Clive James: The River in the Sky

London: Picador, 2018, 122pp.

It’s probably fair to say that Clive James’s conventional poetry isn’t widely admired by practising poets in Australia and one can see what the problem is. Most of the poems (there are exceptions) are beautifully wrought objects whereby what is essentially a prose idea – an understanding of an experience, a representation of an emotion – forms the structure of the poem. You can hear people arguing that this isn’t what poetry is at all. It’s not that the poems of his various selecteds and the most recent individual volumes, especially those written since the onset of his serious illness, are not often brilliantly achieved it’s that they rarely take the author and reader into surprising and unpredictable areas: into new meanings that can’t be encapsulated in elegant sentences. The River in the Sky (we met the title – a translation of the Japanese words for the Milky Way – at the end of his last book of memoirs where it was floated as a title for a novel about the Pacific War) might be a book which bypasses all these problems. There is a quality of undeterminedness about it which is very attractive. It might be described loosely as a collection of memorable experiences (some of which are familiar from the autobiographical volumes and earlier poems). But the interesting part is the structure whereby these experiences are organised. I’m not sure that James is himself entirely sure about the nature of this structure though, being far cleverer than most of his readers or critics, he can suggest a lot of possibilities – there’s never anything dumb about James’s uncertainties. And that uncertainty makes reading The River in the Sky all the richer an experience.

One of the possible structures that the book suggests for itself is of the epic: except, of course, at just over three and a half thousand lines, this can only be a mini-epic. And the genre of mini-epic allows for plenty of self-deprecating bathos that, in his prose, James is a master of. You can see all this in the opening four words: “All is not lost”. This quotes the opening of Satan’s magnificent rallying speech in the first book of Paradise Lost which is, of course, followed by a list of what hasn’t been lost: the unconquerable will, immortal hate and the courage never to submit or yield. In James’s poem what hasn’t been lost isn’t quite so grand or vicious. Instead it is composed of those memories which are still powerful enough to make a weakened and limited existence meaningful. The memories intensify as the capacities of the body to explore are reduced.

One of the generic features of the epic is the journey into the underworld, present in both the Homeric epics but also in something even earlier like Gilgamesh. In The River in the Sky, this takes place when James, remembering the ever-present Luna Park of his Sydney childhood, imagines seeing it from a restaurant across the harbour, supernaturally lit up:

Always the candy bulbs shone through the night,
But now they shone by day. I could see beams
Of colour in the sunlight. Were there prisms
Piled up like fruit, a rack of fresnal lenses?
A Technicolor Lichtdom stained the streaks
Of cirrus. Had they turned the place into
Some kind of laser farm? . . .

(The fact that this is done in serviceable pentameters suggests that it is an especially written piece for the poem. Other sections, clearly made up from notes, drafts and even sketches for other poems are likely to have a quite different deployment of lines and beats.) Taking a ferry to the fun park James finds his first primary school teacher, Miss Coleman, acting as gatekeeper (ie ticket collector). From that point on the visit becomes a journey through the dream world which is the modern equivalent of Hades in that it isn’t premised on a specific religious notion of life after death and is populated (as we grow older) largely by the dead. The musical accompaniment of the dream world matches James’s own musical education and another teacher recommends the ride through the River Caves. To get to the ride the poet has to pass through a series of crowds all, apparently, drawn from his Postcards television documentaries, a comment, perhaps, that certain parts of ones outward career have to be shed before the inner career can be understood. The journey turns out to take him from a crude exterior to an inner baroque architecture – the Amalienburg – in which the first ghost who speaks to him is that of Mies van der Rohe who sets out on a long discussion of the relationship between baroque extravagance and the severities of De Stijl. It seems a bit like one of the lectures from Paradiso at first but it also raises the issue of how this book is constructed, using here an architectural analogy. At any rate the journey into the River Caves continues by boat – film stars are seen in other boats rather as Dante notices shades of the famous in the different levels of Inferno – and finishes not where the poet expects that it might – “images . . .to do with love, desire, / Even salacity” – but instead with his father’s body, confirming that the experience of losing his father (killed at the end of the war, returning home from a Japanese prison camp) is the central, generating experience of his creative life. And finally, epic-style, there is a companion occasionally invoked. She seems rather like Odysseus’s Athene of Aeneas’s Venus but is called Adrastus. I’m nor sure why she gets the name of the king of Argos but she’s a constant presence in the wings.

