Every three years

Blake Morrison

  • 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.

As often with Hamilton, the poem works as much by what it doesn’t say as what it does: the happiness it commemorates is no longer present for the participants, or so we assume from the isolation of the phrase ‘To this day’, itself betokening isolation of other kinds. Because of its subject, a photograph, the speaker is unusually composed. More typically, he and we are dropped in at the deep end, at the climactic moment of a drama, the speaker emotionally (and sometimes physically) locked into the plight of a suffering wife or dying parent, the setting a menaced interior. Loved and fragile objects are constantly placed under threat – flower petals, ‘soft flecks of soot’, ‘Your head between my hands as if it were/a delicate bowl that the storm might break’ – and in the last lines of the poems violence frequently erupts: ‘And then you scream,’ you ‘wait for an attack’, ‘The storm rolls through, me as your mouth opens.’ Though the poems let slip an underlying story, they have no narrative as such and work as separate units. At worst, they read like a cross between R.D. Laing’s case-notes and Richard Aldington’s Imagism. At best, they have a force and integrity which none of the other poets associated with the Review, and few poets since, have come close to matching.

The problem, as Hamilton concedes in his preface, is that these 50 poems encompass such a narrow range of experience and cannot be said to exhibit ‘development’. The later ones he calls, aptly, ‘bruised re-writes’ of the earlier, self-conscious visits to old institutional scenes, more inclined to defeat and self-accusation (‘I’m no comfort to you any more,’ ‘One hand in yours, the other murderously cold’), but essentially unchanged. Only twice does a lighter tone break through: in ‘Critique’, where he allows himself a holiday, more or less literally, as he sits in Cornwall poring over a poet friend’s ‘dud manuscripts’; and in ‘Larkinesque’, which through the small talk of two solicitors gives us ‘Dockery and Son’ in a divorce court.

‘And you, old man, did you, well, take the plunge?’
No bloody fear: Forbes-Robertson, it seems,
Keeps Labradors, and Smythe keeps his relationships
‘Strictly Socratic’. When you’d seen
What they’d seen ... and so on.

The rhythms were becoming Larkinesque
And so would mine if I were made to do
This kind of thing more often. As it is,
The morning sun, far from ‘unhindered’, animates
The hands I used to write about with ‘lyric force’.
Your hands
Now clutching a slim volume of dead writs.

The poem is fascinating (despite that wobbly repetition of ‘keeps’) for putting on display the invisible editorial process that lies behind the rest of the work: forcing itself to curtail the knowing light verse for which it seems to have an appetite, it finds its true note of lyric distress. Hamilton is right not to doubt that this is his true note, but right, too, to worry that the tones of tender youth should be so resistant to a mid-life succession: ‘The raggedness of everything, the booze, the jokes, the literary feuds, the almost-love-affairs, the cash, the somehow-getting-to-be-forty, and so on: where does all that show itself in these poems of my early middle age?’ Nowhere, it’s true, though something more battle-weary is present, if only by implication, in the closing poem, ‘The Forties’, where the speaker, in an agonised (and Larkinesque again) self-consciousness of quote-marks, observes himself settling for a more comfortable and bourgeois existence than he’d once have thought possible. It’s a finale which leaves open the possibility of Hamilton packing in the business of poetry altogether, but also, more hopefully, of his becoming a different kind of poet – relaxed, genial, wry in defeat. It would be good to be able to welcome him back from the dead a second time. Meanwhile, there’s the pinched harvest of these Fifty Poems, which at their best live on beyond the stubbly footnote (‘Minimalist Poetry: See Review, the’) where the combines of literary history threaten to leave them.

Is Hamilton’s the kind of poetry the editors of A Various Art have in mind when they deprecate (if that’s not too strong a word) ‘an attitude’ prevalent in the Sixties which persists today?

Current constructions of British poetry, to our amusement though not to our chagrin, persevere with the stylistic remnants of that attitude. The poetry generally on offer is either provincial or parasitically metropolitan, and furnishes the pleasures of either a happy nostalgia or a frisson of daring and disgust. Or so we find. Our comment is not intended, however, to be harsh so much as cautionary.

