The rhymes and reasons of Clive James

A poet himself, Clive James has turned at the end of his life to the form of writing that matters to him most – and all readers owe him a debt for his wit and his insight.
Clive James at his home in Cambridge, England, in 2012. Hazel Thompson / The New York Times
Clive James at his home in Cambridge, England, in 2012. Hazel Thompson / The New York Times

Clive James makes it all seem easy. His 2007 treasure trove of 20th-century history and art, Cultural Amnesia – an absolute must for any learned reader’s bookshelf – made the prospect of picking up a dictionary and absent-mindedly learning German while paging through a collection of Rainer Maria Rilke’s essays sound delightful, and more improbably, manageable.

I eventually lost track of the number of times in James’s slim new volume of essays, Poetry Notebook, that the author casually mentioned memorising lines, stanzas, whole poems. James makes poetry sound like a slice of chocolate cake, casually nibbled at until the whole has been consumed. “He can get a whole poem in your head,” he mentions about reading Frost. For a brief moment, I almost saw myself dipping into Frost’s collected work and memorising a few choice poems, until I awoke with a start and remembered that James had played this trick on me before. As he remarks of Auden in one of the essays here: “It seemed so effortless. And so it was, but only for him.”

Essayist, television host, cultural commentator, critic: Clive James has worn an impressive plethora of hats over the course of an illustrious career that has taken him from suburban Sydney in Australia via Cambridge University to a stellar pre-eminence in English letters. But the hat he himself finds fits most snugly is that of poet. James is also, as he notes on multiple occasions in Poetry Notebook, a man facing the abyss. Diagnosed with leukaemia, spending much of his time in hospitals, he turns back to poetry for meaning and comfort: “What would be said of me when I was gone? I almost was. Why not devote myself to the form of writing that has always mattered to me most?” But illness, James finds, is not conducive to the writing of poetry, and instead, he finds himself returning to the “guilty mountain of the critical duties that won’t be attended to”. He is not only taking another look at some old favourites, turning over the merchandise and admiring its craftsmanship – he is taking one last look.

Cultural Amnesia had been a book that should have come with its own accompanying library; this reader had compiled a list of suggested reading dozens of volumes long after closing it. Poetry Notebook is less voluminous and all-encompassing; its enthusiasms feel more randomly selected. But the end result is similarly illuminating, causing the casual poetry enthusiast to depart with a daunting list of recommendations.

A terse volume, Poetry Notebook is itself an argument in favour of terseness. “Brevity would be the watchword; as, indeed, it is for poetry; or anyway it ought to be,” he says of the initial kernel of thought for this book. James is seeking to turn the intelligent discussion of poetry on its ear, dumping out much of the conversation about bodies of work or of movements, and returning to the single direct utterance. “The point that matters is not poetry, but the poem,” James writes. “It’s the poem that makes the impact, and gets remembered, even if only in pieces.”

James the poet prefers work that reminds us of James the writer – memorable bons mots, inimitable imagery, lavish use of language. He begins at the beginning, offering up an attractively simple definition of just what poetry is: “A poem is any piece of writing that can’t be quoted from except out of context.” As the book’s subtitle indicates, Poetry Notebook argues that it is intensity of language that defines poetry, and that poets find – irregularly, and with great effort – a heightened form of writing beyond the conventions and necessities of prose.

Poetry Notebook is hungry for poets who snatch us up by the lapels and demand our attention, of poetry that demands recitation, memorisation. In this late moment – late for the author, late for the form – “all the dull poetry that was ever praised for its technique is effectively no longer in existence”. So, too, much of contemporary poetry, “this long eruption of unspecific stuff” that exposes its own fraudulence every time it is read. (John Ashbery in particular comes in for a beating.) All that remains of poetry is the language memorable enough to be saved from the abyss. One poem is enough. “It would be tempting to say that any poet, in any era, needs to be able to construct at least one stanza like that or he will never even join the contest,” James writes of little-remembered 17th-century English poet Samuel Daniel, and the same goes for poetry as a whole. The story of poetry is not one of timeless geniuses, airless and overcrowded, but of glinting shards of beautiful language, hard-won: “But there is always more room in the pantheon, because the pantheon is not a burial chamber for people who have said things, it is an echo chamber for things that have been said.”

Dunstan Thompson is accorded more space here than Berryman, on account of one magisterial poem named Largo that likely no one else remembers. Poetry Notebook is content to sift through the endless dross in search of that one right word. The task is Herculean, but also strangely freeing. There is, as James notes with a sigh of relief, no more time for Swinburne. James is a poet, undoubtedly (read his hilarious The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered if you doubt it), but he is also a critic, and intent on cutting away the talk of movements and styles and getting right to the good bits.

Poetry Notebook is primarily constructed out of essays written for Poetry magazine, in which James reflected, loosely, on the art of poetry. Many of the familiar boldface names – Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot, Frost – appear here, but so do the likes of Stephen Edgar and Michael Longley. James is adamant that much of the best writing about poetry is often done by fellow poets, who understand the challenges of putting one line together with the next. He is less enamoured of vastness than tightness, favouring the compact to the sprawling, with Poetry Notebook the concentrated result of a lifetime of writing and reading: “But I soon saw an opportunity beckoning: to transmit, for a new generation, my gratitude for the neatness and the concentration of the slight volume densely packed with memorable meaning.”

James, too, must be inhaled in large breathless gulps, like this disquisition on his revised opinion of Ezra Pound: “When I fell out of love with The Cantos I fell all the way out, but one of my critical principles, such as they are, is to take account of the history of my critical opinions, on the further principle that they have never existed in some timeless zone apart from the man who held them, but have always been attached to him, like his hair, or, lately, like his baldness. There is a promising analogy there, somewhere: my hair yielded baldness as my enthusiasms yielded disenchantment. First the one thing, then the other, and the second thing clearly definable only in terms of the first.” Critics this funny are rarely this insightful; and critics this insightful are rarely this funny. James pictures a book club of bats reading the nature enthusiast Les Murray and enthusing: “this guy, they squeal, gets it”. He dismisses Pound’s fancy for juxtaposition as being akin to “the hope and faith of every crackpot who creates elaborate wall charts with fragments of evidence joined together by string”.

Poetry and mortality are impossibly intertwined, love for one serving as an unavoidable reminder of the other. And now, with thoughts of the end creeping in, Clive James sees in poetry a kind of autobiography of a life’s passions: “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.” Poetry Notebook’s enthusiasm is contagious, winning over even such poetry-deaf readers as me and offering us a side entrance into its hallowed pantheon. We may not all be able to pick up Italian in a weekend, or memorise all of Keats in an afternoon, but we can always read Clive James, and for that, we are profoundly thankful.

This book is available on Amazon.

Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to The Review.

Published: April 9, 2015 04:00 AM


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