Review: Poetry Notebook, by Clive James

Poetry Notebook cover

Poetry Notebook: 2006–2014
Clive James
256 pp.
Picador, 2014

If only there were a word that says ‘traditional’ more than the word ‘traditional’ does.

In his new essay collection, Poetry Notebook: 2006–2014, belletrist extraordinaire Clive James tells us things about his background and his beliefs that we should already know, if we have been paying attention for the last few decades. That he is very much a product of his time and place, having grown up in 1950s New South Wales. That ‘in the old Australian school system, you had to get poetry by heart or they wouldn’t let you go home,’ and that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. That at university at Sydney he was most likely to be found ‘alone at a table fortified with a revetment of books.’ And that, for him, poetry is very much a life pursuit—one that you grow old with, if you’re lucky enough to grow old.

One’s own life is a microcosm of the life of literature in our language. This is a theme to which James will turn repeatedly.

There is a slight irony, then, in James’s own literary growth. James’s reading definitely didn’t stop in his twenties, but his taste seems to have finished developing then. His touchstones were all in the air in the sixties at Cambridge, where James read for a second undergraduate degree: William Empson, Frank Kermode, and especially Randall Jarrell, variously described as ‘illustrious,’ ‘one of my role models,’ and ‘an assassin’ but ‘adventurous and generous in his praise.’ Now obviously any reader with sense will admire Jarrell’s powers and will have cause to consult and re-consult Poetry and the Age. But it’s hard to imagine a 2015 Randall Jarrell saying the same things that 1953 Randall Jarrell said. Different opinions for different times and all. It’s easy, on the other hand, to imagine a 2015 Clive James saying the same things as 1953 Randall Jarrell.

The essays collected here were mostly written for Poetry at the request of that magazine’s former editor Christian Wiman. We can sometimes forget, now that we’re in Don Share’s Age of Aquarius, that Poetry was a more conservative publication just a few years ago.

It may be that to some readers James’s unfashionable certainty is a tonic. He knows exactly what he thinks, and what you are eventually bound to think, if you’ll only listen. (An example: ‘The truth about [Richard] Wilbur is that his post-war impact was so big it had to be largely ignored if the race of poets was to survive.’) When a critic like this meets a poem, they grind together like tectonic plates. This is not what most critics write like today, when the admission of doubt and the willingness to consider the merits of even obviously flawed work are vital for simulating objectivity.

All criticism is, to some degree, a collection of prejudices. James’s is only more so. It is not easy for reviewers of James’s work to acknowledge this. Jason Guriel, for example, in the New Republic, opts to spend two fifths of his space on the more click-friendly topics of battling terminal cancer (James has a very wry sense of humour when it comes to cheating death) and James’s viral classic on that theme, ‘Japanese Maple.’ When it comes time to consider Poetry Notebook, Guriel can only muster up un compliment équivoque: ‘Readers who make the mistake of finding his taste for canonical poems “conservative” should still get a charge from his bloody-minded drive.’ On the contrary: readers who don’t find his taste for canonical poems conservative are the bloody-minded ones.

But it’s not all bad news. Yes, there are frustratingly stale statements (‘Ovid, whose Metamorphoses Shakespeare knew by heart’), but there are also some very nuanced, strikingly original observations. For example, James holds the heterodox belief that John Betjeman’s use of product names in his poems makes him sound quintessentially modern, as if writing about the ‘scent of Tutti-Frutti-Sen-Sen’ is a lot like Lil Wayne shilling for Pepsi. But he is right to point out that Betjeman was ahead of his ‘fellow craftsmen’ in Britain, and he is even more right to challenge you to imagine Tennyson, for example, singing of a brand name. (The fact is, you can’t, although ‘Teas, Idle Teas’ would be a powerful slogan.)

