Packing It In

Review: Clive James’ ‘Poetry Notebook’

Gary Locke
• April 3, 2015 5:00 am


About a decade ago, Clive James came out to give a talk in the corner of academia where I was, at the time, pretending to be a scholar. The idea was that he would read some of his poems and then take questions, but things struck a sour note when some of us posing the questions seemed entirely uninterested in James’ poetry, and instead wanted to talk about his memoirs. James was visibly annoyed, though he later recovered over beers with a group of students, speaking with quiet passion on poetic and literary matters. He was in his mid-sixties at the time, but seemed much older, and not well.

For Americans unfamiliar with James, he is an Australian who left home during his university days, joining the squadrons of antipodean transplants to England who dominate student societies there through a combination of talent, personal charm, and volume. He came to notice as president of the Cambridge Footlights (other notable alumni include Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, John Cleese), and moved to London, where he established a reputation in 1970s Grub Street as the "boy from the Bush who could quote Wittgenstein."

What followed has been a distinctly postmodern career, conducted both on television and in print, combining the low—celebrity interviews, pioneering the art of TV criticism—and the high, including a large body of literary criticism and recently a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. James started writing his memoirs early, and there are now five volumes. Claiming at the outset that most first novels are disguised autobiographies, James announced that he intended to flip the form: His autobiography was to be a disguised novel. The first volume, called Unreliable Memoirs, came out in 1979, and along with its sequels remains in print. The Kid from Kogarah’s pose of bewildered, sweaty, and self-declared egomania has made for high and touching comedy.

Throughout all of this, James was also writing poetry, and criticizing the poetry of others. He wants to be taken seriously as a poet and a poetry critic, and he has had some success. Recently he has published a collection of his late criticism, most of it from Poetry Magazine. The book, as with everything James writes these days, is shot through with pathos and reflections on death. James is dying from leukemia. As even he will note, he has now been dying for quite a while. Last year he claimed that P.J. O’Rourke had told him, "You’re going to have to soft-pedal this death’s door stuff, Clive, because people are going to get impatient."

This is the criticism of a working poet, concerned with matters of craft, and the autobiographical mode is rarely out of reach. There is a lot of Clive James in this book. Essays dealing with Hart Crane or E.E. Cummings tend to invoke the image of a youthful James, foolishly mad for modernism, memorizing their work while wandering a sundrenched Sydney Harbor. Though this is a book containing what James says are effectively marginal notes organized into prose form, the volume hangs together better than most collections. A series of original "interludes" connect the pieces, and the same names—Frost, Auden, Larkin—keep popping up, along with the same concerns: the importance of form, the nearness of death, that time lunch with Stephen Edgar went on until dark, etc.

Though far from a systematic or definitive statement, the book does allow for a limited excavation of a unified Jamesian Theory of Poetry. Poetry is "that which cannot be quoted from except out of context," and differs from prose through its "intensity of language." For something to be a poem, it is essential to pack a great deal into a short span.

Crucially, the poet’s work is dominated by the tension between creating "moments"—the "magnesium flash" of an instantly memorable line—and the requirement to write poems, not just meandering collections of moments, to superintend a "unifying energy" that ties together a series of moments. The best poetry is characterized by its appearance of inevitability, despite the negotiations between sound and sense required to make each line. The reader knows that he could not have written Auden’s "The earth turns over, our side feels the cold," but despite theoretical knowledge of its contingency is forced to conclude that the line couldn’t have been written any other way.

The poet must also be concerned with form. The "best of modernism was a way for the classical to keep going," but the worst of it and its descendants, "like abstract painting … extended the range over which incompetence would fail to declare itself. That was the charm for its author." This is conservative stuff, and I suppose that the sort of people who for no apparent reason like to use the word "poetics" would call it naïve. It also has the feel of having been written by someone who, having labored mightily at achieving in practice the effects he now theoretically describes, is in sentimental awe of those giants who pulled off the trick so regularly: Of Auden, James writes, "It seemed so effortless. And so it was, but only for him."

It is too early to say what the legacy of James’ actual poetry will be. The sheer volume of the stuff (as with most successful lives, James’ most important virtue has been plain getting after it), along with the popularity of some of his comic poems—"The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered" is often, and justly, mentioned—is enough to assure him some purchase on the achievement of having been a ‘minor poet.’