But if epic is one possible structural model for what is going on here, there are plenty of others. There is the idea, for example, of the continuous journey – either sailing or flying or riding – in which individual memories are imagined to be ports visited or corners explored, on what is otherwise a coherent movement:

This is the way my memories connect
Now that they have no pattern.
All I can do is make the pictures click
As I go sailing on the stream of thought . . .

There are also plenty of images of circles and webs (including the internet of course which, in YouTube, makes memories of performances revisitable and thus eternally present) and one early passage brings the two together:

An aeon reassigned
To form the towpath now
Of the river of my memory

This is a river song,
Linking the vivid foci
Where once my mind was formed
That now must fall apart:
A global network blasted
To ruins by the pressure
Of its lust to grow, which proves now
At long last, after all this time,
To be its urge to die . . .

Images of circles begin early in the poem. The first description of bodily decrepitude describes seeing money spiders in their webs before going on to transform into discs – “each frail web / The intermittent image of a disc / that glittered like the Facel Vega’s wheel / Still spinning when Camus gave up his life”. (This early description raises the general issue of detail in James’s mind and in his poetry. Everyone knows that Camus died in a car crash but who knew the make of car? James has a sharp eye for precise detail, especially technical detail. It might be no more that the ability of an autodidact arriving from the far end of the civilised world. But the issue here is whether this is a prose virtue or a poetic one. I’m not entirely sure myself though I know that nothing would have been gained if Burns had told us the specific variety of Tea Rose that his love resembled.) At any rate the image of the circling wheel extends to cosmic proportions when the poem gets to focus, as it does a number of times, on the gorgeous disc of the Andromeda Galaxy towards which the Milky Way is slowly travelling. The River in the Sky finishes with a quickly modulated return from the cosmic perspective to the local one:

I had thought this ship was sailing
Across the river in the sky towards
Andromeda, but in the night it stopped
Quite close to home, and on the quay
Boxes were slung ashore that indicated
Another destination altogether,
Somewhere nearby and just across the river.
Don’t quiz me now on how I figured out
This was my destination, just a mile
Away, where my dear elder daughter
Had been building her new studio . . .

Another possible structure for the poem is that of the collection. One of James’s most affecting experiences of beauty involves being taken by his future wife to see the Breviario Grimani, a codex made up of illustrations of medieval life (rather like the better known Très Riches Heures). When The River in the Sky speaks of this as “a rich collection / Of pictures that redeem / The illusion of randomness / One piece at a time”, you know that this is being offered as a possible structural model: a collection of individual illustrations but bound together inside a larger, articulating form. And you get yet another image for the poem when the Grimani’s breviary re-enters towards the end (significantly just after the idea of sailing in the River Caves has been revisited) and James comments how:

Within the decorated borders
Of the magic book
The enchanted houses and the great
Ladies and their daughters
Flocks a mumuration of starlings
The congregations at the poles
Of the bar magnet
Echo within perceptions
Like the Almagest of Ptolemy . . .

This is the prelude to a tricky set of passages about the evolution of birds but the basic point is, I think, the idea that the poet’s mind, in this last (or, perhaps, nearly last) work operates not as linearly as it once did but more like the unpredictable reshapings of the vast flocks of starlings. You don’t see them in Australia but they appear in Europe especially in Rome: “The set of interweaving murmurations / My mind is now becoming / That once was clear for being simple”. It’s a nice symbol both of the complexifying of one’s intellectual reponses and of the way this long poem suddenly changes shape and direction.

One of the things that made James’s television reviews so memorable was its happy mixing of high and low culture, the belief that popular culture could not only be analysed in a sophisticated way (the origin of Cultural Studies) but that it should be accorded respect in its own right when it was capable of producing both beauty and energy. And beauty and energy are the hallmarks of the memories – “my fragile treasures” – out of which the “narrative” of The River in the Sky is made. If it comes as no great shock to find Ljuba Welitsch, famous for her Salome, next to Bill Haley and the Comets, James is largely responsible for that fact.

