For a long time this magazine ran a competition for poems that rhymed, scanned and made sense. It was created by Auberon Waugh, then editor, in reaction to what he saw as an overabundance of shamelessly bogus free verse clogging the waters of contemporary poetry (and, perhaps more pertinently, Literary Review’s mailbag). While, understandably, never very fashionable in the literary world, the competition had a decent following, and each month there were one or two of what Clive James calls ‘moments’, those lines of poetry that stand out from the rest and achieve a certain memorability.
James has a much deeper commitment to poetry than Waugh ever did, having spent much of his life either writing it or writing about it, but he might well have been sympathetic to Waugh’s competition. Now seventy-five and suffering from terminal leukaemia (‘I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I’m about to die and then don’t,’ he told The Spectator recently), James has turned to poetry with renewed passion, attempting to set down his thoughts on his beloved subject at the end of a life spent in thrall to it. Poetry Notebook consists of fifteen mostly short essays written for Poetry magazine in Chicago between 2006 and 2014, as well as a number of pieces for various other publications. What emerges from almost all of them is James’s privileging of formal technique. While far too broad in his sensibilities to dismiss out of hand the wilder bounds of free verse, it’s clear that he suspects that the legacy of Modernism is not entirely positive: ‘like abstract painting,’ he remarks, ‘abstract poetry extended the range over which incompetence would fail to declare itself. That was the charm for its author.’ His own poetry, from the early antics of Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage to more recent, piercing lyric poems, tends to be scrupulously formal – typically, it rhymes and scans – and the poets he exults are those who do likewise: Frost, Larkin, Richard Wilbur. For a writer who has always made such outstanding sense, it’s perhaps unsurprising that James favours poetry that does the same.
The pieces here include a wide-ranging study of the use of brand names in modern poetry, an enjoyable dismantling of the lyrical achievement of The Cantos (as ever, James has a sharp eye for pomp and an equally sharp phrase with which to deflate it), an appreciation of Michael Donaghy, several discussions of Australian poetry, and much more. In general, though, these are not so much structured essays as a series of porous ruminations, and highly engrossing ones at that, though with the repetitions that such a structure inevitably invites.
James’s prose is filled with the sort of glittering moments he values in poetry. Commenting on the New and Selected Poems of the previously neglected Samuel Menashe, he writes, ‘I was intermittently aware of him, but from this book I can get his full force, which is no noisier than a bug hitting your windscreen, except that it comes right through the glass.’ Les Murray is like ‘a monarch who, having successfully constructed Versailles all on his own, is now pottering in the grounds building sheds’.
James’s reading spans the entire canon, but it’s clear that his enthusiasms wane as he approaches the late 20th century. It’s possible to agree with his assessment of certain ‘established poets, often well protected in the academy, who are beyond criticism because their poetry is about nothing except language’, while also not sharing his love of formal poets such as Anthony Hecht and, particularly, Wilbur, whom James champions repeatedly. ‘The most corrosive enemy of his reputation’, James writes, ‘was the silence of critics to whom his clarity left nothing they could add.’ Hear, hear, you think – stick it to the critics; yet turn to Wilbur’s poems in renewed expectation and you will find, as well as clarity, an old-fashioned diction that dates, rather than elevates, his work. You begin to suspect that it’s tradition as much as technique that James admires.
No matter. James is a relentlessly winning phrasemaker as well as a trenchant critic and there is a great deal to enjoy here. In places, this book is deeply poignant. ‘Finally it is the vitality of language that decides everything, and this hard fact becomes adamantine as one’s own vitality ebbs,’ he writes in the last piece. ‘Nevertheless, I still make plans to live forever: there are too many critical questions to be raised. Most of them can never be settled, which is the best reason for raising them.’