Book Review

Two Poet-Critics

Those who can’t see the world in just one street
Must see the world.
—Clive James


A heresy, but soul becomes
conceivable, immersed in viscera,
and mind endures, in wisps of meat and bone . . .
—John Burnside

Here’s a thought: literary criticism ought to entertain as well as illuminate. That puts most critics out of business on two fronts. So much of our exegesis reads like the minutes of a country club meeting in which we are all agreed on the value of this and that, so little of it chases the vitality literature itself is devoted to. Readers easily offended by anything remotely transgressive ought to toughen up and face the world in all its bloodiness. No one has permission to do anything in this life, so you might as well see what you can see, say what you can say, and hopefully do so as beautifully as possible.

These ruminations arise from a reading of two extremely good poet-critics, one a displaced Australian, the other a Scot. They could hardly be more different from each other in their tastes and the tenor of their prose, but neither commits the sin of being boring, and both keep life itself clearly in their vision of poetry and its purposes. We may remember T. S. Eliot saying that a poet’s criticism exists to elucidate the poet’s own taste and ambitions. Certainly this is true of both Clive James (who died last November) and John Burnside (still very much with us).[1] Neither of them wields career-making power; both are masters of appreciation, a quality not so highly valued in the academy. Burnside is a good storyteller, a reader for whom context is everything, James a delectable raconteur whose prose (and verse) delights in antithesis. Both have spent their writing lives immersed in multiple genres, eschewing specialization. They are, first and foremost, writers.

The death of Clive James still leaves me feeling the planet is much diminished. What a bright spark of life he was, and in more ways than I can count. He was one of a generation of marvelous Australians, including Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Bruce Beresford, Barry Humphries and (from a decade earlier) Peter Porter, many of whom had to leave home to make their way in the world. James had been early recognized as a bright young man in Australia, but in England he had to scramble on Grub Street as a journalist and TV personality. No cushy academic life for him. He mucked in with actors, musicians, novelists and other sinners, obliterating distinctions of high and low culture by sheer force of personality and intelligence. One of his most famous aphorisms—“A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing”—touches the sprightliness of his mind. You can Google conversations he recorded in his library with writers, filmmakers and other artists, and you will be edified as well as entertained. Listen to him and Peter Porter talking about classical music, or the way he and Bruce Beresford could appreciate actors and movie stars. No other poet-critic I can think of has expressed so many opinions and enthusiasms on such a variety of subjects, including sports. He was voracious, and yet he retains an Australian perspective, not modesty so much as serious irreverence, the capability of delight. James wrote about Game of Thrones with the same pleasure he lavished on Dante—and rightly so. He understood the importance of vulgarity to art—how art can die of decorum if allowed.

As a writer James is best known for his Unreliable Memoirs (1980) and other works of autobiography, but he also produced four novels, many books on travel and criticism and a slew of poetry. Near the end of his life he published a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (2013). His output was prodigious, much of it at a very high level. He just couldn’t be pegged. So much of his best poetry was late-arriving that it will take some time to judge it fully. He was at his best a very good poet, deserving comparison to Les Murray and A. D. Hope in Australia and to his avowed master Philip Larkin in England. I’m not saying he was as good as Larkin because I don’t know James’s poetry well enough to say anything yet. I’m saying that Larkin was the yardstick by which he measured his poems, the modern English poet he loved best. If you love Larkin and love Clive James, you will welcome Somewhere Becoming Rain, the last book published in James’s lifetime. It’s a short collection, fifteen brief pieces in prose and verse, sometimes defending Larkin against the slings and arrows of other critics, sometimes just relishing Larkin’s “compressed resonance” in a style of animated precision and aphoristic bliss.

Larkin was like “bottled lightning,” James writes. “Speaking for myself, in my recent role as a frail old man, Larkin’s verbal dynamism still tears me to bits.” This comes from one of the best articles in the book, a review of Larkin’s Letters Home published just last year. Reviewing books by and about Larkin over the decades, James has produced a record of near-Boswellian fascination, aware that “Too much light has been shed” on the poet’s private faults, too little on the perfection of his poems. James gets the very thing that makes Larkin valuable as a poet, not just the voice that “made misery beautiful,” but also the stuff of poetry itself:

In three essential volumes, the balanced triad of Larkin’s achievement, all the poems are poised vibrantly in the force field of tension between his profound personal hopelessness and the assured command of their carrying out. Perfectly designed, tightly integrated, making the feeling of falling apart fit together, they release, from their compressed but always strictly parsable syntax, sudden phrases of ravishing beauty, as the river in Dante’s Paradise suggests by giving off sparks that light is what it is made of.

