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.
Vol. 9 No. 15 · 3 September 1987
SIR: We may one day be old and wise like Ian Hamilton, that noble relic of the literary life who came to Canberra to drink beer with us, to learn the rules of our football, and tell us gently that he is above anything so meagre and so cliché’d, so earnest and recherché, as a Literary Magazine (Diary, 9 July). We listened politely as he suggested that the demise of his own magazines symbolised the End of the Form Itself and tried to read in that leathery face the course of our own imperilled destinies.
And why shouldn’t we have listened politely? Hamilton, after all, listened politely to us, even though he doesn’t seem to have liked much of what he heard. But we did do our best. We gave him food and drinks and books and several issues of Scripsi, including a copy of the current issue which has an essay by Hugh Kenner on post-war British poetry. Hamilton takes exception to Kenner’s essay, as well he might: he is an eminent member of that British poetry industry that Kenner finds wanting. Well, Hugh Kenner does not need our assistance in dealing with this kind of thing. But Hamilton is not simply gunning for Kenner when he says of his article that ‘its outsiderist whine is not unlike what I had in mind when I feared for the future of the little magazine.’ The trouble with talking about other people’s outsiderish whines is that it is so difficult not to do it in an insider’s drawl. Hamilton is alive to the paradox that Hugh Kenner is one of the most eminent critics of poetry in the English-speaking world but he seems blind to the irony that the slur of ‘outsider’ is very British, very complacent and very parochial. Kenner, it appears, doesn’t drink at the right pub. But what can you expect, Hamilton implies: after all, he was born in Canada.
The question which Ian Hamilton has to ask himself is what English poetry since the war amounts to. It is surely a truism of modern literary history that London has continued to be a centre for the publishing of poetry, even though significant poets (and particularly poets of metropolitan ambit) can seem to colonial ears, trained on the rhythms of Ezra Pound or Les Murray, few and far between. Kenner believes that Basil Bunting was one British poet who towered above the ruck. So do we. Ian Hamilton is bored by such talk. Wasn’t ‘a Poundian/Objectivist line … the stuff of several British and American little magazines some twenty years ago’, as if value could simply be equated with fashion.
And so to Scripsi. Hamilton misrepresents what Scripsi does, whether out of negligence or as the most efficient way of making his prejudices look respectable. According to Hamilton, we are ‘hopelessly out of date’ because we are ‘peddling’ something other people were highlighting twenty years ago. And we are naive enough to think we’re being ‘avant-garde’. Twenty years ago? Of course, Ian Hamilton was then editor of the Review. And the Review didn’t peddle that kind of poetry but it was a magazine which ‘had some sense of history, connecting itself back to an earlier epoch that was out of fashion’. Hamilton can’t have it both ways. Or rather, he did and we can: magazines have their traditions and their modernities. Part of Scripsi’s tradition (when we are not talking about Joyce or Flaubert) is the kind of thing Hamilton has never had much time for.
Hamilton can’t or won’t see what is staring him in the face. Yes, we have published essays on Oppen and Reznikoff and Zukofsky and Bunting because we think these writers matter. Our bet is that they will still matter in twenty years, though it would be nice to think that a discriminating literary world would have done something to assimilate them. But since when did fiction by Michel Tournier or Elizabeth Jolley, poetry by John Ashbery or Les Murray or Peter Porter, interviews with Christina Stead and Salman Rushdie, essays by Gerard Genette or J.P. Stern tally with the limiting label Hamilton wants to pin on Scripsi? It would be comforting to think this was just Hamilton’s whimsy but it’s not. What he’s up to, with all his talk of metropolitan centres and whining outsiders, seems much more symptomatic of the ills Kenner’s article diagnoses.
Ian Hamilton has read Scripsi through the dark glass of what he knows and perhaps once cared about. He might have noticed, for instance, that along with Hugh Kenner daring to say his piece on post-war British poetry there was Harold Bloom talking about Alexander Pope (‘hopelessly out of date’ perhaps). There was the outstanding new Australian novelist Kate Grenville writing fiction and there was a great swag of articles talking about the respective verse novels of Alan Wearne and Vikram Seth, neither of them remotely Poundian or Objectivist. But Hamilton doesn’t discuss any of this or any of the new poetry that we publish. Much of what Scripsi prints is international, much of it is Australian. But Hamilton is not really interested in specifics – not the ‘Poundian’ Californian August Kleinzahler who Thom Gunn thinks is one of the best poets around, not the Australian abstractionist John A. Scott whose St Clair was described as ‘a book Australian literature hardly deserves’. Ian Hamilton, and with him the London literary world, could do worse than investigate such poets.