Ultimately, The River in the Sky prepares for a journey which is no journey. There is an explicit rejection of the ancient Egyptian model of a celestial after-life that one voyages towards so that one can go on enjoying ones vast and expensive collection of material goods. But for those blessed with fantastically rich inner lives, there will always be the question of what will become of these memories. The answer is, unfortunately, that they melt away or, as the poem puts it rather more memorably, they disappear in “the gradual tornado” of destruction. But, in the moments before dissolution they shine most brightly. As I said at the beginning, an aggressively declining physical state seems matched by a growth in clarity and brightness of memories. My first response to The River in the Sky was to compare it to Tony Judt’s wonderful The Memory Chalet. His fate was an even harsher one than James’s. Struck down by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) which takes the use of all one’s limbs from one before taking everything else, he worked in the long sleepless nights on memories and his method of dictating the results involved using the geography of a Swiss chalet visited as a child as a set of mnemonics. The idea was taken from Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci and the downsizing from a memory palace to a memory chalet is a piece of humorous modesty worthy of James. It’s not quite the same situation as in The River in the Sky since the mnemonic system was used as a way of remembering the order of the memories and of Judt’s thoughts about them. And, as an historian, Judt saw his memories as having a value as historical data. But the memories have the same enhanced luminosity that they have in James’s work. Judt’s method of organisation follows strict logical procedures. He doesn’t have the issues of structure that a creative piece like The River in the Sky has, but it’s the struggling with structure that makes James’s poem so interesting as it sets out to be something more than collage but at no stage a thesis. How to make a long poem work and cohere has been one of poetry’s unresolved technical issues in the last hundred years. Pound’s Cantos, the first to raise the issue, might make an interesting comparison, but James would be unlikely to be impressed. In his Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 he calls it a “panscopic grab bag” and “a nut-job blog before the fact”.

Clive James: Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014

London: Picador, 2014, 234pp

I have long been an admirer of Clive James’s criticism. In the early 1970s a colleague used to circulate the airmail editions of The Observer – in a pre-digital age these were printed on tissue paper to save on postage – around the department and my 1974 edition of The Metropolitan Critic still has a frail excerpt from one of his television columns tucked in the back. It is a review of a number of programs including one called “The House on the Klong” and another about a program on American sexuality which describes the style of one of the “experts” – a Dr Bronfenbrenner – as involving “assembling tautologies at the rate of a small child getting dressed for school”. It will give readers some idea of the standard of James’s writing that this little masterpiece didn’t make the cut in the selections used in his three volumes of television criticism.

Good criticism, like James’s, can do many things. It can, at its best, re-energise flagging debates. It can aim to be an embodiment of “discrimination” – one of my least favourite words in both its opposed meanings. It can enthuse us about individual books and, with far less frequent success, make us despise them. It can save us reading books – not as contemptible an aim as it seems since criticism in the nineteenth century frequently had a digest mode where unappetisingly technical books were summarised at some length. For me James was an introduction to intelligent, humorous, non-academic criticism (as was Bernard Shaw’s voluminous writing on music). The best pieces in The Metropolitan Critic, such as the first piece on Edmund Wilson, were exactly about marking out what a critic of the highest calibre might hope to achieve. It also defends literary journalism against the claim that, compared with scholarly writing, it is just amateurish stuff:

. . . the answer is: it is easy to do badly and hard to do well; and that even at its worst it is not so dispensable as the average of academic writing; and that at its best it is the full complement to the academy’s best, the accuser of the academy’s average, and the necessary scourge of the academy’s worst.

Finally, one of the results of good criticism can be a re-energising of an individual reader and the setting of new, more ambitious goals. To go on speaking personally, the most influential part of The Metropolitan Critic for this critic was a small semi-comic piece about “the loneliness of the long-distance reader”. Since I’d already read Gibbon for the first time by then I may already have set out on this lonely path but James’s description of the problems is painfully accurate:

In the four years since I finished Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic I have been unable to meet (a) anyone who has read it, with whom to compare notes; and (b) anyone appropriately dissatisfied at not having read it. To compound the dissatisfaction, the only bit of the book I have succeeded in remembering is the bit about the little children crying in the streets – a line known even to people who think Motley is a theatrical costumier.

