A passionate partisan. Robert Potts on the late Ian Hamilton, influential voice of a critical generation

Against Oblivion: some lives of the 20th century poets

Ian Hamilton<em> Viking, 320pp, £20</em>

When one considers how much of English poetry, from Anglo-Saxon onwards, is about transience - about how all things fade and are forgotten in time - and that many poems are (rarely confident) attempts simply to slow that journey to irrevocable oblivion, one might conclude that its lessons have been lost most often on poets themselves. Many poets desire, secretly or not, fame, remuneration or posterity; and the omnivorous desire all three. Few will enjoy even one of these rewards. And here we might consider, as the sharper-elbowed bards clearly do not, that the ethic we should associate with poetry - a lack of egotism; a painful sympathy for the common plight of common humanity; revulsion at the human cost of commerce; a concern, negatively or positively, with the spiritual - is difficult to reconcile with the competitive urge to best one's contemporaries, to carry off the glittering prizes, and to concentrate so much acclaim on one's own figure that shadows fall across all else. The work that deserves posterity is not written by poets who merely desire to perpetuate their names.

That Ian Hamilton's Against Oblivion should have ended up being published posthumously is an unfortunate coincidence that will be seen, journalistically, as an irony. It is his version of Samuel Johnson's Lives of the English Poets, an attempt to pick out the 50 dead English-language poets of the 20th century whose work is most likely to "survive" - whatever survival means. Looking back at Johnson's own sweep, Hamilton notes that only a handful - such as Pope, Swift, Milton and Dryden - have enjoyed the posterity foreseen for them at the time; many have faded from view totally, and several others are now known only by virtue of having been in Johnson's book. Given 100 or 200 more years, who can say how many, if any, of Hamilton's list might also have vanished?

Johnson's book was a commission; the list, for the most part, came from booksellers pushing their more successful poets. Hamilton's book was also a commission of sorts; the idea, he says, was "suggested to him" and "seemed a nice idea, if somewhat gimmicky, and I agreed to have a go". The result is a piece of light entertainment, close to hack work: risk-free speculation in the poetic futures market. And if you find that metaphor a little coarse, you are right - though this is exactly the sort of language that Hamilton and many others adopt when viewing poetic activity. Against Oblivion is written in the language of market economics and military action. There are camps and there are careerists; success comes through bogus meritocracy or Darwinian struggle; movements "come to power", "take control", "recruit"; poets greedily eye the empty gallery and the crowded plinth.

The military element takes us back to Hamilton's own "career". He was England's fiercest and most feared mainstream poetry critic in the 1960s and early 1970s, as well as a tireless (and generous, and much loved) shoestring editor, a passionate partisan. As the interview with Dan Jacobson printed in the London Review of Books after Hamilton's death shows clearly, Hamilton felt he was fighting a battle for the poetry he cared about, and for quality and rigour: "You clear the ground in which the poet comes up and might be allowed to flourish, and you wipe out the enemy. In order for the true thing to be heard, you suppressed the untrue thing, destroyed it. It was warfare. Any literary-political weapons I could summon to my cause, I summoned." Even in that interview, there were signs that Hamilton almost recognised the problems of this Apocalypse Now attitude: that your own fanaticism might be indistinguishable from that of the "enemy"; and that you really needed a clear idea of the alternative you were proposing (other than a reverence for some of the already canonised dead).

As a critic, Hamilton was intelligent, witty and uncompromising - admirable, necessary qualities - and it is laudable that he stopped writing reviews of contemporary poetry when he realised that his rigour was being compromised by his friendships. But another question remains: when do principled discriminations tilt into prejudiced discrimination? In Against Oblivion, Hamilton sneers at anyone with a manifesto or "a programme". Frequently, he notes that the poetry produced seldom lives up to the programme proposed. And yet, in the Jacobson interview, when discussing his role among his own generation, he admitted: "It could be said that we didn't find one voice that went on to assume a commanding position . . . I don't think we did. But I don't know whether that really matters."

What one is left with is a large number of enemies, and an incoherent idea of what would constitute a good poem. One fears that, at times, Hamilton really did believe that the perfect poem - the only poem - was the sort of miniature, crystallised domestic insight that he pulled off so well a few times; and that England's finest postwar poet would be someone like Hugo Williams (this view, however bizarre, evidently does have some supporters). It could be said (in terms kinder than his own) that, after a lifetime of 60 small poems, the stylish youthful criticism and some decent biographical writing, Hamilton has left us with a final sneer of cold command in which we discover that almost no English-language poetry of the 20th century, in Britain, America and the Commonwealth, was any good. (Hardy, Eliot, Yeats and Auden do not have entries; they are the automatic qualifiers in Hamilton's poetry world cup.)

Of Robert Lowell, whom he knew and liked, and whose biography he wrote, Hamilton "ended up loving passionately about six poems in Life Studies". As for his view of the rest of the poets in Against Oblivion, two things are striking. One is that, although Hamilton loathes modernism, he is forced to include a considerable number of its proponents, whom he then dismisses in the weary, philistine tones of movement orthodoxy. Another is the style: bitter, belittling, blokeish, boorish, with a tabloid relish for details of sexual activity and mental illness. Of Marianne Moore, "we can deduce the fact that she was probably of lesbian disposition"; Siegfried Sassoon was "rich, posh and well connected, and he was at pains to introduce the boy Owen to his circle of smart gays"; "to judge from photographs, [Weldon Kees] was by no means short of vanity". The poets are thumbnail grotesques, promiscuous, homosexual, alcoholic, unfaithful, mad, suicidal, vain, careerist, sponging, neurotic, dull, cowardly. Their work fares almost as badly. If this book was indeed modelled on Johnson's Lives, it resembles most often his life of Swift. Even the choices of poems to accompany the biographies can be subtly undermining.

As to the parlour game (for what it is worth), some inclusions are arguably odd (Norman Cameron? Roy Fuller?), and some exclusions likewise (Basil Bunting? Frank O'Hara?), but the point is conceded early by Hamilton in any case: not only can we not predict posterity's verdict, but the present situation is endlessly contestable, too. Which is perhaps the point. Poetic activity is still too extensive for any one critic wholly to keep up with, despite fashionable fears about the closing of lists. No critic can act as a perfect gatekeeper or adjudicator, although myths of absolute authority are attractive; and the fiction that the visible canon is the result of pure meritocracy is a comfortable and convenient one for its members and their fans, as well as making journalism easier. To ask the question of what "posterity" means (inclusion in a university module? Presence in an anthology? Being read by one person, or by a hundred?) and why it is craved - well, that would take more serious thought than an ephemeral book such as Against Oblivion can offer.

Robert Potts becomes co-editor of Poetry Review next month