Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets
By Ian Hamilton, 2002.
Against Oblivion is the last book and, in a sense, the last will and testament of Ian Hamilton, the distinguished critic and editor and minor lyric poet who died in 2001. The book offers the lives and deaths of 45 twentieth century poets, from Rudyard Kipling to Sylvia Plath. The writers discussed are generally British or American, with Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden excluded as too famous; the other criterion is that they are all safely deceased. Each poet gets five or six pages of assessment and one or two poems are reprinted (except Plath, whose estate refused permission); thus it serves as a wide-ranging introduction to modern poetry.
This book is a joy to read, bursting with equal measures of biographical trivia and insight. Hamilton is a pithy writer of considerable acuity and savage humour; see his assessment of English poetry as it moved from the 1930s to the 1940s:
In 1939, with war declared and all verse-warnings utterly unheeded, it was a rare versifier who did not feel himself to be somewhat redundant. And yet poetry continued to be written. For poets of the Audenesque persuasion, there was a quasi-documentary function: describing how it felt to be in the Army, what olive groves looked like, how peculiar life seemed to be in Africa or Burma. For [Dylan] Thomasites, on the other hand, there was the dark unconscious, the 'surreal' rendering of soon-to-be-blitzed inner territories, along with a defiant assertion of individual personality in the face of mass-manipulation. The typical war poet came across as gawky misfit or loopy narcissist. (p 248)
Confronted with this many lives, it is inevitable that certain themes seem to recur. Most commonly observed is homosexuality, often repressed (even the women), and alcoholism, seldom repressed. Studying at Oxford or Cambridge is usual, and knowing T.S. Eliot or W.H. Auden certainly helps (being picked up by Auden is even better). The book makes it clear how narrow and cliquey the world of poetry is, with many minimally-talented people like H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) making a career based simply on knowing Ezra Pound.
Another common theme, which Hamilton justly finds equally depressing, is that no matter how skilled at writing short lyrics the poet is inevitably drawn to attempting some epic poem which will inevitably be written in free verse that is little different from prose, and often will hymn some aspect of American geography (as with Hart Crane's The Bridge and W.C. Williams's Paterson). If you're unlucky enough to have read more than the smallest fragments of Paterson or Pound's Cantos, you will know that such ambition is seldom matched by an equal measure of quality.
In comparison, Hamilton too went to Oxford but in his lifetime published only 60 poems, most less than sonnet-length. His stewardship of The Review and The New Review in the 1960s and 1970s brought him in contact with many of the leading poets and writers of the day from Robert Lowell and Al Alvarez to Martin Amis and Andrew Motion; he wrote biographies of Lowell, Matthew Arnold, and J.D. Salinger. But he also wrote two books about mercurial yet buffoonish English footballer Paul Gascoigne.
Although Ian Hamilton is an intelligent critic of poetry, the real heart of the book is a meditation on a far more important issue: fame. The nature of posterity's judgement is discussed at length in his introduction, where he reflects on the book's model, Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets. Very few of Johnson's poets are known today (even Hamilton knew only six (p ix)), and one wonders how many of Hamilton's will still be known fifty years from now.
It is hard to read Hamilton's almost statistical dissertation on fame without considering the author himself; a lyric poet of some technical skill but no significant subject matter and famous for his slow workrate, it is uncertain indeed whether his fame will last even as long as Charlotte Mew's. Does this book then mark his best hope for fame, at immortality, at defying oblivion? If he is not to be known as a poet, can he at least be a celebrated biographer?
Perhaps his attention to the risk of obscurity is the reason that despite the cleverness of Hamilton's assessments of the celebrated but over-rated Marianne Moore and Allen Ginsberg the most interesting passages are when Hamilton turns his attention to those figures who are already slipping into oblivion. It's amusing to read his critique of how the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry footnotes Dylan Thomas, but for real emotional involvement you must turn to those writers the anthologists do not bury in thickets of superscript numerals.
Such as Weldon Keys, who vanished next to the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955, and before that was obsessed with his standing as a poet; he exemplifies the struggle for recognition that faces all practitioners of an art that so few people care about. "Arrogant, embittered and melancholic, he waited for acclaim to come to him, but none of the three books he published in his lifetime made much of a mark." (p 206). In his time on earth, he sold perhaps one thousand books - in total, not per volume. Or there is Alun Lewis's frequent omission from anthologies: the reason being the difficulty of finding anything by him "that 'works' all the way through." (p 232) At least Lewis killed himself back in 1944.
But were they better or worse off than Henry Reed? Reed, "it is universally acknowledged, wrote one poem of distinction. The rest of his work, although intelligent and competent, belongs to a much lower rank." (p 212) The problem of having written "Naming of Parts", probably the best English-language poem about World War II, weighted heavily on Reed throughout his career. Hamilton comments with customary dryness:
Reed was much influenced by later Eliot and would have wished to have attention focused on some of his more lofty-sounding pieces, like "Tintagel" or "Triptych", but readers who encountered Reed in this, his more portentous mode, tended to mix him up with Herbert Reed - another cross he had to bear throughout his literary life. (p 214)
And so Hamilton chronicles his slide into alcoholism and regret; Reed (Henry, not Herbert) died in 1986, 40 years after the publication of his first and only book of poems.
With its elegant mockery and icy focus on fame, it might be objected that Against Oblivion is not a serious work of literary criticism; that Hamilton is taking cheap pot-shots and reducing twentieth century poetry to a series of tics and cliches. You might suspect he is jealous or has no real idea of what a great poem should be. You might even compare it to the snide but funny film journalism of Joe Queenan.
But such complaints miss the point. This is not just literary criticism; it is a book about poets, and Hamilton understands the mind of a poet. It should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career as a writer of literature, and will doubtless be picked apart by talentless individuals hoping to hype their way to the top. Because poems are written by human beings with fairly constant dreams and fears, this book is ultimately a great addition to our knowledge of literary movements, individual poets, and poetry.
It also has an excellent index.
Appendix: the poets included
All quotes are taken from the Penguin edition published in 2003.
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