That’s telling them ... But it’s not perhaps the fault of these two amused, unchagrined editors that their ‘alternative’ anthology should find it so hard to be forthright about what precisely it’s an alternative to. The advantage of a consensus in poetry is that it can be everywhere spoken against, but since Hamilton and the Review there has not been a consensus that’s easy to define and defy. ‘Variety’, anyway, is all it can be answered with, and as A Various Art demonstrates, it’s hard to hitch a manifesto to that. Yet advocacy of a kind is necessary. It’s no coincidence that the three voices of the 16 in A Various Art to emerge most strongly have enjoyed critical sponsorship: Roy Fisher and J.H. Prynne in Donald Davie’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, the late Veronica Forrest-Thomson through her own theoretical book Poetic Artifice. In spurning both a polemical introduction and the biographical notes, this anthology may define itself against the run of post-war anthologies, but it does no favours for its contributors, whose work, itself doing no favours for the unprepared general reader, looks to have been written according to a set of undisclosed codes and precepts. It is possible to guess at some of these: the rejection of Movement-like tidiness and accessibility and a liking for more open and fluid verse-forms; a respect, not so very remote from Ian Hamilton’s, for the power of the isolated lyric cry or fragment; a self-reflexive, Post-Structuralist, at times academic fascination with the processes of language itself. But not to have made more of the platform which an anthology like this offers seems a wasted opportunity. One’s left, not with pleasure (a rather un-Cambridge quality, and most of these poets are Cambridge poets), but with a rather cold admiration for all the seeming austerity, which is evident, too, in the beautifully produced, unostentatious separate recent collections by Douglas Oliver and Anthony Barnett,[*] contributors to the Carcanet volume.

‘America’ is one acknowledged influence on these poets, though ‘America’ turns out to mean chiefly Ashbery, Olson and Pound. That there are other traditions to look to these days is clear from the American Brad Leithauser’s Between Leaps, a book notable for itself looking back across the Atlantic. Not many American poets do glance backwards these days, and most of the ones that do write light verse. Leithauser has a lightness of touch and a grasp of received forms such as Gavin Ewart might envy, as in his four-line ‘minim’ on unrequited love –

Your lungs expand; you’re smitten –
  She’s gnawingly beautiful;

Before long the nail’s bitten
  Right down to the cuticle

– but he also has Zen-like powers of concentration, a clear eye for natural observation and a little-used gift of narrative. Those tired of the wild woods of Whitman and Ginsberg would do well to relax in his bonsai garden.

They might, it’s true, find it a bit too well-tended. From Thom Gunn and Charles Tomlinson to (in their new collections) William Scammell and John Ash, English poets have thought of America as a place to hang loose, an adventure playground of the spirit. Eldorado moves Scammell beyond the erudite, edgy satirical mode which has been his form of resistance to metropolitan parasitism: it begins with poems set on the West Coast and the much-travelled poems that follow have a woozy Californian benevolence that’s new to Scammell, if not quite his bag. Exactly what his bag is remains frustratingly unapparent: accomplished and wide-ranging, he hasn’t yet found the place to be ‘really himself’. John Ash has, and it’s New York, where he now lives, though how far Disbelief is a book about a ‘real’ city is one of the questions Ash likes to raise, quotation-marks liberally spattered, as he celebrates artifice, invention, inconsequentially (‘Say that life is a festive marching to no purpose’), hedonism (‘the search for the perfect restaurant continues’), the surreal. The pleasure in the book is its musicality, though sometimes the music is Ashbery’s –

The invitations were returned
or people arrived on the wrong evening
so your worst fears were fulfilled
and you sent the singers home, still in costume

– and sometimes its dissatisfaction is merely catty, or Manx catty, Ashbery without his elegant tail. The problem with a poetry as relentlessly inventive as Ash’s is that one can’t get the measure of its tone: refusing to speak of the life it originates from, it begins to seem that it has no life to speak of, or none beyond the imagination it celebrates in free-floating, Post-Modernist verse: only when he speaks of the city he used to inhabit, Manchester, and of taking his ease amid the ‘Victorian buildings and quiet oils of its canals’, does a true voice of feeling seem to threaten.