In his reverie about the early days of his career Hamilton pauses to note that ‘whereas in Ezra Pound’s day the established culture-powers were self-protectively resistant to the new, nowadays they seem almost voraciously hospitable.’ Therefore I rejoice having to construct something upon which to rejoice. Scripsi doesn’t believe that the fashionable is always second-rate but we hope we’re above the kind of newness that’s validated only by its acceptability to ‘established culture-powers’. We can’t think of a better phrase to summarise Ian Hamilton’s reaction to Scripsi than ‘self-protectively resistant’. Here is the news: the Little Magazine died with the Review. Now good night and piss off.
Ian Hamilton writes: Let me rush to say that I had no wish to offend the editors of Scripsi. They are good fellows and terrific hosts, and I shall be fond of them until the bitter end. Also, I had no wish to put anyone off reading their magazine. It is, as they say, full of things other than Poundian/Objectivist special pleading; if I had been reviewing it, which I wasn’t, I would probably have found myself calling it the liveliest of current Australian little magazines. But I would still have had to register a protest against Hugh Kenner’s dotty article, and not just because by implication it suggests that I need not have lived. You see, I’m still inclined to think that Scripsi’s notion of ‘what English poetry amounts to’ since the war is about as well-informed as, say, my own notion of what’s been happening in Oz. The Scripsi boys indeed gave me some books to read when I was there, and they seemed to understand that an outsider like myself could not be expected to know the rich detail of their ‘scene’. And I was humble, questing, happy to be guided through the ‘ruck’. The Kenner reading list for recent English poetry is blank, apart from Anglo-American favourites like Basil Bunting and Charles Tomlinson. If the Scripsi lads ever come to London, and I hope they do, maybe I’ll give them some books. These won’t ‘amount to’ any more than whatever Scripsi chooses to make of them. But at least I’ll be satisfied that they have done as much work on my lot as (rightly) they would have me do on theirs. And even if they were then to persist in describing Basil Bunting as a lonely ‘tower’, I can promise that no one will require them to ‘piss off’. On the contrary, I will pour them some warm bitter and shepherd them to White Hart Lane – or even to St James’s Park, Newcastle, from whose terraces you can, I understand, catch a tantalising glimpse of Briggflatts or the Morden Tower or Bunting’s gravel pit. Or something. Anyway, I’ll do my best – as they, in Australia, assuredly did theirs.
Vol. 9 No. 17 · 1 October 1987
SIR: Born to whinge, handcuffed to failure
in Tyneside, Frisco and Australia,
striking one of several poses
with straw depending from our noses,
desperate to achieve bon ton
(see James, see metropolitan
lounge-liz whizz-kids sprawl in the sun,
see – passim – Ian Hamilton,
see the London-Oxford Axis
practising its polished praxis.
watch the poems deliquesce
in LRB and TLS,
hear the Kermode-Bayley throng
find fifty ways to sing along),
but sure to falter, strong to fail,
irrevocably beyond the pale,
talentless and solipsist,
inept, inane, outsiderist,
often slapped, but never kissed
by reader or reviewerist …
Permission, sir, to … er … exist?
Is it okay if Scripsi scribes
and other even lesser tribes
in colonies of stray dominions
cling to their frightful old opinions?
Strut their little wooden O
and talk to Ezra, and Rimbaud?
Is it a capital offence
to find more sustenance and sense
in sitting by Walt Whitman’s ocean
than practising perpetual Motion
(ludic though the thought may be
of going back past ’63)?
We know, at least, where Kenner stands.
We know the axe, and how it grinds
away at all the Sons of Pound’s
queer legacy of ampersands.
But where, I wonder – given the stuff
poured out solemnly in the trough
that he’s a Deputy Editor of –
does I.H. stand, and what’s his game
in lending his once critical name
to armpit lyrics, in-house malarkey
more boring than the old Squirearchy?
O whirligigs! O Robert Lowell!
(beggin yor parden, zur, vor speakin)
has that chap there thrown in the towel
or is it that ‘e’s sort of … squeakin’?
In his willingness to wound, Mr Scammell appears to be blaming on Ian Hamilton the poetry printed in this journal, of which Mr Hamilton is not the deputy editor.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 9 No. 18 · 15 October 1987
SIR: The clash between Ian Hamilton, one-time editor of the Review and the New Review, and Peter Craven and Michael Heyward, present editors of Scripsi (LRB, 9 July, and Letters, 3 September) strikes me as having great entertainment value. It isn’t every day you see a man who still imagines all the world is talking about what was once, quite a while ago, a perfectly good magazine, argy-bargying in this pathetic way with two others who know full well that a good number of people are talking about what is a perfectly good magazine now. From the ‘beardless, younger literati’ (hang on: is it wrong to be clean-shaven? or to be younger than Ian Hamilton?) through the suggestion that the elder statesman ‘piss off’ to Hamilton’s ‘Let me rush to say …’, this was a bunfight of the footling kind that only seems to happen when … well, when Ian Hamilton puts one of his graceless feet wrong, or in it. But the exchange is also interesting for a reason of greater consequence.