Larkin’s best readers, James among them, understand that mere despair is not the final product of the poems, even perhaps one so dark as the late “Aubade.” Larkin’s art is part of it—the “ravishing beauty” of his phrasing—but also a whiff of something I can only call religious in a non-canonical sense, an awareness of secret harmonies, some of them just past our hearing.

That’s why James’s title, taken from Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings,” surely among the most perfect poems anyone has produced in English, is so apt. Here is Larkin’s final stanza, after we have followed his point of view on a train journey toward London, seeing at each station a Chaucerian vision of life in its ordinary transcendence:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

It’s typical of James to notice from Larkin’s letters that the final image was inspired by a movie, Olivier’s Henry V. And who but Larkin would call life a “frail / Travelling coincidence,” or take note of “the power / That being changed can give”? The diction is absolutely ordinary, the insight utterly profound. The phrasing itself is precisely what James seeks to identify and praise. Readers who attack Larkin for his personal failings, which were real, do themselves a terrible injustice if they neglect his extraordinary poems.

If James is a great defender of Larkin, Larkin was not always kind to James. His letters sometimes betray a typical anti-Australian snobbery when he writes to friends like Kingsley Amis. Yet at least once he defended James against an apparent slight from the novelist Julian Barnes: “And I like Clive James, because he praises my one unsuccessful book. Don’t underrate him! He’s a formidable character.” James might have felt the sting when he read Larkin’s letters, and he includes several kinder ones (previously unpublished) in this new book. The “one unsuccessful book” mentioned above was probably Larkin’s All What Jazz (1970), which James reads as a key to the poet’s aesthetic. He relishes Larkin’s prose almost as much as his verse, saying it “flatters [the reader] by giving him as much as he can take in at one time. The delight caused has to do with collusion. Writer and reader are in cahoots.” I can say the same about James’s writing, which is very much like watching films of the man himself in conversation—lightly erudite, funny, congenial and inclusive. He assumes we can all keep up with him and never looks down his nose at life. “What the true artist says from instinct,” he writes, “the true critic will hear by the same instinct.” James was true to both art and criticism. Larkin is only one of his many subjects, but also a subject that could make his sentences sing.


If Larkin is somewhere near the center of Clive James’s poetic universe, he rates little mention in John Burnside’s. In fact, Burnside sometimes seems to bear a Scot’s grudge against certain forms of Englishness, preferring poetry from the Americas, North and South, and other points of the compass. (Burnside’s preferred Englishmen are figures like Lawrence and Auden, who left the country, or Sassoon for his objection to World War I. His book contains no mention of the likes of Ted Hughes or Geoffrey Hill.) Clive James also had cosmopolitan taste. He notes, for example, unexpected similarities between Larkin and Italy’s Eugenio Montale: “On music they often sound like the same man talking.” It’s worth remembering that James doesn’t come to Larkin as a fellow Englishman, but as a colonial from the margins, one of an exciting generation of Aussies forging a new taste by their wits. He’s not looking for political correctness so much as visceral eloquence. Larkin’s taste in jazz is too conservative, but I see how it educated his ear, his phrasing. Clive James himself is nowhere near as parochial a reader or thinker. Nor is John Burnside, who is almost exactly my own age yet far more productive as a novelist, poet and critic.

The Music of Time is a large book, but a shapely and elegant one. It covers both familiar and unfamiliar poets, often placing them in biographical context or in fragments of memoir from Burnside’s own life, and if his taste and mine sometimes diverge, I can still appreciate the fluency of his thinking and writing. Referring in a “Note to the Reader” to his 23 “vagabond and occasionally digressive chapters,” he makes it clear that his book is less thesis-driven than associative:

In short, my approach has been to step outside the more academic analyses of literature, and write about poetry responsively, which is to say, to discuss poems and ideas of poetry as they inform, not just “the life of the mind” but also my own day-to-day existence. For this is where poetry works best, in what Randall Jarrell calls “the dailiness of life”—and what the poets discussed here have achieved, in the face of societal violence, rapid change, environmental degradation and the mechanization of almost everything, is a continuing, if sometimes minority, culture in which an appreciation of the everyday, and of the “irrational” (beauty, for example, or the sense of wonder) provides, not only a counter to overly mechanistic, procedural thinking, but also a basis for what might be described as a science of belonging.