In the marvellous elegiac poems of The Cost of Seriousness over a decade ago, Peter Porter succeeded at last in being commandingly himself. But Porter has been reluctant to settle into the part:

The heavy spirit of ambition
tells you to write first this way,
then the next,

he remarks in his new collection, The Automatic Oracle, and elsewhere finds himself longing for enemies, who at least help to give one’s wavering life some focus. Porter isn’t entirely fair to himself: the new book focuses clearly on death (‘the lifted arm before the heart attack’), the word, and the death of the word, the last exemplified in the appearance in three separate poems of disc-jockeys, their gabbling omnipresence symptomatic of a culture in its last twitches. The relation between language and decay is one he ponders obsessively, snatching significance from misprints, looking back to an era when words like ‘heretofore’ and ‘notwithstanding’ could be used without embarrassment, documenting the new age of the floppy disc when ‘the word-processor is a crutch for brains’, praying to Tipp-Ex, ‘the God of White-Outs’, imagining the disposal of his own body, and concluding that if ‘you are the books you write,’ then death is just a blankness, a book with uncut pages. Though The Automatic Oracle has less to say about the ‘dangerous times we live in’ than the blurb promises, and a calm, Olympian awareness of more ancient times keeps what political anger he might feel in check, a sardonic note breaks in here and there –

The nation knew that it was winning
By the applause of its diseases

– and the closing poem fuses images of Pisa, London and hell to offer a bleak vision of a future-present city

Whose used-up living lives on in its rind ...
A shadow city, formed of self and soul,
Its past pristine, its present on the dole.

A late starter, publishing his first collection at 45, Norman MacCaig also left it late to create (or see others create) the taste by which his poetry might be enjoyed. Only in the mid-Eighties, and his mid-seventies, with the appearance of his Collected Poems, was the moment right to appreciate the rich metaphoric gifts which he had displayed throughout a long career – from the description in his first collection of a grasshopper with ‘plated face’ to a later image of a swaying cow as ‘two native carriers bringing its belly home, slung from a pole’. He has been accused of whimsicality, but his new book, Voice-over, is too spare, too elemental, its mind too fixed on last things, to indulge itself in look-alike tricks. And when it does so, it pushes them to such extremes –

The stars go out one by one
as though a bluetit the size of the world
were pecking them like peanuts out of the sky’s string bag

– that even MacCaig calls the result ‘ludicrous’. For all his skill at visual correspondences – swifts tying together the bright light or drawing huge baskets in the sky – he is interested, not in prompting the response of ‘snap’ or ‘gotcha’, but in opening his metaphors out to provoke doubt, mystery, unease. Why are the eyes of a neighbour like two teaspoons ‘emptied for the last time’? What exactly is that cloud he envisages ‘tumbling over the ears of the milkman’s horse sticking up through its battered hat’? What is the connection between the great thinker with his little torch in ‘the dark forest of ideas’ and the world

where a hen disappeared
into six acres of tall oats
and sauntered unerringly
to the nest with five eggs in it?

The plainness of MacCaig’s diction makes you confident that when he plunges into parable it’s in order to pursue hard questions, not Sitwellian spectres. The mysteries of the universe – the wheeling stars, the desperate predatoriness of animals, the unknown forebears, the languages beyond hearing, the bewildering inner spaces – seem borne over against him more than ever before, and in his at times manic isolation he turns for comfort to simple people and simple creatures: the old Highland woman whose hands lie in her lap ‘like holy psalms’; the crofter, an emblem of history ‘in its pure state’; the old masters; the cock of Lachie’s croft, not a Hughesian triumphalist but – like the poet – croaky, bedraggled, gummy-eyed. ‘I’m master of nothing I survey,’ says MacCaig, and certainly part of the attractiveness of his persona is that he doesn’t make peremptory or extravagant claims. But when he chooses to wrest the meaning out of an experience, the results can be masterful, as with his description of a small boy throwing pebbles:

He wasn’t trying to fill the sea.
He wasn’t trying to empty the beach.

He was just throwing away,
... practising for the future

when there’ll be so many things
he’ll want to throw away

if only his fingers will unclench
and let them go.

[*] Published by Allardyce Nicholl.