Loading the Canon: Ian Hamilton

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If Ian Hamilton can be said to have any legacy at all, it is that of the finest literary journalist of the 60s and 70s, whose prose demolished the reputations of one generation – the so called ‘Movement’ – and whose magazine, The New Review, established the reputations of an upcoming one. The standard he believed poetry should meet was notoriously high, and his scorn for any poetaster who did not reach it was unsparing. Ned O’Gorman was one such unfortunate. “Toweringly pretentious, intricately boring, and painstakingly derivative, he unleashes his clichés with an effrontery that can only be termed ‘rare’… the poems stand, defying all attempts at interpretation or justification, almost begging, it would seem, to be ignored.” 

A critic does not write a passage like that simply to tell you about his quarry. He writes to tell you about himself, about how he is Caesar in the Colosseum, judiciously down-thumbing any rhymester luckless enough to find themselves on the blood-stained sands of his half-page arena. Thus when turning to Hamilton’s own little known poems, it is surprising to see how diligently he effaces himself from them. Of the 60 poems published in his lifetime, most are addressed to his mentally ill wife, or to his dead father. They are lyrics – that is to say, they depict the focal points of narratives, the rest of which we must infer. Omitting any expressions of his own feelings, Hamilton conveys his and his subject’s anguish by observing the mundane: the wilting flowers by his father’s bedside, or his wife’s limp hair and hands. Ever scornful of effusively confessional verse, Hamilton implies his feelings purely through what he sees, and, in doing so, owes a great deal to Matthew Arnold, whose poem ‘Dover Beach’ often seems to echo in his best verse.

Yet what strikes one most about Hamilton’s poems is not so much how well written they are as how well edited they seem. Not only are they without almost a single superfluous syllable, his knack for ending lines at the point of maximum effectiveness regularly astounds.

In ‘Responsibilities’, his ill wife says to him “Please / Leave me alone.” Almost before it begins, he mutes the first line’s apparent cry for help with the second. It is such judiciousness, evident equally though differently in both his verse and his prose, which makes his work such a pleasure to read. 

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