Sounding out Ian Hamilton
By MICHAEL CAINES
Is it true now, if it ever was, that there are only – or as many as – 100 serious poetry readers in Britain? That's the sombre estimate or elitist quip, as you prefer, of an "anonymous pundit", quoted by Julian Symons back in 1960, and quoted again by David Collard in this week's TLS. Twenty-first-century authors of slim volumes and publishers of little magazines might be ruefully moved to concur. Yet they go on writing, editing and publishing, and some of them, the review copies tell me, half-hope to shift 100 units.
Or perhaps the practice of writing poetry isn't just about the money. Is this a concept our market-led world is ready to hear?
Anonymous pundits and others with a serious attachment to poetry might enjoy hearing this, at least: Alan Jenkins, poetry editor of the TLS, talking (briefly) about Ian Hamilton, and reading a selection of Hamilton's poems:
It's the first in an occasional series of readings from the TLS (head for the TLS SoundCloud page to hear more in due course), and accompanies Collard's account of how the last of the four magazines Hamilton edited, the New Review, took the lion's share of the available funding for literary magazines in its time, but still struggled to keep going – and how, poetry aside, its reputation as the work of a clique belies its actual achievements, not least in terms of publishing women writers, such as Jean Rhys, Lorna Sage and Iris Murdoch, at a time "when the literary establishment was a largely male domain".
Hamilton was a poet who knew a great deal about the difficulties of running literary magazines. His own poetry, for instance, "all but dried up" during what he called his "trashy years" – the years of amassing debts, hiding from creditors and lagging behind with what was meant to be a regular publication schedule. The Collected Poems (edited by Alan) comes to a lean 160 pages. In them, you'll find such extraordinary things as "Newscast" ("The Vietnam war drags on / In one corner of our living room . . ."), "The Storm" (the first poem Alan reads), "Rose" and "Father, Dying". If ever a poet deserved more than 100 readers – well, here he is.