Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

"Poetry Notebook 2006-2014" by Clive James (Picador, 2014)

The articles in this book are light on theory - or even mentions of theory - because they're supposed to be readable, entertaining articles. And they are. I suspect the author and I share many stylistic likes and dislikes -

  • We both have a weakness for Hart Crane's poetry even if we don't understand it
  • Living in Cambridge we both have access to lots of poetry and know about Prynne
  • We're prepared to embrace science (he says he has a daughter in the sciences)
  • We're tempted to visit both sides of any argument (it gives him a chance to be humourous. It offers me another way of understanding)
  • We like poets who are proficient in forms and in writing about poetry
  • We both distrust white-space mongers - "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", (p.xiv).
  • We both like some poems that according to our principles, we shouldn't (though we may differ in that I actively seek out these exceptional poems and I try to understand them. I'm not sure that he does. Tools exist nowadays from linguistics and psychology. I'm not sure whether he agrees with Donaghy's theories).

He likes Frost's "The Silken Tent", Amy Clampitt's "Think how the hunting cheetah, from/ the lope that whips the petaled garden/ of her hide into a sandstorm, falters", Wilbur's Mayflies when they're "the fine pistons of some bright machine". He likes Larkin, Stephen Edgar, Frost, Eliot, Richard Wilbur, Michael Donaghy, and Les Murray.

Parts and wholes

He's interested in the need for unity within a poem, and how parts of it integrate with the whole. He says that

  • We might only recall one image in a poem though the rest of the poem might be a necessary setting. He thinks that "One hears the force of real poetry at first glance" (p.xiv)
  • A stand-out good line might spoil a poem.
  • "Pound had argued - and Eliot had helped him prove - that a poem could be sustained by memorable moments. Olson proved that it could be sustained by unmemorable ones, provided that the texture of the accumulated jottings avoided the sound of failed poetry" (p.10)

He suggests that "Longley ... writes poetry more often than he writes poems" (p.205) whereas "In whatever form he chose, writing a poem, not just writing poetry, was what Frost was after" (p.7)

He writes that

  • "As a diehard formalist myself, I don't like to admit that the unity of a poem, its binding energy, might not be the most important of its energies" (p.6)
  • "I'm still trying to figure out just how the propulsive energy that drives a line of poetry joins up with the binding energy that holds a poem together" (p.106)
  • "The phonetic impetus is all provided by the arrangement of the syllables within each line, and the movement of each line against the next. It is a tour de force. But is it poetic?" (p.162)

I think these issues can now be analysed with the help of narratology, pragmatics, etc. Even reading something like John Redmond's How to a write poem might help with re-orientation.

Surface simplicity versus conceptual depth

He prefers initial clarity, needing to be convinced that decoding difficulty is worth the effort. He writes that "[Pound's] main way to leave you wondering is to leave you puzzled" (p.26).


I suspect he tends to feels that people shouldn't do Abstract art, Jazz or free-form poetry until they've mastered Figurative art, classical music or Poetic Form. He likes to think that there's some happy compromise between form and free-form, but admits it's not easy

  • "There is a place for free forms: they no longer have to justify themselves. There should be a place for regular forms too, but they now have to justify themselves every time" (p.59)
  • "But if the scope has opened further for the highly talented, it has not done so without making far too much room for the talentless, who are no longer easily recognizable" (p.10)
  • "Tony Harrison, famous for composing in couplets, mangles them almost as often as he gets them right ... Peter Redgrove ... maintains an unswerving strictness under his seeming freedoms" (p.45)

He concedes that "by now we have seen so many successful informal poems that we must contemplate the possibility that there is such a thing as an informal technique" (p.114) but doesn't pursue the matter further.


  • "Usually you find that a critic who talks sense about poetry gave it a try early on" (p.40)
  • "Today's deliberately empty poetry can get a reputation for a time: there will always be a residency for J.H.Prynne ... Some would hold Charles Olson personally responsible, but I fear ... that the culprit was William Carlos Williams" (p.46)
  • "R.F.Langley ... had put many dedicated years into perfecting the kind of poem whose integrity depends on its avoiding any hint of superficial attraction. ... Impeccably bland, resolutely combed for any hint of the conventionally poetic, its lack of melody exactly matched by its lack of rhythm, Langley's poem had shaken off all trace of the technical heritage, leaving only the question of whether to be thus unencumbered is a guarantee of novelty" (p.110)
  • "Threatening always to give birth to Edith Sitwell like Venus in a sea-shell, even in its heyday such billowing foam-froth counted as high spirits at best, and in the long term a whole tradition was doomed by wordplay: you can hear why, a few decades down the line, the danger of making so much vapid noise should have driven the Prynne people to a Trappist vow of making no noise at all" (p.113)
  • "One way or another, all the poets of the thirties and forties reacted to Auden, either by rejecting him or trying to absorb him" (p.130)
  • "bats see with sound. Murray sees so keenly that even his most attentive readers can forget he sometimes works a trick ... with sound alone" (p.190)
  • "one would like to see every talented female poet winning through to general favour. God knows enough talentless female poets do.// I realize that the talentless female poets are still outnumbered by the talentless male poets " (p.224)

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway (Observer)
  • Elaine Feinstein (Financial Times) (On my way through this book I noted that although he mentions a few women poets – Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and an image from an Amy Clampitt poem, twice – none etched themselves on his memory like Sylvia Plath’s “Cut” ... He is conscious of the omission himself and in the last chapter he attempts to redress the balance. ... The omissions are glaring however)
  • James Marriott (The Literateur) (James’s persistent emphasis on the ‘great line’ can seem rather old fashioned or belle-lettrist. Here, it seems his experiences as a poet weaken his skills as a critic. Elsewhere in the book, he writes eloquently of the joy of discovering the “happy phrase” which comes effortlessly and provides the heart around which the rest of a poem is constructed. He is perhaps too willing to conflate his experiences as a writer and a reader of poetry, expecting all poems to exhibit traces of the same epiphanic moment of origin that characterises his own creative process.)
  • James McNamara (The Australian)

1 comment:

  1. Dear Tim

    I thought that this was a brilliant book which should be on every poetry syllabus in the Anglophone world. Having said that, I'm not sure that his distinction between 'writing poetry' and 'writing poems' really stands up.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish