This is presented as an anthology of poems, some 84, arranged chronologically, with extensive commentary, seen as suitable for memorising or reading aloud, in that sense a bit like Ted Hughes’ By Heart collection, although the Hughes is neither chronological nor offers comment on the poems. James variously and perhaps surprisingly eloquently gives about four or five paragraphs to each poem. This struck me as very refreshing. The book was indeed put together just after James’ death in 2019, and it is a most unusual effort. But I think we get out of it not just those often perceptive insights but a curious assortment of pickings from English literature from the metaphysics of the Renaissance on.
There are two forces of fascination, then;- the choice of poems, and of course how memorable they are, along with the commentary. James might be seemed to some as an Aussie philistine, and he is unafraid of voicing some strong opinions. We might remember that his unfinished doctoral dissertation was to be on the influence of Dante on Shelley, would that there were such. James himself undertook a translation of The Divine Comedy. This is the same man who was Observer TV critic for about 10 years, and was suitably telegenic, eg in his TV series on fame.
The choice of poems is suitably expansive. A few little known names appear, some Australian, but other than that it makes for an interesting primer on the course of English poetry; this might also be got of course via such other anthologies as The Rattle Bag, though that has a rather scatter shot arrangement.
The book is just a little too long to digest in one sitting. Among the metaphysics we get Donne, Herrick and Herbert. Milton is represented but not Dryden; there is besides a Shakespeare sonnet (‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame’). There is reasonably full coverage of the Romantics. James notes the considerable impetus of Keats’ poetry toward higher things, had he longer stayed the course.
When we get to near contemporary poetry, Hughes (‘Pike’) and Heaney are here along with Plath, whom he does appear to take relatively seriously (‘Cut’). But we also find catholically represented Dylan Thomas, Larkin, Donald Davie and Kingsley Amis. Still perhaps what we might call the British Poetry Revival does not figure here greatly.
James manages to turn a relatively fresh ear to many of these writers, though the choices at times can seem a little quirky, ie why that particular Shakespeare sonnet for instance, from such a range of choice.
What does one come away with? This is actually a fairly short, concise anthology; very often there is the attempt to spread the net wider. But James has put his imprint on it, in a way we have found from previous anthologies such as those of Yeats and Larkin, not to mention the current Ricks.
Not everyone is likely to be disposed to the emphasis on commentary, which is fully half the book, and of course this is somewhere Hughes didn’t go. Some anthologies such as that of Keith Tuma provide extensive prefatory matter; quite often we get merely the poems.
One could cobble out, piece together a kind of argument about where James sees poetry going. He says of Plath and Hughes, ‘Although the towering Hughes raided the whole of history and all cultures for his ideas, she was the one with the poetic scope’. (p251) He accords Heaney high praise,- ‘when he spoke he made hundreds of years of troubled history seem at least a touch more bearable’ (p268). He also attends to Walcott, but not Brathwaite, ‘Walcott had more talent than anyone knew what to do with’ (p270). As the cited Walcott poem concludes, ‘Sea Grapes’,- ‘The classics can console. But not enough.’ In terms of direction, this strain of influences will doubtless continue to work on through.
The choice of poems is decidedly idiosyncratic. James does not go for some of the major targets, eg for Eliot we get ‘La Figlia Che Piange’, though with Pound it is the now familiar couplet ‘In a Station of the Metro’. Of Pound’s flirtation with fascism, James offers,- ‘Pound himself was very slow to deduce that the Dream was a farcical nightmare’ (p107). Olson, who took so much from Pound, isn’t here, but John Berryman is. To Davie James attributes a ‘misplaced admiration for the mind of Ezra Pound’ (p213) though we still have canonical works like Kenner’s The Pound Era to contend with.
I think the book actually has a pretty good take on Anglophone poetry, even if it could hardly be termed radical. One can only wonder what Hughes might have done had he scope to comment on the poems in By Heart. What I come back to is that the whole scope of the book is quite refreshing, and maybe Clive James could get away with it because it was a posthumous, albeit somewhat impassioned exercise. I find it too as helpful in the effort to get a grip of the development of English poetry. Whilst some here are overlooked, there is too much of quite certain relevance here to make it much more than a personal indulgence; James deferral to poetic affinity is too strong to invite dismissal.
Clark Allison 19th October 2021