The great critic champions the poems that have given him most pleasure in this provocative collection of essays
Sunday 15 February 2015
Clive James is never po-faced about poetry. He writes with the buoyant, aphoristic panache that made his career and with a judgment refined by a lifetime of reading and thinking about poetry – and writing it (he has a new collection coming out this April). This sympathetic, absorbing and provocative book is a miscellany – most of its articles written for Chicago’s Poetry magazine. But there are unifying thoughts. One is that “poetry” is not what excites him – too baggy a word and covering a multitude of sins – it is the particular poem that matters, the hardest thing to write. He argues that we are living in a time when “almost everyone writes poetry but scarcely anyone can write a poem”. He is on the side of clarity (he hopes it is “forgivable to favour those poets who show signs of knowing what they are saying”) while noting how complicated simplicity can be.
His spreading of the word is a delight. You need a second poetry notebook, as you read, in which to write down the names of unfamiliar poets and poems. This is, in its way, his literary will and testament – he makes no secret of the leukaemia that afflicts him. And he has such a discerning ear and eye that what I long for now is an inventory of every poem that has mattered to him – the one thing missing here. Or, better, a Jamesian anthology (he is pro-anthologies). He makes a splendid case for Australian poet Stephen Edgar and his poem Man on the Moon. And I was grateful to be led towards Robert Frost’s miraculous The Silken Tent, which I had somehow missed. And thanks to him, I now intend to read John Updike’s last collection, Endpoint. I found myself noting down some of James’s phrases, too, complete with Wildean flourishes: “Unless you can get beyond yourself, you were never there.” “Real talent can survive anything, even encouragement.” “Verve travels.”
He writes with verve about Keats, Hopkins, Louis MacNeice, Michael Donaghy, Les Murray. He also explains why Milton and Pound leave him cold. He rummages through Pound’sThe Cantos like a customs official, deciding ultimately, and mainly persuasively, that he is guilty of having nothing to declare. One notices, with regret, that he says almost nothing about Robert Lowell, save for a couple of underwhelmed asides. I was sorry, too, that his fond praise of Michael Longley bordered on condescension. I’d also have liked more about Browning, master of rhyme.
But the notebook is full of surprises, including a marvellously entertaining tribute to the late Australian poet Peter Porter (for many years the poetry reviewer on this paper). He insists Porter did not know how attractive he was to women: “I knew plenty of women who complained that they would have very much liked to kiss him but he wouldn’t stop telling them about Scarlatti,” he reports.
I also enjoyed his brilliant essay “Product placement in modern poetry”, about the way poets, starting in the early 20th century with EE Cummings, used brand names. He observes that Seamus Heaney will tell you “everything about a plough, except the name of its manufacture”, that TS Eliot was pleased to mention ABC restaurants by name, while Betjeman “unblushingly said who made everything”.
This book works like a zoom lens. James does not stop at individual poems. He homes in on the lines that have given him keenest pleasure: “…we could all give examples, from our memories, of how a poetic moment can put the poem it comes from in the shade”. More than once, he quotes the final lines from Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings: “We slowed again,/And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled/A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” And the last three words transport us elsewhere – the reader translated with the rain. It perfectly exemplifies what the best poems do.