Visions before midnight: the inimitable voice of Clive James

Poetry Notebook is primarily a defence of apprenticeship and craft in pursuit of the elixir of memorability.

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Poetry Notebook (2006-2014) 
Clive James
Picador, 192pp, £14.99

“We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;/But thereof come in the end despondency and madness,” wrote Wordsworth. Is this true of all poets? No, not exactly, but a certain joie de vivre might be in abeyance. That joie de vivre has been particularly active in the work of Clive James from the very beginning and it is hard knowing how to round it out into a single piece if only because it seems to have occupied many places at once.

How to weigh the high seriousness against the verbal japes of the memoirs and the groundbreaking TV criticism? How to balance the knowing social verse of, say, Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World against the translation of Dante and the more serious later poems; or indeed the Auden-esque discursiveness of any of the poems about art, literature, politics and history against the cultural and literary criticism, never mind the late poems and novels?

It may not be quite as difficult as we thought, if only because the James voice is immediately recognisable. To describe it as comic does not do it justice: it might be fairer to say that the world it inhabits is prone, at most times, to a comedy of desperate sorts.

James’s best comedy is in the phrase-making, a craft at which he excels, and this collection of late essays on poetry – poetry being, after all, his first love in life – is rich in typical phrases. On Pound: “I fell for the idea of his panscopic grab bag the way that I was apt to fall for the idea of love.” On Jack London: “He was condemned to fame and wealth, a fate that most poets avoid.” On Frederick Seidel’s poetry: “[It was] notable chiefly for its rich incidence of branded products so relentlessly top of the range that you and I could never reach them with all our credit cards combined.” On Browning’s “My Last Duchess”: “The duke’s suavely heightened conversational virtuosity, as if emanating from the carefully trimmed beard of Vincent Price by firelight, doubles the impact when we realise that he is as nutty as a fruitcake.” And on Nabokov’s Pale Fire: “[He] pulled this marvel out of his hat the first time, a rabbit as big as a freight train.”

Poetry Notebook is primarily a defence of apprenticeship and craft in pursuit of the elixir of memorability. James recognises that formal mastery is not guaranteed to produce a good poem but suggests that you have a better chance with than without it. Some of these arguments, though always worth presenting, are the cavils of age, but his distaste for Swinburne and admiration for the best of Hart Crane demonstrate that he is not a simple purveyor of end-stopped line, rhyme and solid iambic stride.

He writes about those he particularly loves and admires, including, at the very top, Robert Frost and Philip Larkin. James, however, is a more consciously urbane poet than either of them and the urbanity runs deep right through the work. It is what made the TV criticism so striking at the start of his public career.

There was always an air of de haut en bas about it but entirely without snobbery. James simply assumed he was talking to his educated equals about a lowbrow phenomenon – an excuse for gorgeously inventive phrase-making that might amount to something more and often did. His influence was vast. There’s not a football writer at the Guardian who has not drunk of the Jamesian vocabulary of amusement at the flatulence of his inferiors, meaning the rude mechanicals actually kicking the ball.

But James was – and remains – far more than a clever boy laughing at muddied oafs. He is a scholar who has preferred wearing his scholarship lightly. His keynote as a pundit has been a certain enchantment with disenchantment, so the intense seriousness of his essays here, collected from various magazines, is always leavened by anecdotal self-mockery. Beyond that, more vitally – especially now, as he considers his terminal cancer – is the desire to understand and possess poems. James’s wish to articulate every last presentable perception, whether that be about Pound or Pope or Porter, constitutes the fierce under-drive of the book.

It sends you back to his own poems, too, which are full of an energy that is partly Augustan but racier, as if Dr Johnson had sealed a pact with the 19th-century poet Winthrop Mackworth Praed. Over the years, this has deepened to a more urgent inquiry, still witty but fully sounded through, grave but not solemn. “You can’t persuade the carnival to stay,” he wrote in the last but one poem of his 2008 collection Angels Over Elsinore, “The Carnival”. The territory of the carnival is extensive, the streets are full, but the voices jostling there are actually one voice. You can hear it laughing, speaking and reciting at once. That’s Clive. 

Clive James will discuss poetry at a Cambridge Literary Festival event, in partnership with the NS, on 14 November

This article appears in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis