Poetry Notebook: Clive James

Open A Critic’s ‘Poetry Notebook’ And Find The Works That Shaped Him

March 30, 2015 3:29 PM ET

Poetry Notebook
Poetry Notebook

Reflections on the Intensity of Language

by Clive James

Hardcover, 238 pages | purchase

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Title
Poetry Notebook
Subtitle
Reflections on the Intensity of Language
Author
Clive James

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Clive James’ most anthologized poem is commonly known by its first two lines: “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered/And I Am Pleased.” Those lines tell the uninitiated almost all they need to know about the pleasures to be found in reading James: chief among them, his wit and his appreciation of the underlying absurdity of so much literary effort — including his own.

What those famous lines don’t reveal about James is his erudition, lightly worn but very much on display in his latest book of criticism, called Poetry Notebook. In his introduction, James says that, for him, poetry has been “the occupation of a lifetime.” It’s a lifetime that’s drawing to a close — James was diagnosed a few years ago with leukemia and this short book is shot through with an awareness that the poems he’s talking about will outlast him; or, as James more elegantly puts it. “There is a grief in all poetry. … Poetry holds itself together, and eventually we ourselves do not.”

Poetry Notebook is a rousing compendium of short essays about poetry and poets that James has published over the years. Never one to hesitate about issuing a provocative verdict, James pays homage to poets like Yeats, Auden, Frost and Richard Wilbur, whom he considers immortals, and rips into others whose work he deems overpraised. Thus, no less an eminence than John Milton is condemned for being a show off and “clogging” his verse with learned references that render large swaths of Paradise Lost unreadable. James also clearly possesses an encyclopedic recall for other poets’ barbed criticisms; so, part of the pleasure of reading Poetry Notebook is learning (or perhaps being reminded) that: “Philip Larkin once said that the influence of Yeats could be all-pervasive, getting into everything like the smell of garlic.”

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