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Ian Hamilton’s Collected Poems.

Though Ian Hamilton died in 2001 of cancer, I still see him sometimes in party rooms, at literary gatherings, burly, almost square, with the low center of gravity of a Scottish ex-middleweight or ex-wing half, encased in his black Crombie overcoat (indoors, radiating simultaneously cold and impermeability), invariably smoking—oh, how we used to smoke in those days—and making what Sam Selvon, the Trinidad novelist, calls “oldtalk”—senior conversation.

Collected Poems, by Ian Hamilton, ed. by Alan Jenkins.
Faber and Faber.

Though Ian Hamilton died in 2001 of cancer, I still see him sometimes in party rooms, at literary gatherings, burly, almost square, with the low center of gravity of a Scottish ex-middleweight or ex-wing half, encased in his black Crombie overcoat (indoors, radiating simultaneously cold and impermeability), invariably smoking—oh, how we used to smoke in those days—and making what Sam Selvon, the Trinidad novelist, calls “oldtalk”—senior conversation. Ian McEwan once described him as having “the face of a capo di capi, and a useful, understated cool.” A conspiratorial element of backroom, exile, spit, and sawdust clung to him. He put one in mind of a boxing manager or a soccer coach. His father’s middle name was Tough. The habitual set of his face was a sort of tender scowl. He had the secret sorrow one might look for in a Tottenham Hotspurs fan and serial founder and editor of little magazines. The cowboyishly skewed mouth—the word “hardbitten” might have been invented for it—passing sotto voce ten ton judgments was much more familiar to me from Craig Raine’s gifted and unexpectedly devoted imitations of him than from the real thing. In fact, parties aside, I saw him very few times, though these, oddly, seem as though they could furnish a biography. An ill-advised lunch at my instigation in the early eighties, just after his life of Robert Lowell appeared, at which Ian drank more than he spoke, and I hadn’t yet learned to drink (“those played-with-but-uneaten lunches for which he was famous” in the words of his friend, the novelist Dan Jacobson; “You never ate; / Just pushed things round and round your plate / Till you could decently light up again,” in those of Alan Jenkins’s poem “Rotisserie (The Wait)”—but how was I to know that?). Then there was the time he popped up in a playground in Queens Park, which was the wrong suburb, with a daughter I had no idea he had—he was supposed to be away in Wimbledon, and with sons—growling something about Catherine (innocently pulling at a bottle of water) having inherited her father’s thirst. I saw him another time going into the publisher’s to fetch some boxes of things, wearing a camouflage jacket, and with a station wagon idling outside, in the throes of moving house or changing lives. Later, there was a group reading in Manchester, even as an unbuttoned United having won the European Cup were paraded through the city on an open-topped municipal bus; we made our way through thousands of onlookers to read to a disappointed bookstore manager and a dozen nutcas—sorry, poetry lovers. I saw Ian the next morning, already ensconced in the London train, and felt far too shy to join him; but when I opened my newspaper, his name leapt out to greet me. It was his contribution to a series—this speaks volumes on a certain positively idealistic streak in English cultural philistinism, its fearless Quixotic heroism—on “overrated books.” Ian’s chosen target was The Waste Land.