But James seems to have little interest in being remembered as a composer of light verse, any more than he wants to be remembered as a clown who brought charisma to the task of talking about culture on the telly. An initial reconnaissance of his major lyrics reveals that there is something to praise there, but of course can’t answer the question of what might be popping up in anthologies fifty years from now. "Diamond Pens of the Bus Vandals" seems to be among the best of it, as formal as you like, classical in its generic approach, musing on a work of art that, in a nice postmodern turn, is scratched graffiti on a London bus. Even better is "A Perfect Market," as confident a performance as one is likely to get anywhere:

It isn’t that their deafness fails to match
The chaos. It’s the only thing they catch.
No form, no pattern. Just the rolling dice
Of idle talk. Always a blight before,
It finds a place today, fulfills a need:
As those who cannot write increase the store
Of verses fit for those who cannot read,
For those who can do both the field is clear
To meet and trade their wares, the only fear
That mutual benefit might look like greed.

This is a spirited defense of formal poetry, and though I’m sure need/read is a pair that has been rhymed before, it seems fresh, and even a touch inevitable. It’s a shame that the thing has to end so damply—almost literally so:

The language falls apart before our eyes,
But what it once was echoes in our ears
As poetry, whose gathered force defies
Even the drift of our declining years.
A single lilting line, a single turn
Of phrase: these always proved, at last we learn,
Life cries for joy though it must end in tears.

The demands of the lyric typically call for a concluding moment that registers somewhere between a ‘touch of pathos’ and ‘calmly transcendent.’ That last line has the emotional quality of the theme song to a soap opera. But there is a great deal that is fine in much of James’ verse, not least his regular achievement of massaging the vernacular into classical shapes, something at which he once described Larkin as having been a master—someone who took sentences and

…beat them into stanza form and laughed:
They didn’t sound like poetry one bit,
Except for being absolutely it.

If James has never produced his own major masterpiece, this early poem on the subject of Larkin’s death may contain a clue as to why. Larkin famously had the "work," leaving to others to have the "life":

You were the one who gave us the green light
To get out there and seek experience,
Since who could equal you at sitting tight
Until the house around you grew immense?
Your bleak bifocal gaze was so intense,
Hull stood for England, England for the world—
The whole caboodle crammed into one room.
Above your desk all of creation swirled
For you to look through with increasing gloom,
Or so your poems led us to assume.

James may have felt that he had the green light from Larkin to get out there, but the rest of us may wonder whether attempting both the life and the work is an unrealistic feat, best left to those who, like Byron, are going to kick it young. For everyone else, something will have to give. James may never have had a "Whitsun Weddings" in him, because it would have been absolutely beyond him to sit there at the back of the train car, silently resenting the happy couples’ failure to confront their own limits and poverty, and the families at each platform for their chintzy celebrations, enjoyed despite the manifest suburban mediocrity of the participants. He simply wasn’t quiet enough, or mean enough. If James had been on that train, he would have been leaping off at each platform, buying a round for the wide-belted blokes and leading them in song.

James had the work all right, but in a different way that was never far from actually living. Even his late translation of the Divine Comedy was done in this uniquely Jamesian manner: having become estranged from his wife (a professor at Cambridge, and one of the world’s leading Dante scholars) after some decades of marriage as a consequence of his own misbehavior, James told the press that he had poetically gone to hell and back as an act of contrition to the missus. The introduction is substantially devoted to fulsome praise of her work, including an anecdote of how their premarital love grew while reading the original Italian together as students visiting Florence.

It is not surprising that memoir is the form in which James has been major. It was the most natural way to make the life the work. Dip into any of the volumes and you find yourself stumbling on gems like a detective wandering a jewelry store after a smash-and-grab. On sitting down, unmotivated and uninspired, to write a script: "The text of Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast had been composed with a lighter heart." The advance payment received by the young James for a (never completed) biography of Louis MacNeice was "hardly an advance—more like a retreat!" On the difficulties of describing the 1960s: "It is a very hard thing to evoke an era. Pick up a notebook and a pen right now, stick your head outside the door, and command yourself to evoke your era."

Solon, Herodotus reports, said that one shouldn’t judge a man happy without knowing the manner of his death. For James, that manner is not known quite yet, but from what I’ve been reading he has packed a great deal into a short span.

Published under: Book reviews