cover image Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language

Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language

Clive James. Norton, $24.95 (234p) ISBN 978-1-63149-027-9

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%E2%80%94"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"%E2%80%94and 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. (Mar.)