“He could deliver judgements in a way that people remembered, and for anyone who is capable of doing that, it really matters if he is right or wrong”.

This sentence comes about two thirds of the way through Clive James’ Poetry Notebook, a series of short opinion -or observation- based essays written for Poetry magazine and other publications, between 2006 and 2014. James is here describing the poet and critic Michael Donaghy, one of the many otherwise neglected figures who makes an appearance in this book, taking his place alongside the acknowledged pantheon of Shakespeare, Keats, Eliot, Auden, MacNeice, Larkin, Yeats and many more. As an aside, it is hard to think of an interesting or accomplished poet who is not mentioned in this book. Elizabeth Bishop, Dorothy Parker and Hart Crane are among the less predictable ones whose work is discussed, and there are many others who I had never even heard of, but who I’m certainly inspired to now read. Yet although the above quote concerns Donaghy, and his critical collection The Shape of the Dance, it suits James himself equally well.

As a critic, he can produce resonant, gem-like phrases. In the context of a book which, although it mentions everything from Homer and Sappho onwards, deals mainly with twentieth and twenty-first century verse, he writes that with a great deal of modern poets, “bits of their poems, as if driven to their isolated positions by no impulse except the random fidgets, would appear all over the page, like the manufactured evidence of an explosion that had never taken place… Like abstract painting, abstract poetry extended the range over which incompetence would fail to declare itself”. Brilliant! To return to the quote, then, it really matters whether James is right or wrong.

wikimedia, PDTillman
wikimedia, PDTillman

Fortunately, almost all his views are thoroughly considered and impeccably argued. Despite his formalism, his views on poetry are more nuanced, and he can accept that an informal poem can be great, even if this occurrence is more unlikely. What counts above all, beyond the poet’s dedication to the craft – which requires a mastery of form before it is possible to give the impression that form has been abandoned – is internal unity. He keeps emphasising that the important thing is the poem, rather than poetry, which can be churned out by some writers as though by a factory. A commitment to meaning, or at least an avoidance of incomprehensibility for its own sake (vagueness can be valuable in some cases), also ranks very highly, as does musicality. On this last point, James carves another superb phrase, when he writes that Sylvia Plath’s lines “coast blissfully along like cool jazz: you can practically see Milt Jackson’s hammers bouncing on the silver leaves of the vibraphone”. This is musical itself, and the book is full of equally stunning prose.

Finally, and most crucially, great poems need ‘hits’ or ‘moments’. These are James’ terms for the vital, clinching, frisson-firing phrases or lines or even groups of lines which shine out from the body of the verse. Examples include Auden’s “the earth turns over, our side feels the cold”, and Larkin’s conclusion to The Whitsun Weddings, from “There we were aimed” to “And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled / A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain”. When these moments are joined not by darkness (somewhere James uses the analogy of hieroglyphics glimpsed by torchlight on an ancient Egyptian wall), but by other bright moments, to produce the poetic equivalent of a necklace of precious jewels, as in the case of Keats’ Odes, this is what truly constitutes a poem. This is what distinguishes individual poems from poetry, and separates Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, or MacNeice’s Meeting Point, or Auden’s 1st September 1939, from Pound’s Cantos, or the innumerable compositions which have been – or will be – forgotten.

As can be seen, James is an extremely erudite critic, with a smooth, memorable and humorous – often hilarious – writing style. I glance now at his colossal Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time, a collection of over one hundred short biographies of figures from William Hazlitt, to Franz Kafka, to Coco Chanel, to Louis Armstrong, to Sophie Scholl. This formidable volume sits on the table beside me, beckoning seductively, like the hope of a glimpse over a cultural event horizon. And as I glance I reflect that there is something of Erich Auerbach, or Christopher Hitchens (more on whom later) in even this comparatively slim Poetry Notebook. There is the breath-taking ability to cover so much intellectual and historical (not to say geographical) ground, without breaking a sweat, but at the same time, deep feeling is never sacrificed in the process.

