Gate of Lilacs

by Clive James

Picked up in Booth’s bookshop during a brief stay in Hay-on-Wye.

James’ writing never ceases to amaze and enthral me.  The quality of his poetry and prose; the seemingly effortless, yet evidently very carefully studied choice of words and phrases; and the prolific volume of his writing, even just those books published in the past ten years, since his diagnosis with terminal illness.  That he is still alive, and still writing, is a real gift to readers.

This slim volume is a verse analysis of, and tribute to, Proust.  In a series of short chapters of verse, he analyses not only Proust’s epic novel, but his life and the cultural and historical influences of the society in which he lived.  I have only read the first two volumes of In search of lost time, and in English rather than the original French.  But I found I was able to follow James’ text, and his illuminating and in themselves interesting notes, quite easily.  I think this is a book that I will keep coming back to, as I have come back to Proust’s work itself.


Poetry Notebook 2006-2014

by Clive James

I don’t know what prompted me to read this book.  Perhaps it was something I saw in a newspaper; perhaps it was a link from some poetry discussion website, visited when I was doing a course on Wordsworth on Future Learn.  I rather suspect it was the latter.  The course was very well presented and extremely satisfying, encouraging me to explore more poetry, and not just Wordsworth’s.

I borrowed James’ book from the library two months ago, and if I have not returned it yet, it is because I have wanted to savour James’s writing and follow up on some of the poets and works he writes about.

This is one of the most enriching reading experiences I have had for a long time.  Clive James writes with humour, scholarship and insight – both mechanical and human.  In reviewing his book, I find myself wanting to write in as accessible and yet learned a fashion as he does, and failing, inevitably.

A bit of background: I first encountered Clive James, like many of my generation perhaps, when he presented TV shows in the late eighties.  The shows were criticism of a kind: reviews of other TV shows, critiques of popular culture, interviews both serious and mocking.  James did not come across as a generous or kind person, though he was clearly entertaining.  He was, indeed, the kind of person you would avoid at a party, lest he ignore you, make fun of you or – if he deigned to talk to you – would leave you tongue-tied.  Not that there has ever been much chance of me going to the kind of party where I would meet such a person.

More recently, in December 2013, I happened to have the radio on in the car, and recognised the distinctive accent of Andrew Marr’s interviewee on ‘Start the Week’.  James was, at that time, already very ill, and spoke about how approaching the end of his life had affected his worldview and his work.  He read one of his poems, and a section from his just-published translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  I was greatly moved by the poem, and inspired both to visit his website and to buy a copy of his Dante.  I also blogged about my experience, and copied James’s poem into my blog post.


So, to the merits of Poetry Notebook 2006-2014. Clive James write as if every sentence might be his last – which, indeed, it could be.  So every sentence has to matter.  He is passionate about his subject, generous with the writers he admires, and forgiving (or silent) about those for whom he has less enthusiasm.  This book has introduced me to poets I had never heard of, such as the Australians Les Murray and Stephen Edgar, and rekindled my interest in others whom I may have heard of but never (or hardly ever) read.  Most of all, I couldn’t help but be swept away in James’s enthusiasm for the art of poetry and the technical skill which the best poets display.  He is passionate about form, and – as an accomplished poet himself – is credible in everything he writes about technique.

I feel sure that I will have a more extensive and more satisfying experience reading poetry from now on.  Thank you, Mr James.