Kog­a­rah kid looks back on a beau­ti­ful se­duc­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James McNa­mara

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

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