He was possessed of more authority—more literary authority, I suppose I should specify—than anyone I’ve ever met, and it was, in the terms of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, personal not positional authority. In other words, it didn’t matter that he no longer sat at the head of the table, as it were; no longer fronted books programs on the BBC; no longer had commissions to dole out, approval to bestow or deny in the columns of the Observer or the TLS; that his magazines the Review and the New Review edited (partly to avoid creditors) from a pub across the road called The Pillars of Hercules had long since been wound up; you still wouldn’t want to cross him, or even disagree with him. Not because he was a (literary) gangster but, rather the opposite, because of the virtue and delicacy of his poems. In the long and fascinating interview that Dan Jacobson conducted with Hamilton shortly before his death, it is striking how often he uses a phantom or gangland first person plural; it’s always “we weren’t supposed to be telling people about fads” or “so we thought yes.” And yet I can’t help thinking that the co-opted parties, left to themselves, would have stuck, more truthfully, to the third person singular: “Ian this” or “Ian that.” Hence the persistent take-offs (flattery), and the unparalleled loyalty to his memory and example. He ran his magazines, the one from 1962 to 1972, the other from 1974 to 1979, without really making any discoveries, or launching any notable careers. Perhaps they could even be described as gloriously exclusionary enterprises, ideally diminishing to a single angel on a pin. Most of the major reputations of the sixties—Larkin, Gunn, Hughes, Plath—were already firmly defined, and the editorial “we” was fairly agnostic on their successors; “never had any time for Geoffrey Hill and still don’t”; entertained more or less crippling reservations about Lowell and Heaney and Berryman (“I was never a great Berryman fan”); never saw the point of the Black Mountain school (“that neo-Poundian stuff”); and fought an unremitting war against the poppy, crowd-pleasing Mersey Poets (“You can imagine what [Matthew] Arnold would have said if he had read Roger McGough”). At the same time, it seems to me that the poets who passed through his magazines, like Douglas Dunn, David Harsent, Hugo Williams, Craig Raine, did some of their best work then, in an endeavor to please Ian. The fiction writers too, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Jim Crace, Martin Amis, Edna O’Brien, Kazuo Ishiguro, surely bore some trace of having been through his editorial cura. It strikes me that Ian was perhaps the last poet routinely read by novelists (at least, if there have been others since, I am not aware of them). It was the last time there was any sort of citadel or center in English letters, even though it may have ended, in brilliantly English fashion, with the writers being called upon to pay the printers’ bills. (Doesn’t it all sound like something from Cavafy?) Or is that just a story?

*     *     *

Ian Hamilton published his book of poems called The Visit in 1970. It contained thirty-three poems, all of them short (more on this matter of brevity later). In 1988, the year he turned fifty, he had bulked this up to a production called Fifty Poems. Ten years later, that was replaced by Sixty Poems, always with the original thirty-three leading off. Alan Jenkins—poet and reviewer, a friend and successor of Ian Hamilton’s at the TLS—has managed to turn up two more poems, and another seventeen unpublished or uncollected pieces. Grand total: seventy-nine. You think prime number, or else of the perceived shame and difficulty of writing at such a slow rate. Ian, of course, was aware of the problem: Fifty Poems came with a moody, though unapologetic, preface (“Fifty poems in twenty-five years: not much to show for half a lifetime, you might think”), which is included, with much other valuable material, in Alan Jenkins’s edition. And when Ian read aloud to launch it, the difficulty was still more acute, as he threatened to gallop through the entire book in half an hour or so, because not only were the poems short, but they didn’t elicit from him very much in the way of commentary or explanation or background chat. These problems, though real and un-get-around-able—is there any substitute for quantity in poetry!?—are ancillary, because in the end Hamilton’s slender oeuvre is worth others ten times as bulky. As the man’s life was a perhaps involuntary education in the difficulties of being a poet (or “man of letters”), so Ian’s poems are an education in poetry. Reading them trains and civilizes one’s nerves. Just as in his tastes he whittled and whittled away, “allowing” finally maybe only Hardy and Arnold and Frost and Larkin and some early Pound and Keith Douglas and half a dozen pieces from Life Studies, so the poems do away with luxuriance, the inessential. No filler, only killer. If you take them to your heart, you will understand how much poetry is to do with the mastery of hot and cold, of precisely heart and heartlessness: the control of side effects—semi-colons, line breaks, syllables, changes of register, hurdles, internal rhymes—within its own silent and impossible speech. As one poem (“Nature”) has it, “Counting syllables in perfect scenery / Now that you’ve gone.”

All of Hamilton’s poems are moments of equilibrium in dramatic or even fraught contexts. Sometimes the contexts can be made out, or they are revealed in the notes (though neither notes nor poems are indiscreet): they are a father’s death, or a wife’s derangement. Sometimes they remain mysterious, though just as urgent. Their tragedy is expressed in the absolute separation of the pronouns in these “I-you” poems: the helpless “I,” the afflicted “you,” the fictive “we.” “The usual curse,” it says in “Ties”: “His, yours, theirs, everyone’s. And hers.” The poems stop and turn; there is something pivotal and sculptural about them, but also something instantaneous—almost the best comparison is with Bill Brandt’s statuesquely tubular black and white sixties nudes (with the addition, in Hamilton, of occasional little spots of color):

                                Aching, you turn back
From the wall and your hands reach out
Over me. They are caught
In the last beam and, pale,
They fly there now. You’re taking off, you say,
And won’t be back.

