April is Poetry Month—and a good time to celebrate one of our finest exponents of strict form, elegant diction and clear thought.
Clive James has excelled at many trades during his long career—critic, memoirist, television presenter—but his first and longest-lasting love has been writing poetry. His poems enjoy a high reputation with readers who value strict form, elegant diction and clear thought, and his delightful exercise in spite, “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered,” has a kind of cult status among writers. Now, as he nears the end of his career—he has spoken publicly about his recent diagnosis of leukemia and the prospect of death—Mr. James has condensed the wisdom earned over a lifetime of reading and writing poetry into “Poetry Notebook.” These “reflections on the intensity of language” are not so much critical essays as free explorations in which Mr. James ranges through poems of many eras in pursuit of a central question: What makes a poem live?
This is the kind of mystery that only gets more mysterious the longer you ponder it. To read contemporary poetry in any quantity is to realize that most poets spend a lifetime turning out competent verse without ever achieving the sudden flight, the inevitability and rightness of language, that makes a genuine poem. “I wonder if there can be any successful poem,” Mr. James writes, “which is not dependent on [the] ability to project you into a reality so drastically rearranged that it makes your hair fizz even when it looks exactly like itself.” Here he echoes the critical test of A.E. Housman, who said that he knew a line of poetry was genuine if it came to mind while he was shaving and his skin bristled.
Even in the most canonical poets’ work, Mr. James maintains, such moments come only occasionally. “Poetry Notebook” begins with an assessment of Hart Crane’s 1926 sequence of love poems, “Voyages,” in which Mr. James passes a critical Geiger counter over the six poems and listens for the telltale beep that shows when a line radiates power. Why does the obscure line “Adagios of islands, O my prodigal” have a “thrilling impact” while, in the same poem, “The chancel port and portion of our June” “rings dead”? Mr. James finds that the former is sonorous and “drunkenly confident” in tone, while the latter not only has the “exhausted word play of ‘port and portion’ ” but comes after “we have met too many similar structures.”
By Clive James
Liveright, 238 pages, $24.95
This ability to tell which lines live and which only counterfeit life—call it, simply, taste—is Mr. James’s great strength as a critic of poetry. His focus on the phrase and the line, rather than the large structure or the governing thought, feels like a poet’s way of reading rather than a teacher’s or critic’s, and “Poetry Notebook” makes no grand arguments. Instead, Mr. James is interested in practical questions: in particular, the proper relationship between a brilliant line and the poem in which it resides and that between the single poem and a poet’s whole body of work. He draws a pointed distinction between a poem, an achieved linguistic artifact, and mere “poetry,” which is easy to churn out. “At a time when almost everyone writes poetry but scarcely anyone can write a poem,” he writes, “it is hard not to wish for a return to some less accommodating era, when the status of ‘poet’ was not so easily aspired to, and the only hankering was to get something said in a memorable form.”
Mr. James holds the unfashionable belief that it is easier to say something in a memorable form if you pay attention to the form itself—that is, to rhyme and meter and stanza, the old-fashioned building blocks of poetry. He dismisses the “dangerous half-truth” that holds that “too much technique will inhibit creativity”; on the contrary, Mr. James believes, “there can be no putting together without technical assurance.” And as a reader of Mr. James’s own verse would expect, he is an excellent analyst of metrical poetry, putting a microscope on verses from Samuel Daniel in the 16th century to the Australian Stephen Edgar in the 21st and showing exactly how they use meter and syntax to create poetic effects. He has particularly high praise for Mr. Edgar’s “Man on the Moon,” which scans the night sky in Hardy-esque fashion..
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