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This item is taken from PN Review 147, Volume 29 Number 1, September - October 2002.

In Poetry Nation II (1974), Donald Davie reviewed A Poetry Chronicle, Essays and Reviews by the late Ian Hamilton. Davie called his essay 'The Varsity Match' and chronicled the ways in which ambitious young men of a particular literary generation 'prepared themselves for the assault on literary England', an assault which, back in those days, concentrated on the print and broadcasting media. Hamilton's team followed in the footsteps of the Wain and Amis generation. Before them, Sidney Keyes and Drummond Allison, and before them? Spender and Auden. Oxford, it sometimes seems, produced the regulators and Cambridge the serious critics.

Each putsch involved re- or un-writing history, shortening memory in crucial areas. It entailed dismissing immediate antecedents, privileging apprentice work, celebrating inventions: metaphor, the wheel. Hamilton was happy publishing in his magazine the Review two types of verse: the copious, sometimes witty rhymed excesses of Clive James, John Fuller and James Fenton; and a poetry of tense lived experience from a tight-lipped world of smallscale male epiphanies and anti-epiphanies.

Davie invited readers of Hamilton's criticism to compare his review of John Fuller's The Tree That Walked with his review of Hugh MacDiarmid's Collected Poems. The odds was most certainly gone, and what was left remarkable was that Hamilton should be treated almost universally with nervous respect and considered a man of judgement and integrity when his literary-political maneuverings were so patently clear.

Behind Hamilton and his deliberate diminishments Davie identified the tutelary spirit of Al Alvarez whose reviews of modern poetry in the Observer and whose anthology The New Poetry had such a reorienting, or disorienting, effect on the reading and writing of poetry of two English generations (Scotland, Wales and Ireland were not so deeply affected). Hamilton as reviewer and editor was 'grudging', 'narrow', 'impatient', 'hasty'. His friends identified the same qualities as 'exacting', 'rigorous', 'fearless', 'urgent'. A sour intelligence, a sour and souring imagination, Hamilton came to epitomise, for a non-native Englishman like myself, the enigma of English literary culture. How could an emperor whose wardrobe was empty of history and prosody, whose empire excluded women, the voices of distinct classes and ethnicities, whose severity was grammar-school-high-table, not based on demanding generosity and expectation, occupy the throne for decades, affecting publishing, reviewing, teaching and broadcasting? The triumph of self interest could hardly be more complete.

The last putsch of the kind Davie describes, the last Varsity Match, the last vigorous display of primarily Oxford male muscle in the assault on literary England was the ludic Martian move; after that came Ulster, from a different angle and with a different kind of seriousness.

The putsches were about making readership, reputations, market. To get your team noticed, you had to make noises in the right places. With the decline in poetry reviewing and with the BBC's broader, more inclusive approach to modern poetry, with the reduction in the number of poetry lists and changes in the marketplace, with a loss of consistent seriousness in the 'culture of reception', an assault on literary England seemed unlikely. And yet below the surface forces were marshalling.

Poetry prizes are now the vehicle of literary reception. Control the prizes, and you control the culture of reception. When Martin Dodsworth, Robert Nye, Al Alvarez and Donald Davie regularly reviewed poetry, critical reception engaged reader and writer alike. Nowadays a very few poets are ceremonially received, and the reception is wine and crisps, pious speeches and a cheque. The place: London. The media are there to report the news: prizes are news, poetry isn't. There is no space for readerly engagement, questions of accountability don't arise. That is, they don't arise until they do.

The muse is indeed deregulated: that's what the failure of a broad culture of reception leads to, and the very critic who used 'the deregulated muse' as title for a book of essays and reviews with remarkably foreshortened critical perspectives set up as a new kind of regulator. Bookworm in Private Eye (26 July - 8 August 2002) uncovered the assault plan, using the 2002 Forward Prize shortlist as its point of entry. The Forward is the richest poetry purse. 'This year's judges,' Private Eye declared, 'include two poets published by Picador (Sean O'Brien and Michael Donaghy), who have shortlisted two other Picador poets (Peter Porter and Paul Farley) for the £10,000 top prize. Last year's judging panel also included two Picador poets, Donaghy (again) and Peter Porter.' So far, there's not much to cavil at. Picador poets are bound to think well of one another. Why should a poet be penalised because of imprint, or sex, ethnicity, formal preference?

Bookworm continued, 'Last year Porter gave the main prize to Sean O'Brien.' The facts begin to weigh. 'Last year the £5,000 prize for "best first collection" went to another Picador poet, John Stammers (a product of Donaghy's poetry workshops), and the £1,000 ''best single poem'' prize was given to Ian Duhig for a poem... from his forthcoming Picador collection. The same poem earlier won Duhig the £5,000 top prize in the Poetry Society's national poetry competition, judged by a three-man panel including his mate Don Paterson... who also happens to be the poetry editor at...Picador.'

The story continues: 'This year's five-poet Forward shortlist includes two other chums, David Harsent and John Fuller (winner of the Forward prize in 1996, when one of the judges was again Sean O'Brien).' Also, O'Brien 'was one of three judges of the 1997 T.S. Eliot prize (worth £5,000), which was awarded to... his own editor, Don Paterson'. Even without Private Eye sarcasm, it's beginning to look bad. 'Duhig, Donaghy, O'Brien, Harsent and Paterson all have the same agent,... Gerry Wardle... Sean O'Brien's partner. And Donaghy, Duhig, Farley, Fuller, Harsent, Paterson and Porter have all received fulsome write-ups from the Sunday Times's main poetry critic,... Sean O'Brien.' After the Private Eye article Michael Donaghy resigned as chairman of the Forward judges and the founder of the Prize took his place. The short-list remains unaltered.

Who is responsible for this contraction, this constriction in the number and quality of regulators? The press was keen to blame the little band of conspirators itself, squirming in the unwelcome limelight. But these judges have been appointed and endorsed by organisers, funders, literary institutions. The contraction is not a result of a gang of poets' clever scheming: a wider constituency is implicated. Otherwise, the game of musical chairs would have been disrupted years ago. When the 2002 Forward shortlist was announced, Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books, interviewed on Radio 4, blew the whistle: this unseemly varsity match is (one can only join him in hoping) over.

This item is taken from PN Review 147, Volume 29 Number 1, September - October 2002.

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