From “Trucks”

It is so vivid, it is almost theatrically or mythologically present, this shaped snapshot. Each scene has something of beacon or semaphor: built up from the short words and artful repetitions of Frost, the contracted verbs (often, as in Larkin, couched in the negative), and the teetering piles of adjectives (the triads borrowed from Lowell), or else Hamilton’s personal trademark adverb-plus-adjective pairing: “monotonously warm,” “this shocked and slightly aromatic fall of leaves,” “one hand in yours, the other / Murderously cold,” “the delicately shrouded heart / Of this white rose,”  “semi-swamps / Of glitteringly drenched green,” “The river weeds / . . . / A shade more featherishly purple,” for buddleia or rosebay willowherb. (These extraordinarily effective, really rather glamorous adverbs aside, Hamilton’s poems have a modest and restricted vocabulary: it’s hard to imagine him doing anything as officious and showy as naming plants.)

The opening poem—not so in The Visit, but from Fifty Poems on—is “Memorial”:

Four weathered gravestones tilt against the wall
Of your Victorian asylum.
Out of bounds, you kneel in the long grass
Deciphering obliterated names:
Old lunatics who died here.

That’s the whole thing, a miracle of balance and implication. The “you” is addressed, I take it, to Gisela Dietzen, Hamilton’s first wife, who became schizophrenic. There are two word-groups, one subtly expressing (Pound’s word!) long-standing—“weathered,” “Victorian,” “long,” “obliterated,” “old,” even, at a pinch, “tilt”—and the other, dementia—“asylum” and “lunatics,” and then, arguably, “tilt” again, and “out of bounds.” The stones are characterful from the beginning, like British teeth, pitched between the two interesting, almost flavorful words, “weathered” and “tilt,” one governing surface, the other angle. (I’m reminded of an astonishing Egon Schiele painting of four trees, each one a distinct, spindly personality.) It’s no surprise to have them brought out at the end in the personal, matey, borderline slang of “old lunatics” (a tone, by the way, of which Hamilton had an absolute mastery, as witness his essayistic prose, or a couple of broader poems, “Larkinesque” and the lit-crit skit called “An Alternative Agenda”). The impersonal Pevsner-ish handling of time in “weathered” has morphed into the simple personal of “old.” (“We are all old-timers,” says Lowell in “Waking in the Blue,” a poem Hamilton will have known and, I believe, liked.) That tone—distinctly warmer, more spoken, more intimately joshing than anything else in the poem—prepares us for its last word, “here.” There is a conflict, as there often is in Hamilton (and I struggled with it before, with my likenesses of photographs and sculptures), between movement and stasis: this is one shot, one frame, but with a zoom. It is the zoom that gives the poem its fear (oddly coincident with its warmth): the fear that the “you” will never leave “here”—that “here” that was once “out of bounds”; that the tenderness of a chance, meaningless occupation (“kneel” of course has something erotic about it) will turn out to have been ill-omened or predictive; that the interest evinced will have become excessive and fateful; that ultimately we are attending at something symptomatic and morbid, for which there are hurtful colloquial designations, like “old lunatics.” The poem is graced by all sorts of other details and symmetries: its two dynamic verbs, “tilt” and “kneel”; the way the sound of “tilt” seeds “obliterated,” and that of “Victorian” “lunatics”; the play of “Deciphering”—to do with revealing figures—and “obliterated,” which is destroying letters; the sinister implication of having five lines about four stones. Then “Memorial” starts to recede. It becomes what the art critics call a “mise en abime,” dramatizing the theme of attention (“the natural prayer of the soul” as Paul Celan liked to say): it is Hamilton kneeling at what has become his wife’s grave; and then it is ourselves, as it were, on our knees before this “memorial.” It is, after all, a poem about reading.