I read Motley because of this in the early eighties when I was baby-sitting my youngest daughter and I’ve always had, circulating among my reading projects, one or other of these very large books. And this is why, at present, thirty-five years later, I’m about four-fifths of the way through a patchwork of mixed translations of The Mahabharata with no real reward except the smug sense of knowing that I’ve done it. Certainly without anyone to compare notes with or who is in any way jealous of my achievement.

The big difference between the poetry reviews in early collections like The Metropolitan Critic and At the Pillars of Hercules and this Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 is that the former seem to have been written as a critic and the latter as a practitioner. It makes a big difference, for better and worse, when you write about poets as a fellow poet. One of the many issues that the book touches on is whether good critics of poetry have to be poets themselves. One argument against this might be that a non-poet has the ability to look at different approaches to poetry fairly dispassionately whereas a poet has committed him or her self to one in particular. And a result of this might be that the shape of the ideal poet which slowly emerges through the mists of endless readings and evaluations looks very much like that of the critic.

At any rate James remains an electric writer to read. His prose is always marked by being grounded in argument and it pushes towards pithy and often hyperbolic statements as conclusions – one of my favourite of the early pieces, a review of a biography of Ford Madox Ford, finishes, “Always precisely wrong about his own character, Ford’s vaunting of his professionalism gives us the clue: he was the last amateur”. But another important part of James’s style (exploited to the full in the series of books beginning with Unreliable Memoirs) is comically treated autobiography. James as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney is so stylised a representation by now that the caricatured figure of the gormless, book- and experience-devouring student has become part of literature itself, no longer to be judged as an accurate or otherwise historical representation. There is a good deal of this James in Poetry Notebook often under the guise of comparing and contrasting his enthusiasms as a beginner with his responses late in life.

But to describe the book as being personally based might give the impression that it is in some way chattily unstructured. In fact it’s a surprisingly organised book. Whereas a collection of reviews is built on commissions that require the reader to come to grips with particular poets – to answer the questions that these poets raise – this book has at its heart a series of thoughts about poetry, poems and poets written for the Chicago magazine, Poetry. So it’s really set up as an roaming set of investigations by a poet into the nature of poetry. The issues that tend to recur in this book are issues important to James’s own sense of himself as a poet: memorability, whether a poem’s achievement is real or spurious, how memorable passages are connected, the role of rationality and comprehensibility, the significance of “craft”, and so on. Surrounding and obfuscating these crucial practitioner’s issues are the dark clouds emanating from the usual suspects: fake poets pushing their manifestos and friends (the post-poundians – “there will always be a residency for J.H. Prynne” – the Language poets, etc), pole-climbing academics with no commitment to literature (or knowledge of it) at all, Creative Writing schools and, worst of all, theorists.

The book is structured so that it searches first for some kind of core to poetry, an irreducible essence. This looks like a classical attempt to begin by definition and when James looks first at those amazing, memorable lines which make our hair stand up and mean that a particular poem is lodged forever in our minds, someone like myself is beginning to tot up exceptions before the sentence has finished. But a strength of Poetry Notebook is that it, too, searches for exceptions and manages to find them for almost every generalisation about poetry which it ventures. When, as reader, you think of an exception, James – like Verne’s Arne Saknussemm – has been there before you. But James is right to stress the importance of the line that seems to lodge in the soul, just as he is right to be leery of absolute generalisations. If you can’t write things that people either remember or want to remember (or you’ve evolved a theory that discourages doing this) then perhaps you should give it away. Furthermore, it is through such memorable moments that new readers get the injection that will ultimately keep them hooked on poetry. I learned from Poetry Notebook that Dryden called these “hits” – “These hits of words a true poet often finds, as I may say, without seeking: but he knows their value when he finds them, and is infinitely pleased” – and it’s an attractive thought that a word we associate with popular music might be the same one originally used for poetic successes arrived at in a quite different way. Every devoted reader of poetry has an anthology of such “hits”. If I arranged mine chronologically in the order I met them they would probably begin with Keats’s Ruth standing in tears “amid the alien corn” first read in High School. “Alien corn” is an extraordinary phrase and remarkably resistant to the inevitable process whereby known beauties become familiar and lose some of their shine. Some phrases of this kind become so influential that later writers can’t resist mining them for titles: almost every line of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech appears as a book title and I’ve always been surprised that “Alien Corn” hasn’t turned up as the title of a book about, say, food importation or, better, perhaps, the spread of American popular culture into other countries after the war.

