Clive James, "Poetry Notebook"

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John F
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Joined: Mon Mar 26, 2007 4:41 am
Location: New York, NY

Clive James, "Poetry Notebook"

Post by John F » Thu Apr 16, 2015 9:54 am

Helen Vendler once wrote, “The time eventually comes in a good [writer's] career when readers actively long for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your life — under whatever terms of difference — makes you wish for news of yourself.” She was speaking of the poet James Merrill, but if I'd written those words, they would be about Clive James.

James is probably best known in America for his appearances on Dick Cavett's PBS program and his TV series on fame which was also shown on PBS. He was born in Australia 75 years ago - he's my age, give or take. He has lived in England since he went there as a Cambridge University undergraduate, and now he is dying there: leukemia, emphysema, and kidney failure, the result of a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking. Despite all this, he is not sorry for himself; in an interview last month he described himself as "near to death but thankful for life." And he has never stopped writing books I actively long for. The latest is "Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language."

The title doubly suggests an informal approach. James has written much formal literary criticism, including long and probing essays that have been collected in several books. This book is less ambitious, but I'm finding it just as rewarding. James is that extreme rarity among critics - he can be serious and funny at the same time. One of his pieces is titled "Product Placement in Modern Poetry," drawing attention to the point when poets began to incorporate brand names and what that development signifies. I'd never thought of that, though I've known some of those poems all my life

In others he tells of poets I'd never heard of, such as Stephen Edgar and Brian Donaghy, looking closely at poems that are sensationally good. For me, the most valuable work a critic does is to bring attention and praise to good work, not to slam the not so good. His preference, in his reading and in the poems he wrote, is for technical accomplishment and formal virtuosity, poems that aren't just prose cut into stove lengths, so he has affirmative and revealing things to say about (for example) James Merrill, while Ezra Pound's "Cantos" get the emperor's new clothes treatment, a rather daring anti-establishment position but one I'm inclined to agree with. I'll quote just one sentence, which refers to the imagery of ants in the Cantos and to Pound's obsessions, and gives a bit of James's flavor: "If the ants hadn't got into his pants, he would still have been done in by the bees in his bonnet."

For those who care about poetry, especially poetry since the War, this is enjoyable as well as informative and critically sharp. It's published in the U.S. by Liveright, a hallowed name in American literary publishing (acquired in the 1980s by W.W. Norton, my alma mater, but I'm not biased). I expect a paperback will follow, but the hardbound edition can be had for $15, and the Kindle eBook is only $9.
John Francis

Belle
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Re: Clive James, "Poetry Notebook"

Post by Belle » Thu Apr 16, 2015 11:50 am

(I lost my old username, Tarantella, and haven't posted here for ages - so I've adopted a new one for my intended very occasional posts and private messaging on CMG.)

I've just read your comments, John, about Clive James and his "Poetry Notebook". I absolutely agree with what you've said here about the role of the critic, but overwhelmingly your writing and intelligent observations about James and his work are an absolute pleasure to read. Congratulations for brightening my Vienna day and illuminating some of the traits of Clive James.

Clive is, as you've suggested, capable of that rare mix of humour and seriousness - and I loved the anecdote about bees in bonnets - but it takes a particular kind of individual to intuit that essential quality embodied in a writer and make the kind of observation you have.

Thank you.

John F
Posts: 18786
Joined: Mon Mar 26, 2007 4:41 am
Location: New York, NY

Re: Clive James, "Poetry Notebook"

Post by John F » Thu Apr 16, 2015 2:36 pm

Hi! Good to see you back in CMG, and thanks for the nice words.

The one area of James's writing that I'm not so enthusiastic about is the one he says he cares about most, his own poems. Seems to me that memorable phrases come to him more readily in prose than verse. But I'll probably pick up the new collection anyway, "Sentenced to Life," when it's published over here - or maybe I won't wait. My penny's worth of royalties will do him more good alive than dead.

For those who want to read more of James's stuff, for free, he has a web site:

http://www.clivejames.com

There you'll find, among much else, links to most of the pieces in "Poetry Notebook." I particularly recommend "The Necessary Minimum" for the poems it takes up, including six marvelous lines from James Merrill about his father, and a complete poem by Michael Donaghy, "Shibboleth," which without mentioning it openly, is about the Battle of the Bulge.

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrym ... cle/237174

And here's the opening of "Technique's Marginal Centrality," as a sample of how James can take you by surprise:
Clive James wrote:At the court of the Shogun Iyenari, it was a tense moment. Hokusai, already well established as a prodigiously gifted artist, was competing with a conventional brush-stroke painter in a face-off judged by the shogun personally. Hokusai painted a blue curve on a big piece of paper, chased a chicken across it whose feet had been dipped in red paint, and explained the result to the shogun: it was a landscape showing the Tatsuta River with floating red maple leaves. Hokusai won the competition. The story is well known but the reaction of the conventional brush-stroke artist was not recorded. It’s quite likely that he thought Hokusai had done not much more than register an idea, or, as we would say today, a concept. A loser’s view, perhaps; though not without substance. If Hokusai had spent his career dipping chickens in red paint, he would have been Yoko Ono.

But Hokusai did a lot more, and the same applies to every artist we respect, in any field: sometimes they delight us with absurdly simple things, but we expect them to back it up with plenty of evidence that they can do complicated things as well. And anyway, on close examination the absurdly simple thing might turn out to be achieved not entirely without technique. Late in his career Picasso would take ten seconds to turn a bicycle saddle and a pair of handlebars into a bull’s head and expect to charge you a fortune for it, but when he was sixteen he could paint a cardinal’s full-length portrait that looked better than anything ever signed by Velázquez. You can’t tell, just from looking at the bull’s head, that it was assembled by a hand commanding infinities of know-how, but you would have been able to tell, from looking at Hokusai’s prize-winning picture, that a lot of assurance lay behind the sweep of blue paint, and that he had professionally observed floating red maple leaves long enough to know that the prints of a chicken’s red-painted feet would resemble them, as long as the chicken could be induced to move briskly and not just hang about making puddles.
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrym ... cle/243228
John Francis

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