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Better than a Grand Slam
January/February 2015

Clive James: Master of culture, high and low

One question often raised about Clive James — with varying degrees of admiration and suspicion — is how exactly he can write about Grand Slam tennis at one moment and high art at the next without breaking stride. Poetry Notebook, a collection of essays, reviews and digressions, suggests a possible answer: whether the culture is low or high, he is in it for the thrills, or to put it more generously, for the beauty. Poetry is "the most exciting thing in the world", he writes. It is — yes — "more exciting than Grand Slam tennis". James writes as though on the edge of his seat, and though this approach doubtless has its limitations, his enthusiasm is so infectious that the reader may well be having too much fun to notice them.

Like any fan, he is blunt about what he dislikes. When Ezra Pound refers to "Sunset like the grasshopper flying," James comments: "Brought up in the South Pacific, I've seen some quick sunsets in my time, but they were all left standing by even the most moribund grasshopper." Far more frequently, he wants to point out something spectacular, like Amy Clampitt's

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

James lets those lines speak for themselves. Elsewhere, he moves in more closely. Shakespeare's sonnet on the mental dislocation that follows "lust in action" concludes:

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

James, who has written many a rhyming couplet in his time, suggests convincingly: "Reversing the two words ‘well knows' so as to wind the spring at the end of the line gives a reserve of energy to launch the last line like a crossbow bolt." That sharp observation illustrates one of his theories: that when ordinary words enter the force field of poetic form, they sometimes start doing extraordinary things, which in turn makes us wonder whether those words were so ordinary in the first place.

This argument, which runs through the book, is hard to summarise because it deals with something highly mysterious, but here goes. The electric charge of a good poem results from a clash, or multiple clashes: between sound and sense, between the rhythm of conversational speech and that of the poem's metre, between intellectual reasoning and musical art. Poetry arrives in the midst of tension and struggle.

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