The book is intensely personal, the product of a lifetime of reading – and writing – poetry, and it inspires you to not only read more, but to live more. You may not agree with James’ every judgement (I’m still not entirely convinced by his verdict on Milton), and I found some parts later in the book slower and less gripping than what had come before, but his honesty and integrity can never be doubted.

Perhaps this passion is what makes his close reading skills such a model for emulation, too. His analysis of Stephen Edgar’s poem Man on the Moon is exemplary in its judiciousness, and the way it caresses (or fondles, as Nabokov might have insisted) every detail. There is a tangible joy within his words as he explores it stanza by stanza, and generally, although he at times softly criticises Wordsworth and Keats, and vigorously embeds a hatchet in Pound’s corpus, he is also willing to praise and delight in the poems he discusses. At times, indeed, he can’t help it, and one of the effects of this book is to make you want to read some new poets, and revisit those you’ve already read, in some cases to give them another chance.

This warm-heartedness, or rather love, especially when combined with such discriminating critical faculties, produces a rare and much-longed-for standard of criticism. An encyclopaedic mind doesn’t hurt, either. You wouldn’t usually expect such a well-read – and, to be frank, old – person to bring into a book such as this, references to Kate Winslet and Anne Hathaway, as well as other people and elements from popular culture, but that’s what you get. I was reminded of Susan Sontag’s definition of a polymath: someone who is interested in everything, and nothing else.

My only regret is that I’m coming to James’ work so late. I was prompted to read this book after reading his poetry, especially the selected poems, Opal Sunset, which seemed to almost knock me off my chair. The qualities of his prose are present there, too, together with a range of more intense emotional tones, and an omnipresent humour which often breaks out into bursts of brilliance which will leave you barking with laughter. To give an idea of the contrast and competence, Son of a Soldier explores the effects of his father never returning home from the Second World War, and in Only Divine, Minerva “lies back on her Zsa-Zsa pink / Chaise longue while Aphrodite dishes dirt. / Feigning to taste the whisky sours they drink, / They smile as if a memory could hurt”. But as ever, quotes are out of context. It’s all like this, and often better.

James was a TV presenter, has written over forty books (including a translation of The Divine Comedy), has been a critic and poet for decades, and has generally lived a very full life. The pity, and the reason for my aforementioned regret, is that he is suffering from leukaemia, and has been for a few years now. His latest book of poems, I gather, focuses mainly on his thoughts about death, and the ‘Spectator Diary’ section here shares the preoccupation. As I read its fragments, I was reminded of Hitchens’ Mortality, snippets composed during lucid and less uncomfortable intervals between the almost constant agonies of a dire illness. Just as I was thinking this while I read on, James mentioned “the Hitch”, and especially his sadness at being too ill to fly to the memorial service held in New York. He writes movingly about Hitchens’ own love of literature, and his bravery in facing up to death.

And this leads to the matter of posterity. I am confident that James’ work will be remembered. He writes in another connection of “the harsh realm of art, where nothing except quality can survive the perpetual bushfire of time”, and Martin Amis, in his introduction to The War against Cliché, makes a similar comment about ‘Judge Time’, who will separate the good from the less good, and the downright bad. Competition is fierce. But in a time when impenetrable literary theory predominates in criticism, and what passes for poetry all too often looks as though it has been composed using a pepper shaker, James’ attentive, intelligent and beautifully written work is valuable as well as necessary. His key convictions that poems are ‘built’ and that the task of criticism “is not to lay bare the ghost in the machine, but to say what quality of ghost it is”, are as refreshing as a sip of something ice cold on a sweltering day. And long after his death (which I obviously hope will be staved off for as long as possible), both his prose and his poems will survive in the heart and mind of at least one reader, as something to treasure and return to.

The closing sentence of the book is this: “Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved, and to realise what they have in common: the life you soon must lose”. Read whatever you can of Clive James, and read it now.