Legendary poet and critic Clive James provides an unforgettably eloquent book on how to read and appreciate modern poetry.
Since its initial publication, Poetry Notebook has become a must-read for any lover of poetry. Somewhat of an iconoclast, Clive James gets to the heart of truths about poetry not always addressed, “some hard” but always “firmly committed to celebration” (Martin Amis). He presents a distillation of all he’s learned about the art form that matters to him most. James examines the poems and legacies of a panorama of twentieth-century poets, from Hart Crane to Ezra Pound (a “mad old amateur fascist with a panscopic grab bag”), from Ted Hughes to Anne Sexton. Whether demanding that poetry be heard beyond the world of letters or opining on his five favorite poets (Yeats, Frost, Auden, Wilbur, and Larkin), his “generosity of attention, his willingness to trawl through pages of verse in search of the hair-raising line, is his most appealing quality as a critic” (Adam Kirsch, Wall Street Journal).
This collection of "miniature essays" on poetry by the prolific James (Cultural Amnesia), who is both a poet and an opinionated, outspoken consumer of poetry, informs and delights. James's yardstick is clear "If only to secure a brief respite from the barely intelligible, it is forgivable to favour those poets who show signs of knowing what they are saying" and his voice direct, often blunt: F.R. Leavis "never wrote a poem, rarely said anything interesting about one," and Lawrance Thompson's Robert Frost biography was "dud scholarship." Yet James is fair in revisiting earlier pronouncements, such as of Elisabeth Bishop's poems, which he would now give "less stinted praise." A tone of appreciation prevails, even when it comes with reservations, and there are also surprises, like citations of John Updike's "dauntingly accomplished" light verse and introductions to the work of Australian poets like Stephen Edgar, James McAuley, and Peter Porter. Linked "Interludes" preceding each essay give the book coherence rarely achieved in a collection of previously published works, the bulk of these pieces having appeared in the magazine Poetry between 2006 and 2013. Speaking of Byron, James observes, "His best poetry is good talk based on knowledge." James, who wears his erudition very lightly, likewise offers "good talk" that will send readers back to their bookshelves and onto the Internet to read more great poetry.