Better than a Grand Slam

Clive James: whether the culture is low or high, he is in it for the thrills

Books Literature
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.

The rule applies at the level of composition. Proust said that “the tyranny of rhyme” forces poets to “discover their best lines”. The late poet-critic Michael Donaghy, who liked to quote Proust’s remark, is James’s acknowledged guide here. A poem, Donaghy thought, becomes interesting when the poet doesn’t get his or her own way: when the direction of thought has to “negotiate” with some kind of formal requirement. James concedes that a huge amount of formal verse is dull, and that free verse has been liberating in some respects. But even free verse, he argues, is likeliest to succeed when it makes a kind of silent reference to poetic form, which is why Eliot had to write a lot of neat stanzas before he came up with “The Waste Land”. All this James cogently sets out, while accepting that poetic beauty exceeds anything critics say about it. Poetry, for James, is by its nature paradoxical, a “complex simplicity”. Take Yeats’s lines:

Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?

Simple, because it makes instant sense; complex, because so many possibilities branch off and begin to overlap: about what it means to “live on”, about whether vanishing makes love pointless, about why the speaker is proposing a vow of silence while continuing to make magnificent rhetorical declarations. As James writes, “One can go on teasing out an argument endlessly, and this same attribute applies to almost every apparently plain statement the mature Yeats ever made. Right up until the end, the simpler he sounds, the more complex he gets.” That unexpected, mesmerising depth is James’s ideal. 

Having said that, I can’t imagine him coming up with something like “Man is in love and loves what vanishes, / What more is there to say?” — not because he isn’t eloquent enough but because he isn’t crazy enough. “Only a carefully schooled detachment could possibly see so much,” he writes of Stephen Edgar. True; but there are also some things — and James starts to concede this in Edgar’s case — which only the passionately attached can hope to glimpse.

“What vanishes” has one melancholy resonance: it cannot help bringing to mind James’s own severe ill-health. The survival of death, if only via literary reputation, preoccupies him throughout. When speaking of Frost, “the present tense seems more and more appropriate”; “To put Hart Crane back into the present tense which is his due . . .”; “The Cantos is or are — or perhaps was or were . . .” Poetry Notebook should remain in the present tense for a long time as a precious gift for anyone who wants to write better poems or read poems better.