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Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the…
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Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language

by Clive James

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This is a truly extraordinary book. James has always been among my favourite critics of anything (I have devoured his TV columns, despite never having seen the programmes on which he is writing) but here, writing about his passion for poetry, he is at his absolute best. Very seldom does a book make me weep on one page and laugh out loud the next... but this one managed it. The best criticism shows you why the original work is worth investigating - after reading this, my new year's resolution is to seek out the poets James examines, and use the lens of his erudition to really get to grips with them. A stellar publication. ( )
  AmberMcWilliams | Jan 5, 2016 |
Clive James is dying. 'Japanese Maple', his poem published in the September 2014 issue of the 'The New Yorker' anticipates the inevitable, but promises, 'A final flood of colours will live on/As my mind dies.' The 'Poetry Notebook' is a late harvest, perhaps the last, of that abundant and brilliant mind. It comprises 24 brief essays about poets, poems and poetry, each with an introductory interlude, written when time seemed to be running short. The recurrent theme of the essays is the creative tension between form and formlessness: between poems and poetry. James is a wonderfully discerning guide on prosody. I was reminded of Nicholson Baker counting the stresses in his novel, "'The Anthologist'. (Baker scores a couple of honourable mentions in the Notebook.) The best things, though, are the breadth of James' engagements, the generosity of his critical intellect and the wit and ebullience of his prose that takes flight with the stimulus of the poets who inspire him. His reflections on Shakespeare are joyful and coruscating. He is memorably sharp on Milton: a 'consummate lyricist' who 'strained every muscle to be bad', overloading Paradise Lost with the superfluities of his classical learning. Richard Wilbur, Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop are recurring, celebrated presences. Ezra Pound is remembered for the few treasures that remain among his ruins. James McAuley (1917-76), the principal author of the Ern Malley hoax, is the subject of a considered, posthumous rebuff: James concedes something to McAuley's 'impatience with pseudo-modernist humbug'; but goes on to add that 'the wrecking of Max Harris's career was a high price to pay: literary people should be slow to imagine they can crucify a colleague without acquiring for themselves a lasting set of stigmata'. Poets less well known are appraised and praised in 'Stephen Edgar Stays Perfect' and 'Michael Longley Blends In'', among others.

This is a wonderfully generous collection of essays. It seemed at first a small flaw in its design that there is no index. On reflection I am inclined to think the omission was deliberate and that it is welcome. The Notebook is not a book of reference. A reader who returns to search for some half remembered quotation or insight will be rewarded by the discoveries of new things among the inevitable sidetracks and byways. ( )
  LeaderElliott | Jan 17, 2015 |
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