Friday, July 24, 2009

a poem from Clive James: those who criticize can also do

Critic Clive James has complained that ours is an age where everyone is writing poetry yet no is able to write a poem. A formalist at heart, we can properly assume that he means that very few have the old graces of scansion, rhyme, meter. It would figure that he decided to write a poem of his own to show the rest of the untrained waifs of modernism just how it's done, as he did in The New Yorker with his ode "Monja Blanca". He shows his technique rather well and, surprisingly, this fellow has an ear.

Well, yes, this is quite lovely, and it rhymes in ways that William Espy's robot rhythms could not, which is smoothly, musically, with the poetic descriptions serving an isolated image instead of weighing it down. James is smart, as well, in that he resists what seems to be the overwhelming temptation for many rhymesters to be cute. He is instead lyrical in a manner that is the hardest essence to convey, the description of a l thing, person, that successfully suggests the author's--or narrator's--psychological engagement without casting his subject matter into an unreal and unreadable muddle. Even in what could be considered an imaginative context, James' tone respects the musicality of his form and correctly treats elegance as that state when technique, emotion and style achieve an exquisite balance. It is not one note too many nor to few, not more embellishment too light nor too little.

As a critic James is a polymath with an impressive range of things he discusses with authority, though given the regularity with which he produces essays, columns, blog entries and books, you can't escape the feeling that he has, over time, solidified a number of finely articulated positions on literature, music, the classics, politics, painting, poetry and films, among other subjects, and has been especially artful in the way he can shuffle his positions, cross reference them, draw them up and deploy them at will. This reiteration of his ideas is noticeable especially in his other wise masterful collection Cultural Anxiety. Coming across an idea you've read elsewhere by this author , though, is hardly a bother--James has a style that is at once informal and approachable and yet demonstrates no laziness in thinking. He is an engaging intellectual who I enjoy as he rummages through the subjects he has mastered, bringing his learning to the present tense, bucking conventional wisdom , discussing what of the ideas we've learned remain vital, and which ones need to be taken off life support.

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