Into the Empty Regions

Clive James’ valedictory book of poetry criticism wrestles with how art is long, but life is short.

Viewpoint Doi Chaing Dao, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
For James as for anyone else, the enemy has always been silence, emptiness, a closed door.  

Photo by Kosin_Sukhum/iStock/Thinkstock

Do you ever just want to quote someone forever? Reading Clive James’ Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language, struggling to find ways to talk about it, I dreamed of Echo, the nymph of Greek myth, who spoke truth by repeating the true words of others. It wasn’t a perfect system: She couldn’t reproduce whole lines or sentences, just the last vanishing bits of speech. But I like to think that the return of those final fragments, the act of reviving them, focused people’s attention. And since heightened concentration is a prerequisite for both reading and writing (about) poetry, I am hoping that James (and Zeus) will smile on this invocation of an unconventional muse to discuss acutely quotable essays on resonant expression, written by a man dying of leukemia whose loosely trussed “last sayings” on poetry may turn out to be the coda that rings on after the music ends.

With Notebook, James, the Australian literary critic and poet (and TV reviewer and broadcaster and, to hear the Daily Mail sing it, unfaithful wag), has assembled a series of short essays, many originally penned for Poetry magazine. They’re brief and fluent—you rocket through, or stroll pensively—but they represent the distillation of years of thought and study, with all the shine of stones smoothed by the rush of river water over time. You might further break down the alloy of James’ style, its properties of aphorism and luster, into three elements: precision, inventiveness, and wit. Precision because of scalpeled epiphanies, like his invocation of “Auden’s knack for a resonant vagueness.” Inventiveness such as his description of a verse by W.J. Turner in which “the purposeless glitter was packed tight like a second-hand furniture dealer’s storeroom full of chandeliers.” An image in a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “shift[s] the reader into a layer of enriched oxygen.” Wit! There are Alps of it. Here are three: “Like abstract painting,” James argues, “abstract poetry extended the range over which incompetence would fail to declare itself.” Bits of poems “appear all over the page, like the manufactured evidence of an explosion that had never taken place.” Amid so much portentous noise, “it is forgivable to favour those poets who show signs of knowing what they are saying.”

So precision, inventiveness, and wit (onto his disdain for slobs and obfuscators in a moment)—except the flexible metal of James’ bright coinages contains something else altogether. Call it supercharged insight. “The trick” of reading Frost, he tells us, “is to avoid the longer poems until the shorter ones have taken over your mind. The longer poems have good things in them, but the self-contained showpiece poems give you his essence, and his essence is one you should learn to recognize before watching him distribute it over the framework of an extended edifice.” This would be an arresting swoop of analysis anywhere because it amounts to such a smart and unexpected way to think about a body of work. But it’s also astonishing because it is so wondrously correct, the sort of revelation anyone who’s read Frost will register in her bones before it even hits her brain.

All poetry critics are on the hunt for neon-lined, essential truths about their subjects—but James has an uncanny instinct for where to look. It’s precision not just of vocabulary—of intuiting the right words to describe a tone or style—but of thought. James has mastered the mental exactitude it takes to isolate a complex idea. Consider his praise for Sylvia Plath, her “gift for placing a phrase on the music.” Just so. At stake is how a line’s rhythmic propulsion (or prosody) can unite with a moment of clear, articulated perception so that the whole thing turns incandescent with energy. For James, crucially, such clarity is neither easy to pull off nor straightforward in its effect on the reader. His lyric ideal is as fine as it is conceptually nuanced: a “simple statement made complex by its own interior music.”  

Several of James’ brilliant critical gestures nonetheless failed to convince me. He complains (in bewitching waves of argumentation!) that Milton weighed down his verse with learning. I would counter that the references in Lycidas and Paradise Lost create a sense of unique, overwhelming scope. And during an otherwise bravura takedown of Ezra Pound, which smartly knocks Pound’s “faith that a sufficiently gnomic utterance will yield an unswerving truth,” James impugns the lovely line from Canto LXXIV: “to build the city of Dioce, whose terraces are the colour of stars.” Why? Because we don’t know what color stars are and thus can’t see the terraces. And yet—aren’t images that at once provoke and defy our inner vision an occasional poetic asset? (And we know what color stars are—they’re the color of stars.) Wallace Stevens wrote, “She dreams a little, and she feels the dark/ Encroachment of that old catastrophe,/ As a calm darkens among water-lights.” My personal unwillingness to part with those lines is matched only by my inability to picture a single calm, whatever that is, dimming among water-lights, whatever those are.

Others will have bigger problems with Poetry Notebook. They’ll say that James is too dismissive of free verse. (He admits to being a “diehard formalist,” but also concedes that he could be wrong—what matters is the skill with which a poem’s standout moments are fitted together.) Conversely, James suggests that anyone attributing the force and sharpness of T.S. Eliot’s verse libre to facility with old meters is “betting on a case of correlation as causation.” (Fighting words! Especially as creative writing professors across the country assign students villanelles because it’ll improve your freeform stuff, I promise.) You could certainly censure James’ emphasis on white, male poets. He himself acknowledges that weakness, looking forward “to a time when women will dominate the art” and limply noting that “I ended up with almost as many lines by Elizabeth Bishop in my head as Robert Lowell.” Yet political critiques of Poetry Notebook, while wholly justified, seem to miss the point. Surely James, steeped in a waning canon as exclusionary as it is beautiful, can make contributions to the store of poetic knowledge. Surely we can attend to them without ignoring other voices, especially now. “The sound of a slamming door, but it’s behind you,” he writes, reflecting on his journey “into the empty regions.” For him as for anyone else, the enemy has always been silence, emptiness, a closed door.

James favors prose sentences that borrow from poetry’s playbook, balancing between concrete and abstract. “Seidel would have given us the makers of Auden’s tigerish blazer and dovelike shoe,” he writes, “but he was never impressed enough that Auden didn’t.” (Are we talking about clothes or not?) Yet he is also a keen practitioner of what he calls “kitchen criticism”; he knows his washers and wrenches. “Larkin often used a monosyllabic adjective before a polysyllabic one, with no separating comma,” he observes, before launching into the stratosphere: “The sonorous glissando of the device was useful to give the pathos of passing time.” James is deeply concerned, too, with the forces binding units together: what makes a self-contained poem rather than stray glints of poetry. He loves the “satisfaction” of small “ignition points” intensified by the melodic structure that holds them. “Poetry,” he says, “keeps itself together,” though “eventually we ourselves do not.”

Clive James.
Clive James.

Photo by Claerwen James

That’s the issue at the heart of Poetry Notebook—how art is long, but life is short, and especially how a lifetime of responding to immortal words can be shaded by intimations of the end. Death never goes far from these meditations on imaginative energy, formal bodies, and what makes something whole. Of course, plucking his favorite lines from context, quoting them in his essays, James makes the dispersal of even his favorite unities pleasurable.

Think how the hunting cheetah, from/ the lope that whips the petaled garden/ of her hide into a sandstorm, falters”

I saw the porpoises’ thick backs/ Cartwheeling like the flywheels of the tide/ Soapy and shining”

Maybe a timeless integrity is too much to ask, but we can settle for words that echo long after we close the book.

Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language, by Clive James. Norton.

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