Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014, Clive James, Picador, 2014, £12.99
In an acceptance speech at the BAFTAs earlier this month, Clive James explained that he “retired in the year 2001.” It’s been a busy retirement. He may have moved on from television, but since 2001 James has penned more than a dozen books, including a complete translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Now, five years since being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he is determined to keep writing. “I still make plans to live forever,” he explains in Poetry Notebook, “there are too many critical questions still to be raised.” It hasn’t received quite the same publicity as Sentenced to Life, his ‘last’ collection of poems (published in April), but in many ways this is the more remarkable book. Many writers turn to poetry for consolation. How many people, knowing their days are numbered, choose to spend them on questions of literary criticism?
To current university students, James the TV personality is distant history – a good thing, as it means we can approach James the author on his own terms. Like Dr Johnson (frequently name-checked in these pages), he’s a skilled poet who is more likely to be remembered for his other talents. James is in his element in prose; charming, opinionated, and generous with his knowledge. Like Johnson, he has a gift for what he calls “kitchen criticism,” isolating the metrical nuts and bolts that make a line sing. He’s always been a passionate, intelligent communicator, and these twenty-five short essays read like excerpts from an excellent one-sided conversation, or perhaps the scripts for an unmade broadcast.
Poetry Notebook is a personal, intimate work. James returns to the poems that have shaped him over the years, reminiscing about lines he once recited into his shaving-mirror. He may have little time for Ezra Pound these days, dismissing the Cantos as “a nut-job blog before the fact”, but not without remembering how much Pound meant to him as an earnest teenager. The Desert Island Discs atmosphere is most evident in the volume’s ‘best-of’ features; a rundown of six favourite poems from the Poetry Archive, and a list of ‘Five Favourite Poetry Books’ (originally commissioned as “click-bait” for the Wall Street Journal).
Much of Poetry Notebook is drawn from James’s columns for Poetry magazine, commissioned by his friend Christian Wiman, then the magazine’s editor. At the time, Wiman was fighting bone cancer, and James was deeply struck by their encounter: “It was inspiring to hear so young a man – so young and cruelly stricken – making such a point of being clear about how poetry ruled his mind, even at a time when his body was putting him on notice that the years ahead would be tough sledding.” Wiman set an example worth following, and James shows his gratitude in an excellent essay on Wiman’s own poetry.
Besides a smattering of Australians who haven’t quite made it in Britain (James McAuley, Steven Edgar), the poetry covered here is hyper-canonical: Frost, Auden, Larkin, Hopkins, Eliot, Yeats. This is a book with a literary agenda. A self-described ‘dyed-in-the-wool formalist’, James saves his harshest barbs for the post-moderns. “Today’s deliberately empty poetry can get a reputation for a time,” he writes, “there will always be a residency for J. H. Prynne.”
Until the final essay there is almost no mention of female writers. Anne Sexton and Amy Clampitt get a paragraph each, and there’s almost a page on Plath, but that’s it. James is very aware of this, and does his best to pre-empt criticism in his last essay, rattling through a dozen favourite female poets in five pages, before offering an apology:
“By now it’s quite possible to look forward to a time when women will dominate the art. Throughout my career as a critic, I did my best to say that woman had contributed vitally to the heritage, but here at the final reckoning it bothers me that I might not have done enough, and that my critical work, if any of it is still consulted after I am gone, will make me look like a chauvinist.”
The tone of concern feels genuine. If there were somehow a second Notebook in the works – and we can hope – I’d would be keen to have more of his thoughts on Elizabeth Bishop and Edna St Vincent Millay.
There are a handful of single-subject pieces (critiques of individual poems by McAuley and MacNeice; an introduction to Michael Donaghy’s essays), but mostly James takes a thematic approach, flitting from writer to writer. The lack of an index is frustrating – where was that bit about Richard Wilbur? – but this is a conversation, not a textbook, and a particularly quotable conversation at that. The more Wildean quips can feel obvious (“Real talent can survive anything, even encouragement”) but when he nails it, he nails it. Carol Ann Duffy “has a gift for fame”. A book of Swinburne is “a meal of popcorn,” all crunch and no substance, while Menashe’s intricate miniatures “might seem like cherrystone scrimshaw.” I had to Google both ‘Menashe’ and ‘scrimshaw’, and I’m glad I did.
Despite the evident pleasure with which he displays his erudition, Poetry Notebook never comes across as professorial; James always addresses the reader as one enthusiast sharing their excitement with another. As he writes of a poem by Peter Porter, “it isn’t trying to tell you how much he knows. It’s giving thanks for how much there is to be known.”