Ian Hamilton

I have already reported here, in verse, on my recent trip to a Conference on Literary Journals in Canberra, Australia, and on the death-struggle that did not take place there, but perhaps should have, between – shall we say – Theory and Practice. I won’t go into all that again, although there is plenty more that could be said. By someone else. My own role at the conference had little to do with debates about critical theory. I was there as a kind of relic from the past, as someone who used to edit ‘little magazines’.

My function, it seemed, was to represent a marginalised historical ingredient: a sideshow to be looked at but unlikely to be learned from. Since a knowledge of the not-so-recent past appeared to be what several delegates had forgotten to bring with them, I did not feel unpleasantly miscast. As it happened, though, very few of the beardless, younger literati who turned up at Canberra had ever seen either of the magazines I’ve had to do with. Indeed, when I showed a group of these striplings the very first issues of the Review, it was handled with almost obscene reverence, as if its tiny spine might become powder if the pages were to be turned at ordinary browsing speed. But then, as someone dewily pointed out to me, the thing was twenty-five years old, just like him. And so it was: the date on the cover said April/May 1962.

Small wonder that when it came to my turn to address the conference I was in richly elegiac mood. By that stage, I was doing my own casting: that is to say, I had actually turned into what they’d hired me as: a relic. I announced as my subject: Why Little Magazines Don’t Matter Any More. A warm, companionable chuckle from my listeners assured me that they knew I didn’t mean this, but that they’d string along with me, for old time’s sake. The trouble is: I did mean it. Or, faced with this audience, and having been turned into an antique, I thought I did. I found myself harking back to 1962, and thereabouts.

For a brief period, I told them, the Review had most of the things I’d want a little magazine to have: it had a group of unknown poets it admired, it had a ‘kind of poem’ it wanted to promote, and it had powerfully placed enemies it was eager to attack. It had youth, it had a sense of humour, and – looking back on it from now – a bumptious kind of certainty that it knew all the answers. It also had some sense of history, connecting itself back to an earlier epoch that was out of fashion: the poems it argued for had their roots in Imagism but would pride themselves on having far more human content than their models. And it had a sense of its own necessity. Pop poetry was coming into vogue and the Review was going to put a stop to that.

As well as a group of poets, the magazine also had some energetic and intelligent new critics: young hoods not afraid to wield an axe. It seemed to matter terribly that people didn’t get things wrong, that poetry – as we confidently understood it – didn’t get turned into something else: something flashier, more prosy, more glamorous, more enjoyable. When dons who had (we thought) taught us how to think began saying that ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was a small literary masterpiece, we knew, or thought we knew, our hour had come.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in