Contributions so far printed in the LRB seem to me not to have focused the issue at stake. That issue is the residual British superiority complex towards the newer literatures in English. These literatures have an imaginative vitality that makes them fully the equal of current writing in Britain: but still the British are sniffy, still an Oxford anthology purporting to represent world poetry in English can exclude Allen Curnow, Les A. Murray, John Ashbery and Michael Ondaatje and include Patricia Beer, Robert Conquest and Vernon Scannell in their place, still British readers are kept from the poets and novelists and dramatists who are at the cutting edge of today’s literature in English – kept from them by the policy of the major literary publications (let’s be sure that most of our reviewing space continues to go on British or American writers) and of bookshops (let’s be sure to stock the latest Kingsley Amis, we needn’t bother with that Canadian bloke).
Of course the situation has improved immeasurably in recent years. Poets Enright banished from his Oxford anthology are read in Britain and some have even found British publishers to handle their work; the Caribbean lobby has (rightly) kept up the pressure, and even if the writers who are widely known in Britain are still few, at least they are getting a hearing; passing fashions for Indian and Australian writers have helped to bring other writers to attention who weren’t shortlisted or profiled or interviewed. But the fundamental attitude is still that high-handed arrogance which once characterised the British view of American literature. In a recent issue of PN Review I put the case for a more open reception of contemporary Canadian writing, since the British willingness to accept one or two writers (Atwood, Davies, Munro) seems to close doors to others – only a limited number can be processed at a time, it seems. I was promptly told in a reply by Adewale Maja-Pearce that Canada only had ‘second-rate writers’, and in any case, hadn’t Canadians recently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize? And furthermore, when did any Canadian writer ever win the Nobel Prize? Such responses are wholly characteristic of the offshore islands, in my experience.
Today it is taken for granted that American literature is fertile and vigorous and the equal of British in every way. If one pleads the case of Canadian or Australian or Indian literature, though, it is seen sniffily as special pleading, and the best one can hope for is a shrugging acknowledgement that perhaps there are one or two good writers – one or two. At worst, a writer of the eminence of Robertson Davies will be given to understand (as he told me when I interviewed him recently) that ‘in Britain, nobody is interested in Canada.’
In a sense, it may well be futile to complain of this; as in the case of American literature, only time is going to win the newer literatures the acceptance they already deserve. Tokenism certainly won’t do the trick: if the books are to be read, let them be read because they are as good as (or better than) books by other writers, not because they happen to be written in Melbourne or Toronto. But I don’t think one can hammer and batter enough at this anachronistic British superiority complex – and it’s that dreary leftover that prompts an Ian Hamilton to his polite sneers, and Peter Craven and Michael Heyward to their outburst of pent-up frustration and resentment. It has to go. The revolution happens daily, mercifully; so, unfortunately, does the restoration, on the typewriters of the Hamiltons. Looking to the interests and well-being not of an old colonial master but of the future vitality of literature, all one can sensibly say is: good luck to the revolution – and may it happen within.
University of Cologne
Vol. 9 No. 19 · 29 October 1987
SIR: Surely Michael Hulse (Letters, 15 October) is right to praise Scripsi and to wonder if there lingers an ‘anachronistic British superiority complex’ towards the newer literatures in English, but he may be generalising too much. He instances resistance to John Ashbery, to Les A. Murray and Australian verse, and to contemporary Canadian verse. As one of the editors of Verse, which has recently published extended features on these three areas, I know that there exist British readers who are enthusiastic about the material. The main problem is not so much making people aware that these writers are worth reading as making sure that books by them are readily available in this country.
In this respect, John Ashbery has been fortunate. More worrying is the case of Les Murray. While there is a good deal of interest in that Australian poet’s work, the Carcanet Selected Poems is the only book of his verse in the British shops, and he is very poorly represented even in major academic libraries. Angus and Robertson may have a few copies of Murray’s verse and prose collections in their London office, but their distribution of these appears non-existent. The boys who stole the funeral, Murray’s verse novel, which (apart from appearing his most controversial book in Australia) is a major achievement, is hardly known in Britain. If no British publisher with an efficient distribution network will bring out such a book (or the very differently Australian verse of a poet like John Tranter), then this may not prove Michael Hulse’s generalisation but does indicate that some sections of Britain at least are reluctant to open their doors.