Books: Poetry Notebook |
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Poetry Notebook

UK Hardback, Picador 2014
ISBN 978-1-4472-6910-6
US Hardback, Liveright 2015
ISBN 978-1-6314-9027-9
To Adam Gopnik
How oft when men are at the point of death
Have they been merry! Which their keepers call
A lightning before death ...
Romeo and Juliet

After a conversation with Christian Wiman, who was editor of Poetry (Chicago) at the time, I wrote the first instalment of a "poetry notebook" in 2006, with only a vague idea that a collection of such instalments might one day add up to a full-sized book. I saw myself adding the occasional sheaf of notes more or less forever, as a kind of incidental activity. But after I fell ill in early 2010 it became clear to me that the note form I had chosen as a caprice had now become compulsory. Owing to a shortage of breath, extended critical pieces seemed no longer possible; but since I had more ideas than ever, the short critical piece, or even the mere paragraph, was a way of getting things said about the subject that has always mattered to me most. My main reason for getting them said was that I had been thinking about poetry all my life, and it was time to sum up. but one of the conclusions that I had long ago reached was that a poem should be something that could be spoken about clearly, even if it wasn't clear in itself. Poets might be abstruse if they wished, but their critics should not. So I worked hard to say things plainly, and I hope this little book reflects that aim. I also took care to be as entertaining as possible, but that was common courtesy. A poem, when it works, is the essence of verbal excitement. To be boring about it is inexcusable. [Some] of the links [left] lead to the sheaf of chapters from Poetry (Chicago) that were already on this site, but there is a lot more in the book, including a swathe of linking material in which I do what I can to make coherent sense of a subject which necessarily exists only as a swarm of glittering fragments, like the stars.

Jacket Blurb

Clive James is one of our finest critics and best-loved cultural voices. He is also a prize-winning poet. Since he was first enthralled by the mysterious power of poetry, he has been a dedicated student. In fact, for him, poetry has been nothing less than the occupation of a lifetime, and in this book he presents a distillation of all he's learned about the art form that matters to him most.

With his customary wit, delightfully lucid prose style and wide-ranging knowledge, Clive James explains the difference between the innocuous stuff so prevalent today and a real poem: the latter being a work of unity that insists on being heard entire and threatens never to leave the memory. A committed formalist and an astute commentator, he offers close and careful analysis of individual poems and poets, from Shakespeare to Larkin, Keats to Pound. In some cases he includes second readings or re-readings from later in life — just to be sure he wasn’t wrong the first time! Whether discussing technical details of metaphorical creativity or praising his five favourite collections of all time, he is never less than captivating.

Filled with insight and written with an honest, infectious enthusiasm, Poetry Notebook is the product of over fifty years of writing, reading, translating and thinking about poetry.

‘Clive James has a fantastic range and depth of knowledge. He is, at times, miraculously funny. He writes knowledgeably and with passion about literature, and especially poetry.’

Sam Leith, Spectator