Clive James’ Guiding Force

Review of Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006-2015

The Australian, November 8, 2014

I’LL be upfront: Clive James is one of my favour­ite literary types. Our supreme “slashie” (poet/critic/presenter/lyricist/novelist/essay­­ist), he’s erudite enough to translate Dante but earthy enough to call Ezra Pound a “mad old amateur fascist”.

But for all James’s wide-ranging achievement, poetry is his guiding force, something that hit him young and hit him hard. In Poetry Notebook, an excellent collection of essays written between 2006 and this year, he describes EE Cummings as a “phonetic force” that “drove whole poems into my head like golden nails”.

Poetry, he writes, is nothing “less than the occupation of a lifetime”. Having, then, James’s “lifetime of thinking about the subject”, interspersed with personal reflections, is wonderful.

James has periodically bemoaned the lack of seriousness with which his poetry has been treated. In his 2008 collection Opal Sunset he wrote that “earning my bread in show business” meant “I was seldom regarded as a proper professional poet, and for a long while had no poetic reputation to speak of, except perhaps as a kind of court jester”. But four poetry collections and a well-received English translation of Dante’s famously tricksy terza rima have surely put paid to that.

As a critic, James is formidable, blending vast reading with the knowledge of practice. He demurs from having an “aesthetic system”, but this is too modest. There are some clear positions in Poetry Notebook, and they are erudite, strident, but balanced. Being a “diehard formalist” is one of them. It’s difficult to critique the more obscure excesses of formless poetry without being painted a tweedy old traditionalist. Happily, James gives the “tyros who have never learned to count a stress” a kicking. His gripe is a “critical climate in which it is widely and honestly believed that a rhymed poem in regular stanzas must be inhibiting to a sense of expression that would otherwise flow more freely” and that “free verse is a requirement of liberty”.

James doesn’t have a problem with free verse. His point is that it’s better when writers know their forms: there must “be bedrock beneath meaning even if the bedrock is no longer visible”. The “whole of English poetry’s technical heritage was present in Eliot’s work, and never more so than when it seemed free in form”. Similarly, “Picasso had conspicuously mastered every aspect of draughtmanship and painting … before he moved on into the less recognisable”. But, “like abstract painting, abstract poetry extended the range over which incompetence would fail to declare itself. That was the charm for its author.” James’s frustration is with the pooh-poohing of poetic technique. There is a place for free forms, which “no longer have to justify themselves’’. “There should be a place for regular forms too, but they now have to justify themselves every time.”

James’s vexation at the “peculiar Australian” derision of forms centres on the critical neglect of Sydney poet Stephen Edgar. Edgar’s “control” and formal skill makes his poems “more sheerly beautiful from moment to moment than those of any other modern poet”. But his work is too often “belittled as if there was something unAustralian about it”.

James’s writing on our homegrown poets focuses on Australianness. James McAuley’s language had “nothing especially Australian about it, except confidence”. But this was vital for the “new nation[’s]” poetic maturity, projecting “a creative personality” that “can do without red-back spiders and crocodiles”. London-based Australian poet Peter Porter “spent much of his career” suffering from a blurred national identity: “punished in Australia for trying to please the Poms, and punished in the UK for being an Aussie expatriate”. Porter was ultimately ­“hailed … a poet of the English language”, but his “early poetry was so brilliant that the argument should have been over immediately”. Les Murray’s poetry has “international appeal”, James argues, and his “world currency” makes him a deserving contender for the Nobel prize. Core to that “outstanding body of achievement is its intelligibility”. James also sees Gwen Harwood as a “guardian of real meaning”.

James believes in accessibility: “the sayable, memorable, living poem” that “lodge[s] in the reader’s head” and “can be got by heart”. I agree. No one’s suggesting poetry should be as simple as reading a cereal packet. Genius can come in forms difficult to unwrap. But obscurity doesn’t equal literary merit, just as accessibility doesn’t mean a lack of weight.

As James puts it, “only an extreme technical sophistication can produce … [beautiful] simplicity”. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, is popular because it is beautiful and comprehensible. But this doesn’t make it any less advanced: the poem is a pinnacle of the form, capable of occupying critics across hundreds of years: there’s imagery, context, allusion, all that juicy stuff. Shakespeare’s “store of dazzling clarities”, James writes, “warns us against the assumption that there might be a further profundity in the obscure”. Poems praised by critics yet otherwise unintelligible are doomed to be forgotten. Poems last by being loved.

James’s visceral love of poetry is the great delight of this book, evident in his lip-smacking descriptions. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s phrases “shift the reader into a layer of enriched oxygen” and “stick like burning phosphorous”. The love lyrics of Cummings “fragment … all over the page like sexy grenades”. Eliot’s writing is so “effective that it can floor the first-time reader like an overcharged cocktail”, and Dylan Thomas’s work is “poised like a silken tent”.

That critical verve is applied in favour of Robert Frost, whose reduced reputation James seeks to rebuild: “Frost was,” he argues, “anything but the shit-kicking fireside verse-whittler of legend.” He is less polite about Pound. After a teenage obsession (“I fell for the idea of his panscopic grab bag the way that I was then apt to fall for the idea of love”), he sums up The Cantos as “a nut-job blog before the fact”.

Although vivid on the page, James is an ill man, and Poetry Notebook is something of a summing up, the result of “[l]ooking back on a long life of trying to get my feelings about poetry into order”.

The most poignant aspects of this “reckoning” are James’s memories of discovering poetry as an undergraduate. On first reading Auden’s No IX, “I didn’t precisely fall out of my chair, but the chair moved about three feet sideways across the linoleum, propelled by my spasm of delighted awe”. That youthful passion doesn’t escape James’s self-deprecating wit: “ ‘They are not long, the days of wine and roses,’ I told my bathroom mirror” — a frequent site of the young poet’s declamations.

It wasn’t the only location. During “those days in Sydney … I walked around reciting EE Cummings to an audience of trees, traffic, and puzzled pedestrians … I went for lines that verged on nonsense. ‘To eat flowers and not be afraid.’ Not good advice in Australia, which has flowers you should be very afraid of indeed.”

Sydney, the home James is now too sick to fly from England to visit, seems inextricable to his poetic awakening. “I first read [Hart Crane’s] Voyages in Sydney,” he remembers, “a city in which you can taste the ocean in the summer air, and I can still remember the first thrilling impact of such moments as ‘The waves fold thunder on the sand’ ”.

I read James’s book beside some thundery waves on Bronte beach — the pages are a bit salty now, but I think he would approve.

The first tranche of articles in this book were written for a specialist literary magazine, so for all the “makes your hair fizz”, there are sen­tences that go something like: “in the final line of the octet we can hear Empson, as we can always hear him when trochees are laid over an iambic pattern to give a spondaic tread”. Placing these technical pieces after the later, more accessible ones might have helped to ease us in a bit. But that’s a small thing. Poetry Notebook is a stellar collection by a great Australian writer, a man who, “[l]ooking back … with tired eyes”, retains the poetic enthusiasm of his teenage self.

“Words,” James writes, “Words are the bewitching enemy, the beautiful seducer.”

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