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.

But, inside a couple of years or so, look what happened. We got noticed. Our critics were hired to write poetry reviews in the national press; they got to know some of the poets they despised and found that they were not, in life, as wet and weedy as they were in art; they began to modify their tone. By the end of the Sixties, I think most of the big papers that bothered with such things had a poetry critic who had started out on the Review. As to the poets, they began appearing in book form from OUP and Faber; they got put on committees, and so on. Worse than that, they began to be talked of as a Review school of poets, and they began to write almost in parody of what the poems of that school were supposed to be like. And even the magazine’s savagery department, controlled by the monstrous Edward Pygge, began to get quite popular. The age of satire had begun, and the magazine was beginning to be talked of as ‘bracingly abrasive’ or some such.

I could go on (and in Canberra, I’m sure I did), but it’s not an unfamiliar story: the life of a little magazine, the real life, has always necessarily been brief. What struck me then, back in the Sixties, was not that these things happened but that they happened so quickly. The time-gap between our appearance and our acceptance, or assimilation, was perhaps three or four years. And my point in Canberra was that nowadays the gap would be much briefer: that there may not even be a gap at all. It seems to me, I said, that as soon as a good writer of any distinctiveness makes an appearance in a little magazine, he will almost instantly be snapped up by some bigger magazine. Whereas in Ezra Pound’s day, the established culture-powers were self-protectively resistant to the new, nowadays they seem almost voraciously hospitable. Even magazines like Harpers and Queen and Cosmopolitan are in the market for highbrow innovation, or intellectual attitude-striking, in a way that would have been hard to imagine in the early Sixties. Originality is within weeks likely to be merchandised as novelty.

I was now getting to the nub, the crunch. There were quite a few editors of little magazines in my audience, but there had been no heckling. On the contrary, the atmosphere remained cordial, if not urbane. I thought I might as well plough on and tell them that if what I had said was true then the ‘little magazine’ can no longer plausibly see itself as an unearther or sustainer of neglected new talent. It might unearth but it won’t be required to do any sustaining, thank you very much. And yet it is for this function that it yearns. The upshot, I feared, might be that magazines which see themselves as ‘little’ will more often than not become merely hole-in-the-corner asylums for writers who have failed to gain access to the (ever hospitable) centres of metropolitan publishing. Such writers will know in their hearts that if they were any good they would have been ‘discovered’ long ago. They will know themselves to be rejects, second-rate, and their journals will be characterised by the sourness and envy of the excluded. They will of course be happy to have this condition identified as similar to the excludedness of early Eliot or Joyce, but no one will be fooled. In other words, and to sum up, it was difficult to see much of a future for the kind of little magazine we used to know and love. Maybe it was about time that nostalgia for the old missionary role was put to rest. Thank you and good night.

By this late point, I was by no means certain that I did ‘mean it’ after all. As Holden Caulfield might have said, it was partly true, but it wasn’t all true. And it begged a dozen questions. I braced myself for at least some of them. Like: just because your lot sold out, does it follow that ours will? Or: since when does Cosmopolitan count as ‘acceptance’ – surely people like that will kick you out just as quickly as they took you in? Or: name a few ‘big magazines’ that will print long critical essays, or difficult poems, or out-of-fashion writers who might wither from neglect if there were no smaller mags to cheer them on? Or: what about the small magazine as a ‘context’ or ‘milieu’, a place where writers can spark each other off, have squabbles, take the (esoteric) piss? Or even: what about the New Review – didn’t you there attempt to extend the range of the little magazine without trading in all of the old liveliness and independence? Where did that go wrong, and why?

Somewhat to my surprise, none of these questions was raised: indeed, my provocative little speech provoked nothing beyond a quasi-ruminative silence, a waiting for the next bore to get up and have his say. On reflection, I should not have been surprised at all. Fifty per cent of the audience was of the Critical Theory persuasion, and would therefore have welcomed my remarks as further evidence that the old game was in its death-throes. As to the others: well, they were Australian, and the sense of excludedness I’d talked about was something they had to live with every day. In Australia, even the big magazines have the feeling that they’re really rather small. It was striking that the one question-from-the-floor that did (albeit very mildly) take me to task was along the lines of: ‘Surely the little magazine still has a function in the regions?’ The suggestion was that if it did, then the whole of Australian literature could breathe again. Business as usual.

Which is not to say that Australian writers seem to care much about what’s happening in the European centres from which so many of them think they’ve been excluded. Other European contributors to the Journals Conference were listened to just as politely as I was, but you always felt that the real meat, and heat, of the conference was elsewhere: in the realm of ‘Should Quadrant continue to receive a Literature Board subsidy?’ (The doings of the Literature Board are under constant discussion, even though it is hard to meet an Australian writer who isn’t supported by it.) And even those Australians who did think that they were ‘keeping up’ with Europe were either Derrida-than-thou theorists or were hopelessly out of date. For instance, the magazine Scripsi (which is generally, and no doubt rightly, thought to be the most ‘internationalist’ of Australian little magazines) is peddling a Poundian/Objectivist line which was the stuff of several British and American little magazines some twenty years ago. There is no reason why this line should not be argued for, but it seemed to me that Scripsi believed its own espousal of poets like Reznikoff and Oppen to be ‘avant-garde’. Perhaps in Australia, it is. Or maybe in the case of R and O avant-gardism is a permanent condition, a repository of newness to be drawn on by successive generations.

