A knife-fight in a phone booth

Standpoint Magazine

In August the Department of Education announced that GCSE students would be allowed to drop poetry as a subject in their 2021 exams, prompting protests by what the Daily Mail called “celebrity poets”, a phrase that elicited a sardonic response on social media. The subject was hastily returned to the curriculum, but the Covid-related kerfuffle served to confirm that poetry as a cultural practice continues to provoke strong feelings, and is something worth fighting for. Let’s not, for now, recycle the old quip about the stakes being so low.

In The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) Ben Lerner reflects on the enduring prestige of poetry and the widespread popular belief that poets have a purchase, however slight, on immortality. Further, that to be a published poet is to have one’s humanity objectively endorsed, if only by a handful of readers, many of whom are likely to be fellow poets. He argues that all poems are essentially exercises in failure because no amount of virtuosity can overcome the fact that (as he puts it) “poetry isn’t hard. It’s impossible”, and this is because the “abstract potential” of a poem is compromised the moment it becomes part of the world, a betrayal of the original impulse to write. All poets are destined to fail, and to fail as a poet is to fail not only artistically but also existentially. The stakes, in fact, are high.

In 1965, at the age of 27, the impecunious poet Ian Hamilton joined the Times Literary Supplement as a part-time “Special Writer”, later becoming the Poetry and Fiction Editor. During his eight years in the job he became embroiled in a fraught episode in our cultural history, the so-called “poetry wars”.

Hamilton had already made his mark as founder and editor of The Review, (1962-72) a poetry magazine much admired for its sharp, provocative criticism. The target was poetic mediocrity and the approach was quite merciless; one debut collection was briskly despatched as “toweringly pretentious, intricately boring and painstakingly derivative”.

He championed poetry that combined emotional intensity and intellectual precision, insisting that the perfect poem should contain “the maximum amount of suffering [and] the maximum amount of control”. Poems like his own, many of which are about his father’s death from cancer when Hamilton was a boy, or about his first wife’s severe mental illness. Here is “Awakening”:

Your head, so sick, is leaning against mine,
So sensible. You can’t remember
Why you’re here, nor do you recognise
These helping hands.
My love.
The world encircles us. We’re losing ground.

Hamilton’s voice is quiet, precise, tender and unconsoling—few poets could write like this, though many tried. Clive James, a regular contributor to The Review, observed in the final issue that Hamilton’s less-talented followers tended to produce:

. . . a new strain of super-resistant sub-microscopic bacterial poem that can bore you to death without showing you anything to fight against. Committing no blunders, such poems can’t be criticised.

Other poems certainly could be. Hamilton had been appalled when Penguin published The Mersey Sound (1967) featuring the Liverpool poets Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and Roger McGough, and even more appalled when the anthology sold more than half a million copies. We may detect an unpleasant whiff of elitism, protectionism and chauvinism in this reaction. Hamilton, who came from an unprivileged background, was a graduate of Keble College Oxford and the pop culture poems he derided were mostly by working-class writers who had attended art school rather than a university (McGough was the exception, having studied at Hull). Their work was unschooled and artless and, insisted admirers, all the better for it, more authentic. Clive James, noting this cultural shift, observed to Hamilton: “It’s better to be a half-witted Liverpudlian with a bedside manner than a mandarin with a sneer.”

Acomparable shift had already taken place in fiction following the critic Cyril Connolly’s complaint in 1955 that the English novel was characterised by three “colossal, almost irremediable” defects: thinness of material, poverty of style and lack of power. All three, he argued, arose from the fact that most published authors came from what he called (anticipating James) the mandarin class—a narrow social stratum with little experience of life beyond public school, Oxbridge and a few years’ professional dalliance in London or the provinces.

Things had changed by the end of that decade with the appearance of an all-male cohort of working-class writers with Northern roots, notably John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, David Storey, Keith Waterhouse and Stan Barstow. A briefly reinvigorated British cinema brought these new writers to a mass audience through a succession of gritty screen adaptations which, like their source novels, reflected rather than promoted social change, but these changes were profound and, it seemed at the time, durable. British poetry had to wait a decade for a similar change to take place.

Hamilton’s debut collection The Visit was published by Faber in 1970, a slim volume of 33 short poems, representing around half of the modest total he would publish in his lifetime. They are all memorable. This is “Newscast”:

The Vietnam war drags on
In one corner of our living-room.
The conversation turns
To take it in.
Our smoking heads
Drift back to us
From the grey fires of South-east Asia.

Subtle and unsettling, this snags and haunts the imagination, capturing a time and a mood with minimum fuss or apparent effort. The quality of Hamilton’s poetry has never been in any doubt, but his role as an influential gatekeeper was already looking less assured. He said at the time:

Most of what is out there today isn’t really poetry . . . It might be a form of writing that is engaging and sharp and entertaining, but it is not poetry. It’s important to make these distinctions.

But these were the very distinctions that were being swept away. Long-held critical assumptions supporting such distinctions were looking shaky; an unbridgeable chasm was forming between the kind of poetry approved by Hamilton and what was circulating in the mainstream.

Hamilton found himself increasingly out of step with the times and cast as a reactionary figure, although his position strikes one as more stoical than elitist. He saw something he truly cared about and fully understood, something at which he was preternaturally gifted and to which he had dedicated much of his life, successfully appropriated by (as he saw it) the untalented, the incompetent and the rowdy. The battle had been lost, although the war was far from over.

