Every three years
- Fifty Poems by Ian Hamilton
Faber, 51 pp, £4.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 571 14920 0
- A Various Art edited by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville
Carcanet, 377 pp, £12.95, December 1987, ISBN 0 85635 698 0
- Between Leaps: Poems 1972-1985 by Brad Leithauser
Oxford, 81 pp, £5.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 19 282089 3
- Eldorado by William Scammell
Peterloo, 71 pp, £4.50, October 1987, ISBN 0 905291 88 3
- Disbelief by John Ash
Carcanet, 127 pp, £6.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 85635 695 6
- The Automatic Oracle by Peter Porter
Oxford, 72 pp, £4.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 19 282088 5
- Voice-over by Norman MacCaig
Chatto, 64 pp, £5.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3313 9
Now that poetry has been brought into the marketplace, and publishers have discovered how to make a modest profit from it, and now that publication outlets can be found in any good-sized store, so productivity levels in British poetry have increased dramatically. Most poets these days publish a new collection of thirty or forty poems every three or four years; some are more industrious than even that. Paul Durcan’s Going home to Russia, coming two years after The Berlin Wall Café contains 48 poems; Peter Redgrove’s In the Hall of the Saurians, one year after its predecessor, has 34; Norman MacCaig’s Voice-over, three years on from his Collected Poems, has 58; Cat’s Whisker by Philip Gross (three years on) 41; Jouissance by William Scammell (two years) 38; Disbelief by John Ash (three years) 55; Ken Smith’s Wormwood, a collection of poems written during a spell as a writer in residence in Wormwood Scrubs (one year), 30. The justification for such work-rates, beyond the economics of scraping a living and the PR requirement of keeping a high profile, is that you have to write the bad poems in order to write the good. But do you have to put the mediocre ones in hard covers? The example of Larkin and Eliot, severe critics of their own work, seems alien to our Thatcherite enterprise culture, where Creative Writing Fellowships have created a new breed of eager-beaver writing fellows and where everyone must be seen to be hustling their product up and down (but mainly down) the country.
One of the several ways in which Ian Hamilton’s Fifty Poems looks deeply unfashionable is that for Hamilton 50 poems means not a selection of work written in the last few years but almost the entire canon of a quarter-century: the 33 poems in A Visit, reshuffled, occasionally tinkered with, and in one case retitled; 11 of the 12 poems in his pamphlet Returning (1976); and six new poems written in the years since, for most of which period Hamilton seemed to have given up writing poetry altogether. As he admits in a preface, it’s not much to show for twenty-five years in the business, especially since the average length of a Hamilton poem is about eight lines. The comparative expansiveness of his later poems, one of which goes so far as to turn the page, does little to moderate the impression of a costive and sometimes caustic talent, a minimalist who writes only the poems that he comes on (or which come to him) by happy accident, which means rarely. The lack of a pragmatic, Johnsonian go-get-’em approach to the making of poems is at one with the surprising vulnerability which the ones that do get written disclose. The rough worldliness that characterises Hamilton’s critical prose is nowhere to be found in his poetry, which, having no means to protect itself, comes in for some hard knocks. The critic, a tough guy, has seen it all before; the poet, a perpetual novice, discovers it with pained wonder. The critic scowls at rhetorical gestures and pretensions; the poet can start a poem with the line ‘O world leave this alone’ and have people say things like ‘By these analogies we live’ or ‘My hand’s in flower ... My blood excites this petal dross.’ The critic keeps his cool and poise, ready for all surprise assaults; the poet has no shock absorbers, is a jittery wreck of nerves, drink, cigarette smoke, sleeplessness and pain.
All this suggests something bordering on schizophrenia, the right hand not knowing what the left is up to: but there’s no question of Hamilton denying himself the critical hard stare he visits on others. What the poet and critic share is something unexpectedly Romantic and purist, a model of the poem as a hallowed speech-act, less likely to express itself in light verse than lyric, more likely to be let down by insensitivity than intensity. If Lowell and Alvarez influenced Hamilton’s sense of what comprised his natural subject-matter (love, marital tension, suicide, madness and the whole thing there), his plain-but-emotional rhythms and syntax remind one of Larkin and even Andrew Motion. A more surprising influence is Eliot: ‘My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark’ has the sort of rhythmical hysteria and claustrophobic shadowiness that Hamilton has made his own; and a line from ‘La Figlia Che Piange’ – ‘Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers’ – is the lens through which he takes this ‘Old Photograph’:
You are wandering in the deep field
That backs on to the room I used to work in
And from time to time
You look up to see if I am watching you.
To this day
Your arms are full of the wild flowers
You were most in love with.
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[*] Published by Allardyce Nicholl.