In its current issue Scripsi prints a sprightly but essentially rancorous piece by the Canadian Hugh Kenner on the subject of British poetry, post World War Two. Not a very big subject, in Kenner’s view, since the whole thing stopped with Charles Tomlinson and Basil Bunting and is only spuriously ‘kept alive’ these days by the careerist machinations of people like Craig Raine and Andrew Motion. Kenner is not writing specifically for an Australian audience but he is writing for an ignorant, or uninformed, readership which will be able to savour his liveliness of style without worrying too much about his scholarship. What slightly depressed me in Australia was that the editors of Scripsi seemed ready to oblige him on this score. Indeed, they recommended his article (in fact, an extract from a forthcoming book, like so many so-called magazine articles these days) with the air of men who had pulled off a sort of coup, or had somehow blown the lid off a big scandal, by permitting Kenner to froth about as follows:

But Editing, Anthologising, Reviewing, being a Poetry Book Society selector, whatever the entrée, these are cardinal activities; when you’ve made your way into all of them you’re made. The machinery, for those both knowledgeable and lucky, runs more reliably than at any time in the past; the manoeuvrings of the old bookmen or of Middleton Murry now look positively rustic. Costs being high (book-printing is farmed out to Singapore or East Germany), few publishers maintain poetry lists at all, and what gets selected for review, or for publication in the weekly journals, is consequently of much significance. Tie together publishing and reviewing and you have a lot of the action sewn up. Life goes on elsewhere – in Gloucestershire or Northumberland – but it doesn’t get much notice in the metropolis.

In other words, exit Tomlinson and Bunting; enter Raine and Motion, two poets who also happen to be editors and who Kenner has read about in two newspaper interviews and in Private Eye. To substantiate his view that there is something smelly in the air of British literary politics, he quotes sneeringly from ‘a pre-publication interview with a Motion discovery, Ms Fiona Pitt-Kethley’ and then goes on to comment:

The Deputy Literary Editor of the paper into which all that got dumped was co-editor, with Andrew Motion, of a major anthology. On another page of the same issue we find four excerpts from a forthcoming book about the late manager of the Who, a rock-group remembered for its brio in smashing up guitars. The book’s author? Andrew Motion. Alas, that there’s no British Flaubert.

Well, Andrew Motion can take care of himself, and I rather hope he will. But this, by any reckoning, is low-grade stuff. And its outsiderist whine is not unlike what I had in mind when I feared for the future of the little magazine. The irony, however, is that the whiner in this instance is a renowned Canadian professor (b. 1923) and his outlet a rather sumptuously produced magazine that gets free board and lodging from the University of Melbourne. Now how does that fit in with my Text for Today?

It doesn’t, but then (another question-from-the-floor that no one asked) surely whining can be heard at all levels of the Literary Life? In the course of my Australian anniversary depression, I recalled the very first Letter to the Editor I ever got. It made for a proud moment, as I’m sure you can imagine: confirming me in my self-appointed rank and evoking potent thoughts of ‘our readership’. The letter read (in part) as follows, and there’s a free, ferociously foxed copy of Culture and Environment (or, if you prefer it, Reading and Discrimination) for the first reader who can spell out, in full, the address that it was mailed from:

Dirty little boys. Well, if you want to go on being that, blowing your snot and peeing into the gutter, do. No one will notice and the circulation will be among those few hundred who want to preserve their baby distortions of reality – to save themselves from the pain of trying to live and to live well. All it can do to writing is to damage it. If you want to know why I prefer children’s verse and writing, it is because it has courage, sincerity, vitality of metaphor and fantasy, and reveals human nature as the marvellous created thing it is. And because it’s a bloody relief from the nose-picking twitter of the literary world, especially over Oxford way ... I don’t think I’ve seen anything so wet and dirty for a long time: that’s what I think of the Review.

So much for Memory Lane. I’d much rather commemorate my Australian adventure with a laugh, of which there were many. The Canberra conference was held in a building named after the poet A.D. Hope, about whom many affectionate anecdotes are told. The one I liked best had him telephoned at home by a visiting dignitary who’d discovered ‘a crowd of parrots’ on his hotel windowsill. He would like to feed these exotic creatures, but with what? To which Alec Hope (hard of hearing and after a lifetime of poetic entertaining) is said to have replied: ‘I don’t know what they eat, but they’ll drink anything.’