The other chief or recurring Hamilton subject is the death of his father, when he was thirteen. Here, again in its entirety, is “Birthday Poem”:

Tight in your hands,
Your Empire Exhibition shaving mug.
You keep it now
As a spittoon, its bloated doves,
Stained by the droppings of your blood.
Half-suffocated, cancerous,
You bite against its gilded china mouth
And wait for an attack.

This poem is strung up on one rhyme, on the letter t and a long preceding vowel: “tight . . . bloated . . . eight . . . tonight . . . suffocated . . . bite . . . wait.” A second series, this time of short t syllables, makes itself felt alongside: “spittoon . . . its . . . its . . . its . . . attack.” There is something queasy and labored about the long syllables—especially “bloated”—and then the short, pedantic cymbal stroke of the t: it demands the careful British dental t, not the drawled American half-d. The t is the frontier, it enacts the spit, between one “mouth” and the other, one “mug” and the other. The poem is in iambs throughout, but with striking and dramatic trochaic inversions at the beginning (“tight in”) and halfway (“stained by”), though that hardly does justice to its supple variety. The last line, for instance, “And wait for an attack,” is three iambs, but each of a completely different quality, the first, if you like, normal strength, the second almost pyrrhic (those two unimportant words, gulped down), the third almost a spondee. I don’t know why the poem is called “Birthday Poem”; either it happens to be the birthday of the father (or the son); or, a little more obscurely but sensibly, it’s a reference to the year of the poet’s birth, 1938, the same year as the Empire Exhibition, held in Glasgow, the city of his father and mother, which they had recently left. The year 1938, the year of the Munich agreement, of “I hold in my hand a piece of paper” and “peace in our time” and Sudetenland, and the last year of a more general “waiting for an attack,” is of course far from innocent (therefore no “doves,” or only bloodstained ones, “deceived” ones, if you like). But then so is Empire (shouldn’t it really be “Expire” and “Expiry Inhibition,” the effort to hold in one’s death?), which was also awaiting its end, while still recalling those—bloated?—“distensions of Empire” that Pound’s Propertius refuses (natch) to “expound.” The poem moves from defense—that “tight” appears all the time in such soccer locutions like “keep it tight” or “playing it tight”—to the helpless “wait for an attack.” Its climax, its knot, where one repeatedly looks to, is the triad of adjectives, brutally sectioned off by the line break, “Half-suffocated, cancerous, / Deceived”: how the “you” feels, how he is, and how he reconciles the two conditions in his mind. With its undependable c’s, now soft, now hard, and the soft puffing ff’s replaced by a long screaming e vowel and a slicing v, the combination of sounds is of a deadly masterful suggestiveness.

The poems in The Visit are wonderful and unequalled by any of those that so painfully slowly came later. “Memorial” and “Birthday Poem,” plus “Pretending not to Sleep,” “Father, Dying,” “Last Respects,” “Epitaph,” “Admission,” “Last Waltz,” “The Visit,” and “Now and Then” all come from the first thirty-three, along with others almost as good, as intensely pitched, as eerily balanced, and mysteriously stocked with quiddity. Hamilton—of course, of course—knew this: “In fact, I’d now say,” he writes in the 1988 preface to Fifty Poems, “that these later poems are bruised rewrites of what I’d done before.” To say there is anything like a falling-off would be like saying there was a falling-off in the work of T.E. Hulme. The poems still partake of and contribute to the same harrowed atmospheres, the same persistently denatured nature (“I sit beneath this gleaming wall of rock / And let the breeze lap over me”—in the poem called “Nature”), and harshly lit studio rooms, with curtains, neighbors, and cars outside only momentarily distracting the archaically helpless antagonists within from their drama. While almost completely neglecting the sixties—one single song title, one mention of Vietnam—and with no topical nouns, no consumer language, nothing street or veriste, it is uncanny how much these poems are able to evoke the textures and comforts of their time. But perhaps that’s one last vestige of the perverse way in which, to begin with, I tried to read him, almost as a war poet, for drama and substance; whereas now I see him as the Mallarmé-like technician of stresses and syllables which in fact I think he did become, a little mannered, a little hallowed and sacerdotal, a little too self-aware, a little too good at doing without, a little too coolly canny:

These ancient lamps, diminishing each day,
Will never taste the dark worlds they whimper for.
These wounds,
Though we have nourished them for years,
Will be the freshest of sweet tears
Tomorrow. And the lost will not be found.

