Kogarah kid looks back on a beautiful seduction
Poetry Notebook 2006-2014 By Clive James Picador, 234pp, $32.99 (HB) I’LL be upfront: Clive James is one of my favourite literary types. Our supreme “slashie” (poet/critic/presenter/lyricist/novelist/essayist), he’s erudite enough to translate Dante but earthy enough to call Ezra Pound a “mad old amateur fascist”.
But for all James’s wide-ranging achievement, poetry is his guiding force, something that hit him young and hit him hard. In Poetry Notebook, an excellent collection of essays written between 2006 and this year, he describes EE Cummings as a “phonetic force” that “drove whole poems into my head like golden nails”.
Poetry, he writes, is nothing “less than the occupation of a lifetime”. Having, then, James’s “lifetime of thinking about the subject”, interspersed with personal reflections, is wonderful.
James has periodically bemoaned the lack of seriousness with which his poetry has been treated. In his 2008 collection Opal Sunset he wrote that “earning my bread in show business”
November 8-9, 2014 meant “I was seldom regarded as a proper professional poet, and for a long while had no poetic reputation to speak of, except perhaps as a kind of court jester”. But four poetry collections and a well-received English translation of Dante’s famously tricksy terza rima have surely put paid to that.
As a critic, James is formidable, blending vast reading with the knowledge of practice. He demurs from having an “aesthetic system”, but this is too modest. There are some clear positions in Poetry Notebook, and they are erudite, strident, but balanced. Being a “diehard formalist” is one of them. It’s difficult to critique the more obscure excesses of formless poetry without being painted a tweedy old traditionalist. Happily, James gives the “tyros who have never learned to count a stress” a kicking. His gripe is a “critical climate in which it is widely and honestly believed that a rhymed poem in regular stanzas must be inhibiting to a sense of expression that would otherwise flow more freely” and that “free verse is a requirement of liberty”.
James doesn’t have a problem with free verse. His point is that it’s better when writers know their forms: there must “be bedrock beneath meaning even if the bedrock is no longer visible”. The “whole of English poetry’s techni- cal heritage was present in Eliot’s work, and never more so than when it seemed free in form”. Similarly, “Picasso had conspicuously mastered every aspect of draughtmanship and painting … before he moved on into the less recognisable”. But, “like abstract painting, abstract poetry extended the range over which incompetence would fail to declare itself. That was the charm for its author.” James’s frustration is with the pooh-poohing of poetic technique. There is a place for free forms, which “no longer have to justify themselves’’. “There should be a place for regular forms too, but they now have to justify themselves every time.”
James’s vexation at the “peculiar Australian” derision of forms centres on the critical neglect of Sydney poet Stephen Edgar. Edgar’s “control” and formal skill makes his poems “more sheerly beautiful from moment to moment than those of any other modern poet”. But his work is too often “belittled as if there was something unAustralian about it”.
James’s writing on our homegrown poets focuses on Australianness. James McAuley’s language had “nothing especially Australian about it, except confidence”. But this was vital for the “new nation[’s]” poetic maturity, projecting “a creative personality” that “can do without red- back spiders and crocodiles”. London-based Australian poet Peter Porter “spent much of his career” suffering from a blurred national identity: “punished in Australia for trying to please the Poms, and punished in the UK for being an Aussie expatriate”. Porter was ultimately “hailed … a poet of the English language”, but his “early poetry was so brilliant that the argument should have been over immediately”. Les Murray’s poetry has “international appeal”, James argues, and his “world currency” makes him a deserving contender for the Nobel prize. Core to that “outstanding body of achievement is its intelligibility”. James also sees Gwen Harwood as a “guardian of real meaning”.
James believes in accessibility: “the sayable, memorable, living poem” that “lodge[s] in the reader’s head” and “can be got by heart”. I agree. No one’s suggesting poetry should be as simple as reading a cereal packet. Genius can come in forms difficult to unwrap. But obscurity doesn’t equal literary merit, just as accessibility doesn’t mean a lack of weight.
As James puts it, “only an extreme technical sophistication can produce … [beautiful] simplicity”. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, is popular because it is beautiful and comprehensible. But this