Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Book Review - Poetry notebook by Clive James

Poetry notebook 2006-2014 by Clive James

London: Picador, 2014                            ISBN 9781447269106

The long mourning of Clive James has begun, before he has even shuffled off this mortal coil. I feel sure he relishes the irony of being feted in magazine and newspaper, especially in those that would never countenance publishing any of his verse.

His long decline into the grave has engendered an extraordinary outpouring of writing, both of verse and criticism. Even before his final illness was diagnosed he produced Cultural Amnesia, a work that almost defies description, and one I think will be an essential guide to the glorious mess that was the 20th century as time wears on. His translation of Dante is wonderful, and the work just keeps coming.

Poetry notebook pretty much does what it says on the cover - it is a collection of pieces written by James about poetry over the last ten years for various outlets, with his pieces for the magazine Poetry being at the heart.

There is no doubt that behind the bonhomie and wit of his television persona, James is a deep thinker, and committed to poetry as the highest of arts. He has a lot to say, in his own inimitable way, about exactly what it is that makes a poem, and how they affect us, the gentle reader.  James leads us through just what it is that makes a poem, from the memorable phrase, a master touch of rhythm and the wonderfully argued stanza. By referring back to his own discovery of verse, he reminds us of the great thrill of that first time you read a line, a stanza, or even a whole poem that grabs you by the guts and makes you feel lightheaded.

In the first section of the book, "Notes on poetry", James brings together his articles from Poetry magazine, interspersed with little "interludes"; and, while each essay is a whole within itself, they link together to provide a critical framework for what James considers important. And that is genius in language tied together with structure, which allows the poet to transcend both language and structure to create greatness.

James refers in one essay to Michael Donaghy's concept of “negotiation”, “obtained from a contest between what the poet aimed to say and the form in which he had chosen to say it.”, and it’s fair to say that James also believes in this concept. This belief makes him very wary of free verse. While he points out that much rubbish has been written both in formal and informal modes, James suggests that informal verse has a much higher bar to jump over to be considered good poetry, and in fact used poorly can take away the effect from some wonderful lines. James doesn’t dismiss informal verse entirely though, as there are success stories, and freedom and form need to both exist to bounce off each other.

All good poems must have something to say, and James is merciless to poems that don’t. There is a wonderful essay on Pound in this book, where James revisits his (and let’s face it, lots of our) early devotion to his work with a more mature eye, and calls out the Cantos for the cant that they mostly are, pointing out the irony that Pound the critic was all about meaning and being to the point, yet his poetry was often the exact opposite: “The arrow has not two points.”….

The second section of the book consists of articles and essays regarding particular poets, including Peter Porter, Les Murray, John Updike, Robert Frost and others. These writings reflect James’ conviction that poetry must be meaningful in a basic sense to really become poetry – he doesn’t like woolly language that attempts profundity, but holds to Frost’s concept of the “Sound of sense”.

James has always been at his best in the mode of critic, and it is in the essay that he finds his ideal outlet. This book (and it is true also of Cultural Amnesia), while constructed of disparate pieces, can be read as a single entity – a theory with examples scattered throughout the text. It is a book well worth reading for those engaged in writing poetry: even if you may not agree with his ideas about what poetry is, his advice to “young” poets is helpful – read as much as you can, work out why something grabs you, and practice, practice, practice.

There are other little gems of advice as well: James is a firm believer in the value of anthologies, as they not only bring together the “best” poetry, but they give you insights into the times they were produced, or what particular poetic movements considered seminal.

The final piece “Trumpets at Sunset” is a poignant collection of paragraphs in which James laments his imminent passing and how he now lacks the time to revisit some poets that he feels he may need to read again. He also lets us know in this section that he’s not a huge fan of Milton or Swinburne, but enjoys a bit of Dryden.

It will be interesting to see how posterity treats Clive James. I think Poetry Notebook is well worth reading.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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