The enzyme that converted pain to poetry went away or gave up. The thing is, there was something not just poetry-minded, but simply and truly high-minded about Ian, which meant that he had a horror of exploiting those around him; Lowell, whose life he wrote, and of whom he will have seen a fair bit in London in the late sixties and early seventies, appalled him with his personal fusses and pitiless production. The cards he was left with—seventy-nine poems, not so many more than a deck—were paucity and brevity. I realize I am paraphrasing the sentence with which Alan Jenkins opens his introduction, quoting Dan Jacobson: “So far as they can be said to be famous at all, Ian Hamilton’s poems are famous for being small in size and few in number.” Accordingly, he wrote hundreds of reviews and essays, and eventually a subtle and simply-written and enchanting group of prose books that discreetly revolved around the question that so preoccupied Hamilton of what writers did when they stopped, in any vital sense, writing. First, there was the auto-gyro Lowell. Then the opposite case, J.D. Salinger, the greatly loved author who “had elected to silence himself. He had freedom of speech but what he had ended up wanting more than anything else, it seemed, was the freedom to be silent.” There were books on writers in Hollywood (a sort of posthumous condition), and on writers’ estates (those really had put down their pens). There was Paul Gascoigne, the most gifted footballer of his generation (and a Tottenham player!), who burned out on silly drink and bad food and personal excesses, and Matthew Arnold, a Victorian slave to duty and social good. I don’t think Ian chose—though of course he didn’t actually choose, there wasn’t a choice—any worse than any of these. Last of all there was a book called Against Oblivion, a set of lives of twentieth-century poets, a pendant to Dr. Johnson, agnostic, cool, sometimes drily wounding. All that I think is nacre; the pearls are the poems.

Originally Published: December 30th, 2009

Poet, translator, and essayist Michael Hofmann was born in Freiburg, Germany, and moved to the UK at age four. When his family returned to Germany, Hofmann stayed behind, first at boarding schools and later Magdalene College, Cambridge University, where he earned his BA and MA. His first book of poetry,...

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  1. January 15, 2010
     James Sutherland-Smith

    Ian Hamilton was a minor poet. The Collected Poems have a very restricted vocabulary. See how many times he uses the verb 'touch'. He had two themes the his father's last illness and death and his first wife's illness. I imagine that both of these had such a profound effect on him that he might have felt that nothing else was worth writing about.

  2. January 20, 2010

    Poetry readers are less in the world. Poetry Book buyers are almost nil! Poetry writers are many in the world! So, to have prominence in poetry each poem should be full of interesting ideas compressed as precisely as possible to keep the attention of the read till the end. Otherwise never think about writing poetry at all! This is for the attention of all poetry writers and poetry anthology editors too!

  3. January 29, 2010
     Barbara Robinette

    Few things are as beautiful in this tired world as a well-written poem within the eyes and heart of the seeking reader. It takes both. T.A. Ramesh you've caught my a poetry writer...who has bought hundreds of poetry books in the last decade. Ian Hamilton is a poet I've not read. Perhaps I should.

  4. February 10, 2010

    Thanks Barbara Robinette for your reference about me! I am a poetry book writer too! My Poetry Book, DREAMS, IDEAS AND REALITIES is published by Minerva Press India Pvt, Ltd available in www,! If you are interested you can buy this book and also write a commentary about it one day! Best wishes!

  5. April 10, 2013
     E. Stern

    What an elegant, informative, entertaining essay. Hulme is news to me,
    previously only a name, now a destination. Ian Hamilton I knew only from
    his biographies (I am American). So, thank you Mr. Hoffmann. The opening
    graph, and the end, especially. Such confidence, erudition and a light