In 1971, a large number of poets associated with the country-wide British Poetry Revival (BPR), chief among them Eric Mottram, Bob Cobbing and Jeff Nuttall, became members of the Poetry Society, a rather stuffy organisation founded in 1909 and traditionally hostile to modernist poetry. Following elections, the radical anarcho-modernists took over, transforming the Society’s run-down Earl’s Court premises into a counter-cultural hub, subsidised by an increasingly alarmed and embarrassed Arts Council of Great Britain.

The BPR was in part a reaction to the conservative leanings of the “Movement” poets such as Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Elizabeth Jennings and Thom Gunn, who featured in the influential anthology New Lines (1956) edited by Robert Conquest. They and the other contributors, all Oxbridge graduates, differed enormously as poets but had in common a general rejection of modernism and the experimental, and what they saw as the rhetorical excesses of 1940s poets, particularly the compacted obscurities of Dylan Thomas. White, middle class, mostly heterosexual, Europhobic, unsentimental but nostalgic, they strike the modern reader as cultural Brexiteers avant la lettre. BPR poets, on the other hand, were united in their commitment to the European avant-garde while influenced by earlier British modernists such as David Jones and Basil Bunting. (For a detailed and scholarly history of the period, Poetry Wars by Peter Barry is recommended.)

The battles between the establishment and the Poetry Society revolutionaries  were conducted through editorials, correspondence, at public readings and private meetings. There were rancorous exchanges at boozy gatherings in smoke-filled rooms (the majority of BPR poets were male), insults were flung, reputations trashed, friendships broken, bitter feuds initiated and conscientiously maintained. One observer compared the goings-on to “a knife-fight in a phone booth”.

With Mottram installed as editor, the Society’s magazine Poetry Review immediately became a showcase for BPR writers, to the dismay of many traditionalist subscribers. A snapshot of what was going on in Earl’s Court can be found in testimony given by an anonymous Poetry Society staff member to the 1976 Witt Report (the Arts Council’s investigation into the organisation), cited by Barry:

She said she did not know Jeff Nuttall very well, but when he had given a reading at the Society she had found broken eggs on the rostrum next morning, a tin of golden syrup underneath the piano, with a doll stuck in the syrup and there was talcum powder everywhere. Mr Nuttall had also run around in his underwear. There were only twelve people at the reading.

While siding with the Hamilton line on poetry I find the chaotic energy of the insurgents irresistible. I would have enjoyed Nuttall’s messy, subversive, Dada-inspired performance, like watching Vic and Bob host Antiques Roadshow.

Hamilton’s disenchantment with contemporary poetry informed plans for his last magazine The New Review (1974-1979), which would focus less exclusively on verse. A glossy monthly publication with the highest production values and a dazzling roster of contributors, it was a lavishly-funded establishment flagship that was despised by its many vocal critics. That it ran for five years is a tribute to the editor’s commitment because, like its predecessor, The New Review had its own destruction built in. The whole project was doomed from the outset because Arts Council grants, although generous, were payable in arrears only after each issue appeared, which meant the publication was permanently mired in debt. With bailiffs thronging the staircase at the Greek Street offices, Hamilton struggled valiantly to keep things afloat through what he later described as the “trashy years”, recalling “the raggedness of everything, the booze, the jokes, the literary feuds, the almost-love-affairs, the cash, the somehow-getting-to-be-forty”. Clowns to the left of him; brokers to the right—there he stood, stuck in the middle.

The Society radicals were eventually ousted (or, in their view, staged a principled walk-out) in March 1977 and for the next 30 years or so mainstream English poetry would remain predominantly non-experimental and anti-modernist. A victory, of sorts, for the establishment. Mottram and his colleagues are still largely excluded from accounts of the period. But they cannot be entirely written off because, although the modernist tendency was certainly sidelined, subsequent decades saw the emergence of new generations of experimental poets with their roots in the dissident modernism of 1970s Earl’s Court.

Neither the conservative nor the radical poets of the 1970s were endorsed or promoted in the influential Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982; edited by Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison, both New Review alumni), and this seemed to draw a line under the conflict. You might say the Hamilton side won the war but lost the peace, and that’s no bad thing. In the late ’80s and early ’90s a series of anthologies prompted fresh interest in the Revival poets, and increasing attention was paid to neglected British modernists. Among the most noteworthy publications to reflect the current pluralist landscape is Identity Parade (2010), an anthology edited by the late Roddy Lumsden, featuring 85 British and Irish poets and—perhaps for the first time, and significantly—more women than men. This volume supports a view that the future of adventurous anglophone poetry rests largely in the hands of the marginal, non-native, non-establishment outsiders who are radically reimagining what forms poetry can take.

Despite well-meaning claims by many, poetry is not for everyone. But it certainly can be for anyone, and today there are fewer barriers, if any, to sharing new work with readers—the internet has no critical gatekeepers. Instagram versifiers with millions of followers don’t snag my interest, but the contemporary spectrum can accommodate Rupi Kaur, J.H. Prynne and everybody in between.

The same divisions that led to the poetry wars resurface every few years, as yet another youngish combative poet claims that they “ruffle a few feathers” in the “poetry establishment” by not conforming to a supposed set of conservative values, values which they aim to overthrow before, in due course, becoming the establishment themselves. But the fight has gone out of both sides, if there really are sides any more. There’s a general acceptance that serious poetry is a broad church, although the clergy may sometimes outnumber the congregation.

Ian Hamilton died in 2001 and his posthumous reputation as a poet seems secure, with a definitive Collected Poems (2009) edited by Alan Jenkins and a forthcoming Collected Prose. There’s a fine website (www.ianhamilton.org) confirming his achievements. He has never failed as a poet, although he is no longer a charismatic cultural influencer, no longer the guv’nor of Greek Street, and he appears to have no literary heirs. He stands alone, missed, admired and respected, a school of one. 

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