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Thursday, 10 May 2007

Risky Business

I've been reading Al Alvarez's wonderful new collection of essays - his first in 40 years - called Risky Business. It's just out from Bloomsbury, and, aside from the literary reviews, there are rugged insights into poker, mountain climbing, polar expeditions and oil rig roughnecking. As the blurb says, and rightly, he's Britain's "most unusual man of letters". And, arguably, its bravest - the one with most integrity.

When I interviewed him for Magma a year or so ago, I was struck by his ongoing commitment to an intelligent modernism. His belief in, and support of, Sylvia Plath, pictured, and several other major voices of the mid-century (Lowell, Herbert), endures. More impressively, by republishing his infamous 1980 appraisal of Seamus Heaney (first appearing in the New York Review of Books) 27 years later, and after the Nobel, he sticks to principles that have not, for him staled. Alvarez wrote of Heaney's work, then, that "it challenges no presuppositions, does not upset or scare, is mellifluous, craftsmanly, and often perfect within its chosen limits. In other words, it is beautiful minor poetry, like Philip Larkin's, though replacing his tetchy, bachelor gloom with something sweeter, more sensual, more open to the world - more, in a word, married."

Alvarez may be wrong here (Heaney can upset, and is not always perfect) but who else, of the mainstream critical establishment, then, or now, in the American-British world of letters, could have written that, or would have dared, in such a forum? Who else so intelligently, and stylishly, and with commitment, thought through to consider and place contemporary poets within the Tradition, the canon? No one, really.

Ian Hamilton is another such critic, much missed. The age of the mainstream reviewer - erudite, direct, engaged, explanatory, sensible, scrupulous, unimpressed and unintimidated, and at arm's length from power or what passes for power among poets - is ending, or has passed already. There are younger (chiefly Irish and Canadian) very good critics, like Starnino, or Redmond, who appear relatively fearless, but they have yet to write a definitive survey of their age, their era, as R. Jarrell did. Where is their A Poetry Chronicle, say, or Beyond All This Fiddle?

Alvarez told me he missed the decline of literate reviewing, as academicism overrun the world of letters. Now, we have complex essays and often short puff-piece reviews, but fewer stately, armchair writings on poets, and poems. Poetry is sustained by such writing, and such bravery. Here's to a revival of fortune for the riskiest business.
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