Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006–2014 (Picador 2014)
I bought this book because I felt slightly grubby after reading Play All, Clive James’s book about television. Play All brings James’s wit, clowning, extraordinary recall, clarity of judgement and contrarianism to bear on the object of an addiction – the relatively harmless one to television; this book puts those qualities, minus the clowning, at the service of a passion – his lifelong passion for poetry. The result is much more wholesome.
The book is a series of short, free-ranging pieces written for the US journal Poetry, linked by very short ‘Interludes’, and bulked out by equally short pieces published in sources ranging from Quadrant to the Times Literary Supplement, all between 2006 and 2014. The collection is free-ranging, but it’s not directionless. James’s mind has been concentrated wonderfully by being diagnosed with a terminal illness, and though he writes in his introduction that a lifetime of thinking about poetry has not left him with an aesthetic system to convey, in fact a pretty coherent view does emerge. James could almost have been describing this book when he wrote of a book of Michael Donaghy’s criticism (page 138):
Many of these pieces, undertaken as journeywork at the time but always lavished with the wealth of his knowledge and the best of his judgement, are collected in this book, and it is remarkable how they coalesce into the most articulate possible expression of a unified critical vision.
James’s main thrust is to defend traditional English verse, particularly verse in rhyming stanzas in iambic pentameter, to defend it and to explain it to an age that he fears has forgotten how to read it.
You do have to get past his contrarianism. He’s not crude enough to say that the only poetry worth reading is the kind he favours, but sometimes he comes close. There are too many cheap cracks at the influential US poet John Ashbery or at journalists en masse, and a number of characterisations of the whole of Australia as given over to the orthodoxy that ‘an apprehensible form is thought to be a repressive hangover from the old imperialism’. He says something vaguely positive about Francis Webb, then adds, ‘but Webb was a mental patient.’ He proclaims that Judith Wright wrote only one or two decent poems. And there are one or two breathtakingly ignorant comments on non-poetic matters, probably intended as curmudgeonly rejections of ‘political correctness’.
But once you’ve thrown the book across the room once or twice, there’s a lot to enjoy and learn from. I read it with my phone beside me, and read for the first time many of the poems referred to, from Robert Frost’s ‘The Silken Tent‘ and Louis MacNeice’s ‘Meeting Point‘ to UiAiFanthorpe’s ‘Not My Best Side‘. This might not be a positive quality for readers who are better read or less interested than I am, but for the ignorant but interested it’s terrific. And it’s worth noting that his harsh judgements aren’t limited to ‘informal’ contemporary or near-contemporary poets: he gets stuck into Milton and Alexander Pope, and Ezra Pound emerges as pretty much a grandiloquent phoney.
You wouldn’t go to Clive James for illuminating comment on, say, Jennifer Maiden, Rhyll McMaster or Pam Brown. But he does a brilliant detailed exposition of a poem by Stephen Edgar, and he illuminates with a passion many other poems that he loves, or include a phrase, a line, or a passage he loves. One never doubts that Gerard Manly Hopkins, James McAuley, and a myriad others have won his love, sometimes by a complete poem but often by a single phrase or line.
He’s concerned, as implied by the US subtitle ‘Reflections on the Intensity of Language’, with the way poetry uses language intensely: with phrases, lines, stanzas, and occasionally whole poems. Writing poetry is all very well, but to write a poem is an achievement. In among his sharp judgements, there is a deep humility about poetry itself: ‘I’m still trying to figure out just how the propulsive energy that drives a line of poetry joins up with the binding energy that holds a poem together.’
As my regular readers will know, I sometimes turn my hand to versifying. I found his discussions of the fruitful tension between metrical forms and conversational rhythms enormously instructive. Uncharacteristically, his prose in these passages becomes a little clogged with technical terms, but I for one was glad of that. And here too his gift for epigram shines through: ‘The only way to hide the tensions of a set form is to perfect it.’
Through it all, there’s a thread of farewell. In this book, James says things he doesn’t want to die leaving unsaid. But it’s not grim or gloomy. He refers to himself as a beginner as a poet. The book’s final exclamation, ostensibly about how to write as ‘innocently’ as Shakespeare, cries out to be extracted from its immediate context to serve as a description of the book’s project:
Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved, and to realise what they have in common: the life you soon must lose.