James’s technique is to begin by thinking about these “hits” (his first is Hart Crane’s, “The seal’s wide spindrift gaze towards paradise”) and then move outwards to the next issue of how these are articulated into larger constructions and thus touch on important issues in the poetry in English for the last hundred or so years, especially the issue of the nature of free verse and whether rhyme and metricality are built into English poetry or are just randomly selected formal impositions. He is also interested in the issue of the extent to which such hits are consciously produced by the poet: Dryden says “without seeking” and an early essay by James on Randall Jarrell quotes him as saying that even a good poet “was a man who spent a lifetime standing in a storm and who could hope to be struck by lightning only half a dozen times at best”. But I’ve always felt that Keats knew that he could operate comfortably in an idiom in which lines phrases like “alien corn” were likely to appear.

My own interests would follow this issue of “hits” in different directions from those structural implications that James is inclined to take up. I’d like to press onto the point whereby recognition of such miracles is a sine qua non for serious readers of poetry. We all write as though these great lines were somehow self-evident. But what if different, equally qualified, equally intense readers of poetry had subtly different lists of “hits”? I’d like to see this explored in the hopes that focussing on differences rather than agreements might be the way out of the (to me) awful idea that there was a sort of ideal group of readers who had the discrimination to detect a “hit”. After all, it’s a fact in logic that we learn more about a set by looking at the awkward borders than if we look at a member from the very centre of the set: if you want to think about the characteristics of, say, “Australian Poet”, you’ll learn more by looking at someone like Peter Porter (how “Australian” is he?) or Patrick White (how poetic is his prose?) than by looking at Kenneth Slessor, born in the year of federation and a standard choice in any anthology.

This issue emerged when reading Poetry Notebook at the points where James quotes Empson’s “And now she cleans her teeth into the lake” and Auden’s “The earth turns over, our side feels the cold”. Empson I have, through various accidents, never read (mea culpa) but I know the Auden and I have to confess that neither of these do anything for me – they aren’t, in James’s refreshingly unpompous language, “killer-diller lines”. The Auden, though, is close enough to one of my own much-loved hits and, though it is not a single line but more what James calls “a stand-alone unity that insists on being heard entire, and threatens never to leave one’s memory”, I take the opportunity to indulge myself and quote it here:

She tells her love while half asleep,
     In the dark hours,
          With half-words whispered low:
As Earth stirs in her winter sleep
     And puts out grass and flowers
          Despite the snow,
          Despite the falling snow.

It’s by Robert Graves who is a poet you might expect James to engage with more fully (he was, after all, no sillier than Yeats and a better classical scholar than Frost) and whose poetry has a very high density of palpable hits. It’s not appropriate here to talk extensively about its glories but this little poem begins with a very ambivalent word “tells” and turns (like the earth) on another ambiguous word, “her”, (does it refer to the woman or the earth?) which functions as what the Japanese call, I think, kakekotoba – a pivot or hinge word. And then it finishes with a repetition (augmented to make a ravishing effect). I read somewhere that Old Norse poems spoken by the dead have a repeated final line (Gunnar’s magnificent poem, sung in his burial mound in Njal’s Saga, certainly does) and you feel that the effect of the repetition here comes from deeper sources than merely the desire for a lyric grace. And on this subject of omissions in a book dauntingly full of inclusions, it’s odd that Spenser is mentioned only (I think) once. Spenser is exactly the kind of poet I would have expected to appeal to James. He is a “poet’s poet” (to use a cliche), the kind of poet who might drop out of readerly interest for a century or so but whose flame is kept alive by poets. Milton called him his “original” and he was admired by the Romantics – especially Keats – and the Victorians. He is, simply, a great technician, and no better example could be chosen of a poet doing with consummate ease exactly what James wants his poetry to do: put complex ideas and complex syntax effortlessly into a challenging stanza form.

