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.