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Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Ian Hamilton's Collected Poems

I've been reading the slim handsome new Faber Ian Hamilton Collected, recently published. It's a corrective reading, because no one else, really, writes in his style now, as Alan Jenkins observes in his intelligent, honest, and compassionate Introduction. This is impressive, because it means that Hamilton's terse, controlled, famously minimal manner seems almost unique, and as remote as from another century. Most influential and respected as a poet in the 1970s, it may be hard to believe, now, but Hamilton was, along with Larkin, and Hughes, arguably one of the three best-known and respected English poets of that decade (Heaney was of course the major Irish figure). Before the Motion and Morrison 80s, and, setting aside for a moment the other tradition being pioneered by Prynne, Riley, Crozier, Raworth, Hamilton was a major figure. Is he still?

The new edition of his work is austere in its claims and offerings. There are not many more than the famous 60 poems. What is new does not radically shift one's reading. However, what is impressive is precisely the often-mentioned austerity, and modesty, of delivery. Hamilton did not believe in poetry as research. He waited for poems to come, out of extreme moments. These he then shaped - and they feel agonisingly pared back. I can think of no other 20th century poet, writing in English, with anything like such a reputation, with such a small body of work. It is perhaps a dubious critical approach to praise a poet for extra-poetic values, such as morality, or workmanship, or modesty - but British criticism is often weighted, with such unspoken, and spoken, claims. What is often admired is precisely how character and/or values are invested in work (craft, skill, form, mastery, discipline, rigour, seriousness and so on) - so that excessive, or indeed, prolific, poets, sometimes appear unruly and can be censored as such.

The big paradox is Dylan Thomas, who was personally amoral and disordered, but apparently disciplined in his poetic craft. The Movement, of course, was all about an alternative moral or personal austerity, a controlling, that fed into the poetic style. I wonder if enough work has really been done to examine the relative meaningfulness of such a position, as ancient as Seneca, that a writer's ethics are their writing. What is intriguing about Hamilton's poems is that they read, seen again now, powerfully. Without rebuking anyone, they are artifacts of an impressive other way of writing poems, worth reconsidering. Reading them is a tonic, is bracing.

For, Hamilton, despite his attack on the Forties (he preferred the severest of the war poets, especially Keith Douglas), was no mere Movement type. He read and admired Lowell. He knew and respected Al Alvarez (whose own late poetry reads much like Hamilton's). Hamilton wanted to pack extreme, confessed emotion in to the poems, but, in a more impersonal, if not Eliotic way. As such, the form of each of his poems is an extremely striking microcosmic version of the whole; in genetic terms, each poem is a gene; the whole is the Collected.

I find myself persuaded that, for all the pathos of the tiny achievement, in terms of finished, published poems, Hamilton was a tremendously serious, gifted, and dedicated poet. He was scrupulous to the extreme. His work warrants such a new publication, and is no mere vanity project. It will last - perhaps not because he is central to what the British 80s to the present actually became, in poetry (Hamilton surely would not have enjoyed the emphasis on comedy and 'democratic voice') - but despite what happened. Hamilton has become a very intriguing road not quite taken. Never too late. I know his nephew, the fine young poet Nathan Hamilton, has been thinking along similar lines.
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