And still on the subject of omissions, readers looking for an engagement with contemporary doings in Australian poetry will find Poetry Notebook ”“ indeed all of James’s criticism – pretty unhelpful. He writes here about Hope, and McAuley’s “Because” but they are poems that he knew when he was a student in Sydney. In other words they are subsumed into his autobiography. He does speak briefly of Wright and Harwood and confirms the contemporary prejudice that the star of the latter has risen as that of the former has declined. A book by Les Murray is included in a set of commissioned reviews at the back but they were contemporaries at the University of Sydney. There is no engagement with Bruce Beaver or Bruce Dawe or David Malouf or Michael Dransfield (who was a conscious producer of hits) or any of a dozen other important names. The one exception is James’s admiration for the poems of Stephen Edgar. Poetry Notebook contains a good detailed analysis of an important Edgar poem, “Man on the Moon”. It’s a moot point whether one should say that Edgar’s poetry appeals to James simply because (like that of Wilbur and Larkin) it’s a variation of the kind of thing that James himself wants to do in his poetry or whether the proximity of their assumptions about poetry means that James is able to write especially sympathetically and incisively. Perhaps these aren’t mutually exclusive positions but I prefer to read poet-critics writing perceptively about the work of other poets whose work their ideas should mean they dislike (Jarrell on Stevens, for example) but which, for one reason or another, they find compelling. I’ll avoid these matters and focus on issues of difference, once again. James thinks that “Man on the Moon” has a single weak line: “The crescent moon, to quote myself, lies back . . .” He dislikes the way we are moved out of the self-contained unity of the poem by a reference to another Edgar poem:

But when a poem has successfully spent most of its time convincing us that it stands alone, it seems worse than a pity when it doesn’t. It seems like self-injury: a bad tattoo.

I’ve always thought (on first, second and subsequent readings) that this is the best line in the poem. To me it’s as though “Man on the Moon” works by continually shifting its material so as to give a different perspective on what it wants to say. An external reference is like a door opening in a smooth wall where you didn’t realise a door existed and the perspective it offers is exciting and rather shocking. I don’t think, at heart, that James and I have read the poem differently but perhaps my vulgar tastes prefer the madness of disorienting surprises. At any rate, as with the anthology of widely agreed-upon hits that turns out to have a more shifting membership than most critics allow, it’s the differences that are more interesting and revealing than the agreements.

Even a great critic like Jarrell who, early on, specialised in acid hatchet jobs, wrote better when he wrote in praise and celebration than when he wrote in condemnation. I think this is because the certainties which seem to lie at the heart of an act of critical “discrimination” are often only apparent certainties. I think that this is a result not of the way in which theories and practices of poetry are always open to corruption by the inevitable group of talentless illiterates who make up whatever the critic thinks are the dark forces surrounding him or her but rather of the kind of differences that I have mentioned – differences among people whose ideas about poetry are very similar. At any rate, one of the least successful chapters in Poetry Notebook is an attack on Ezra Pound. It’s a bit like Pope Stephen digging up Formosus’s body to put it on trial – it doesn’t do a dead man any further harm and it makes the participants look either silly or vindictive or both. There should be a literary dictat forbidding such pieces. James makes his characteristic gesture of absorbing it into his autobiography, saying, in effect: “When I was young I loved this stuff; now I see that it is flimflam. How could I have been so wrong?” I think the answer is simply that, like many, James has evolved a notion of poetry which brackets Pound off. Since the other great high modernists like Yeats and Eliot can still be fitted into this version of literary history we might ask why poor old Pound has to suffer. The answer is, surely, that in the Cantos he wanted to move beyond what he had done (the Troubadour style, the Cathay style, “Homage to Sextus Propertius” and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” – enough to ensure, if not immortality, then at least a long life of literary relevance) and make a modern epic. Of course the Cantos are a failure, how could they not be, but they never ask to be judged positively by the poetic tradition that will give us, via the poetry of Wilbur and Larkin, the poems of Clive James. But I deal with this at some length (trying to omit the fact that, if critics are to be judged by their ability to recognise contemporary genius – the mystical act of “discrimination” – then Pound, discoverer and unwavering supporter of Frost, Eliot and Joyce, has to be the finest critic in English poetry) because all of the ideas about poetry which lie at the heart of James’s criticism derive from the mode of the lyric. Classical poetic theory had no trouble distinguishing between the tragic mode and the dramatic but never incorporated the lyric into its analysis – that came centuries later. You could say that the approach of Poe (all poetry is lyric, epics are just marked out by having longer boring stretches between the only things that matter, the hits), ludicrous in its time and still ludicrous, has been allowed in through a side door and dressed to look respectable. James’s criticism of Milton for his tendency to shove extended classical references into Paradise Lost might well derive from this. If you think secondary epics are no good as a mode, then that’s fine (I might even agree), but you can’t criticise them for not being poems by Wilbur or Larkin.

