The late Clive James’s final book comprises a collection of classic poetry he encourages us to learn and recite out loud. Each poem is followed by a brief, perceptive, often funny commentary by James.
I read this book as part of my ongoing campaign to ‘get my head around’ poetry. I have a similar ongoing campaign with chess. The difference being, when I watch a commentary of a classic chess game on YouTube, I usually gain some appreciation of why a particular player’s moves were admirable. With poetry, while there are poems I very much like, there are plenty that do absolutely nothing for me, even when explained by someone with a far better appreciation of the art. I hoped Clive James might help me better appreciate some classic poetry.
The poems I liked, I liked; the (far greater number of) poems I didn’t like, I still didn’t like, even after James had explained why I should. That said, I did very much enjoy James’s mini lectures, and, by the end of the book, I thought he’d made a pretty good case for the blame for my Philistinism lying squarely with me.
I can’t finish without repeating my favourite joke from the book, which genuinely made me laugh out loud—not least, because, in making it, James plays the poetry Philistine himself. After a poem by Emily Dickinson, he writes:
[T]he cold truth is that you wish most of her poems were like longer poems instead of notes. (You look at one of her poems and think, ‘Yes, she could probably have made a good poem out of that.’)
While I’m at it, why not repeat another favourite joke from the book? This one is concerns Ernest Dawson’s poem Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae:
Ernest Dawson was often keen to get his latest poem up on stilts by giving it a Latin title, no doubt riveting the attention of any Roman legionaries who happened to be idling nearby.
A funny, intelligent man who will be greatly missed. And a very good book, despite its failure to make the scales fall from my eyes.