.

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 many.

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.


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