These criticisms of Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 are, of course, really flatteries since it’s a book that makes you think a fraction less vaguely about your own notions of poetry at every point at which you disagree with something that James has said. But there are other excellent things that should be celebrated overtly. James is, for a start, brilliant at discussing poems by people whose names you probably don’t even know – Samuel Menashe, for one. He is also good at poets who have been forgotten entirely. A brief discussion of Dunstan Thompson, beginning by quoting a stanza and imagining – and asking the reader to imagine – being forced to guess who the author might be (always a delicious exercise in literature as well as music) leads to a perceptive analysis of why he should be a forgotten man. I think the same could be said about Frederic Prokosch who gets a mention in Poetry Notebook as the author of one of those interesting poems which are easy to remember and very hard to understand. But in Prokosch’s case the answer is simpler than in the case of Thompson: he never recovered from one of Jarrell’s reviews! James mentions the possibility of an anthology of such poems and, though you feel he is teasing publishers for their conservatism and the need of big, recognisable names, I think it’s a terrific project.

And then there is a self-contained essay “Product Placement in Modern Poetry” that explores a topic which not only did I have no ideas about but which I had never thought of: when does poetry start including names, especially brand names? And why, in the past, has poetry with all its vaunted specificity shied away from brands? The issue enables him to discuss Cummings, Betjeman and Seidel as well as yet another poet I had never heard of, L.E. Sissman. And his answers are persuasive, I think. Beginning in America where the brands were part of the exhilaration of contemporary speech, their inclusion marked an increase in “the vocabulary of reality” a realisation that

the artificially generated language of here and now could be continuous with the everlasting. It didn’t guarantee the everlasting, and even today so keen-eyed a poet as Seamus Heaney will tell you everything about a plough except for the name of its manufacturer: but a reference system in the temporal present was no longer held to be the enemy of a poem’s bid for long life.

No wonder that one of James’s best and most moving poems begins with a first line that quotes an advertising phrase for a home “perm”.

A good book like this always sharpens your thoughts about the assumptions behind your own approach to the magic of poetry. For what it’s worth, my own approach is probably the inverse of James’s. Whereas he begins with the central phenomenon of the hit, the memorable, scalp-tightening and enduring phrase, I’m inclined to begin at the other, more abstract extreme. Seeing that poetry, or something like it, exists in all cultures at all times, I’m inclined to see it as “art language”, the language of a tribe used at its most effective and in its most powerful way. The issues that get aired in Poetry Notebook (and my reading of it) such as the tensions between, say, formal and free verse, the post-poundian tradition and the lyric tradition, between poetry and poems, between epic, dramatic and lyric and so on, are all very minor seen in the perspective of the possibilities contained in poetry as it is and has been practiced on the planet. I think the wider the perspective the better the critic: we should be able to match observable practices in our own poetic culture with things as disparate as Zulu praise poetry, the oriental lyric, the Arabic tradition etc etc. Of course, much in poetry – like English poetry’s hits – requires a profound immersion in the language and so our perspectives are, naturally, limited. But professional linguists suffer similar problems (though they are probably even better language learners than literary people) and yet they aren’t inhibited from making statements about language in general (the study of linguistic typology) and they certainly don’t think that English is a base point from which one will be able to say anything at all useful about language as a whole. I’d rather, in other words, that poetry critics behaved more like typologists when they wanted to speak generally about the nature of poetry and less like sophisticated grammarians of English. James is never limited to English poetry and is more polyglot and more widely-read than I am, but there is still a European perspective on poetry in his approach.