Wednesday, May 20, 2009
I can’t remember a more lovingly assembled edition of a recently dead writer than Alan Jenkins’ new Collected Ian Hamilton. People didn’t just like Hamilton, they had a Hamilton complex, their love for him growing ever larger the older he got and the smaller (in bulk) his poetic oeuvre remained. Michael Hofmann wrote in the LRB of buying a copy of The Visit every time he saw one in a second-hand shop, for God’s sake. There was always an element of masochism mixed in with the adulation, an element of cowering before his critical majesty. All or what seem like all anecdotes of Hamilton refer to him not eating exactly, but moving his food around on the plate in between puffs on his cigarette (he did have one regret about smoking, Christopher Reid has told me: that he couldn’t do it while he was asleep), but if he was macho and savage about other people’s work, and people loved him for it, was it not on the unspoken understanding that he spent heroic amounts of time refusing to write new poems of his own, ripping them up, trampling on them?
Jenkins’ introduction reminds us of the porcine flensings performed by Edward Pygge in Hamilton’s Review, quoting this example on the now-forgotten Ned O’Gorman:
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.
Hamilton, it was said, could kill a book three times over: by proxy in the Review, anonymously in the TLS, and under his own name in the Observer.
All of this drove me upstairs here in the Brynmor Jones Library, where I happily reacquainted myself with its set of Reviews. How on earth did a special issue on the Black Mountain ever get past Hamilton, I wonder. There is surely a tale behind the fact that that issue is represented in the library here by a photocopy: perhaps Hamilton destroyed the original in a fit of pique when he passed through Hull briefly as a visiting professor in the early 70s. That same issue, by the way, suggests that the laughably pretentious ‘Irv’ of the unpublished (but now collected) poem ‘Work in Progress’ was Irving Layton. Or not?
But anyway, a quick trawl through these musty old issues turned up the following pork scratchings:
‘These poems are morally stupid and verbally moronic. Miss Tonks should get some work and stop hanging round the caff all night.’ (Stephen Wall unfortunately foreshadows Rosemary Tonks’ own verdict on her life and writing.)
Edward Pygge meets Basil Bunting, apparently before the latter’s audition for Viz magazine: ‘Pickard, ay, the fluffy bum, the shite hawk. Telt meyis name wus Stoppard. On to a gid thing, I telt mesel. Wait till I seeyim. Kick ees pills, ah will, boorim in the nackers, wipe ees face wiya rasa, suck ees plums...’
‘Where are they now?’ investigates Seamus Heaney: ‘Once I was a trout-tickling Gypsy lad’, murmured 48-year old Seamus Heaney, ruefully, ‘and now I am Ewart Milne, to be sure.’ He tugged sadly at the wasted teats of ‘Lady Gregory’, last of his prizewinning Derry herd: a thin trickle of sour and pungent milk rattled into the pail.
And, drumroll please, an extract from Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Hallstein Gospel’:
ii The Groaning Board
‘I gave all the scraps to the cat.’ Josef Mrinsky (1874-1910)
‘Mi sono svegliato con aqua in bocca.’ Fra Filippo Lippi (1409-1469)
The, ‘I could do with a bloody drink.’
Lips whetted to diplomatic fury
Attack the main course; mere roughage
For the innocent tripes, mere
Bulk for grand evacuations!
There was also a letter pasted into one issue, signed by Hamilton, apologizing for any aspersions cast on the commercial bona fides of my old friend Bernard Stone’s Turret Books, which had received a Pygging in the previous issue. I photographed it on my mobile phone and will upload it later.
My thoughts on Hamilton’s poems, though, are matter for a whole other post.