Some of James’s other theories are dubious, idiosyncratic, or merely unprovable, but not harmful. He has a long-standing obsession with the memorisation of poetry. ‘That it can be got by heart is one of the ways we tend to define a poem,’ James says, to which I want to add, ‘by the fireside at Blandings Castle.’ Perhaps it is because I am a poor memoriser of verse that I assume that James’s knack for getting poetry by heart is an obsolescent virtue, not a modern one. I know that some people, notably Anthony Madrid, swear by memorising at least their own poems. Or perhaps I’m right, and it’s no more critical to memorise a poem than it is to memorise your dinner in order to appreciate it. In any case, ‘memory’ (usually ‘from memory’ or ‘to memory’) appears in Poetry Notebook more than twenty times. ‘Memorize’ and variants: more than ten.

So a poem for James ought to have hummable cadences. Related is the idea, presented in an essay called ‘A Stretch of Verse,’ that there is an ideal distance between memorable moments in a poem:

The ‘Immortality Ode’ is laid out like an essay. It has an argument, which can be paraphrased. But it also has moments that can’t, and as we read we find it hard to resist the conviction that those moments ought to be closer together. We tend to deduce that even a poem that is laid out like an essay is trying to be a short poem. It just might not have the wherewithal. This wish for the thing to be integrated by its intensity seems to be fundamental, although it might be wise to allow for the possibility that it has taken the whole of historic time for the wish to become so clear to us.

And related to this is the distinction that James draws between writing poetry and writing poems:

If [Michael] Longley has a drawback—or if he has arrived at one after decades of detour—it is that he writes poetry more often than he writes poems. The self-contained, stand-alone thing has become more and more rare in his work.

By mere ‘poetry’ James seems to mean something like talking in verse. The ‘poem,’ then, is likely to be a song, or at least something more song-like. But another model for what he is talking about might be found in Dorothy L. Sayers’ conception of two types of poetry, called the poetry of statement and the poetry of search. This is Sayers on the difference between the two:

The poetry of Statement . . . maps the true route from tentative beginning to triumphant arrival. If it mentions false wanderings it is only to warn people off them; but it is concerned to get somewhere and to show other people the way. The poet must of course have plodded every step of the journey himself. . . . [He] is concerned with the truth he has discovered about things in general, not merely with the workings of his own mind. . . . It is possible to argue that the poetry of Statement is more mature than the poetry of Search.

Which is precisely about meanderings, deviations, and surprises. Surely, Search is James’s poetry and Statement is James’s poem. My point in making this comparison is not to show James up as derivative but to highlight the starkly binary nature of his thinking. It is worth asking ourselves if it’s productive to think of poetry as something to be judged against rules and rubrics. This is an old question, and James at least brings it to mind.

And then there are his close readings. He looks at things close up all right, but is his view in focus? Are many readers likely to be persuaded by James’s case for the following stanzas, from Australian poet Stephen Edgar’s ‘Man on the Moon’?

And for the first time ever I think now,
As though it were a memory, that you
Were in the world then and alive, and how
Down time’s long labyrinthine avenue

Eventually you’d bring yourself to me,
With no excessive haste and none too soon—
As memorable in my history
As that small step for man onto the moon.

James takes the opportunity here to praise Edgar’s vocabulary, ‘which is lyrically precise over a greater range of human activity than anyone else’s I can think of.’ Is it really? ‘Labyrinthine,’ ‘none too soon,’ ‘in my history’ (presumably chosen to fit the metre in place of something like ‘in my lifetime’)—are these choices anything other than null poeticisms? And yet James claims that this poem is ‘almost perfect.’ He asserts that when ‘memorable’ and ‘history’ are given their full syllabic value, it ‘recalls Auden.’ It doesn’t recall Auden to me any more than writing the word ‘limestone’ would.

He is much better on Les Murray, Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost, and the less-known Samuel Menashe. And Michael Donaghy, whose work as a critic he praises. He is especially ready to laud Donaghy’s catholic taste: ‘This capacity to find practical merit even in what he was theoretically against was a precious virtue.’ This, it should be apparent, is a quality that James himself does not have. But so many of us don’t have it! If we all did, it wouldn’t be praiseworthy. James has a wealth of accumulated knowledge and an uncommon intelligence. He has a showman’s sense of humour and a newspaperman’s sense of audience. And he writes as naturally as a river flows. But even these qualities can’t make him right.

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