His approach is learned, personal but not egoistic, narrative as well as delicately exegetical, always humane. He sees poetry, rightly I think, as a way of resisting the many forms of violence imposed upon us by technological, commercial and political powers. This is what Wallace Stevens meant by “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality,” and it can take overtly public form, as it does in some poetry by Yeats, Auden, Heaney, as well as in figures like Haki Madhubuti (formerly Don L. Lee) and Amiri Baraka, or in the sometimes foolish public actions of poets like Robert Frost, as well as in more private, quasi-religious gestures from the likes of Rilke. Burnside’s book is never comprehensive, nor does it attempt to be. His good chapter on visual attention discusses Albrecht Dürer, Marianne Moore and A. R. Ammons but leaves out figures like Elizabeth Bishop and the very painterly Anthony Hecht. You will find broad coverage in this book, and you will be introduced to a few poets you’ve never read before—for me these included Albrecht Haushofer and Olga Orozco—but it’s not a literary history or a survey course. It’s a record of sensibility, an invitation to broaden one’s thinking about the art and to make connections.

His chapter on race focusses on American poets, principally black poets, so inevitably racism as it occurs in England or Europe or South America or China seems less in evidence, but that does not nullify the valid points he makes about the effect of such violence on American poetry. He touches on violence as a sort of American ethos, including the violence of “cool” as appropriated by white culture:

Back in 1963, when Steve McQueen, in a cutaway sweatshirt and specially tailored khakis, ran rings around a Nazi pursuit team during The Great Escape’s renowned motorcycle chase, the young, white, working-class Scots child that I was had no doubt that the word “cool” signified a form of anti-establishment self-reliance that was North American, almost certainly male, youthful (if not necessarily young) and most probably white, a mix of improbable charisma and elegant self-containment that only life’s more fortunate sons could mimic.

It’s an appropriate place to begin discussing the structures of American racism—by looking at the violence of masculine heroes, a brutality pointed inward as well as outward, as if all sensitivity has to be abraded and buried. From the impossible image of Steve McQueen, Burnside shifts to his own frustrations as a young factory worker: “I can still recall losing a good, fairly clean job when, aged nineteen, I ‘hot-headedly’ attacked a supervisor who was ‘pushing me around.’ . . .” The failure of cool, he writes, “can be disastrous in real terms, especially for someone who has dependents and debts.” From here it’s a short step to a failure of cool in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and to the shootings of black men by American police. Reading poets from Madhubuti to Gwendolyn Brooks, remembering as well the violence inflicted upon jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Burnside argues that the imaginative life is a way of keeping our most essential selves and souls alive. The dominant culture is, it might be argued, always criminal, and poetry is one of our hopeful subcultures—which is not to say it doesn’t, like all forms of culture, develop class hierarchies of its own. Burnside’s sympathy for underdogs, whether sinned against or sinning, seems integral to his person and his poetic.

Yet Burnside’s appreciation of white American poets falls victim to another social hierarchy. The contemporary American poets he mentions are mostly those already approved by the creative writing industry, from William Matthews and Jorie Graham to Charles Wright and the late Lucie Brock-Broido, to whose memory the volume is dedicated. Having said this, in the face of his generous readings of world poetry and what he wishes to think of as world culture, such carping feels petty. He can’t possibly be comprehensive about American poetry, and he does write with generosity about canonical figures from Whitman and Dickinson to Frost. He is appalled by the racism in Stevens and Pound, but he also sees through Pound’s madness to the grain of truth in his economic theories: “Whatever his flaws, Ezra Pound saw the dangers of runaway capitalism. . . .” And Burnside writes superbly about Hart Crane because he is sympathetic to unparaphrasable music, sound as being, which he usefully compares to the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

When he takes up the case of Robert Frost in a very good, central chapter, it’s largely because Frost almost succeeded in making poetry relevant to the politically powerful—the very thing Yeats and Pound had also wanted. It’s the romance of JFK, so seductive to our generation, the great lost opportunity America will never again be able to seize. Kennedy appeared to have a kind of panache lacking in figures like Nixon, and his respect for poetry and poets magically burnished the image. Clinton and Obama have attempted to make this connection between poetry and politics as well, with mixed results. But wouldn’t it be wonderful, if only . . . ? We can’t really know. Was it JFK or was it his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, who produced the eloquence we poets admire? Well, we can add, at least Kennedy sought that eloquence. At least he knew what poetry might become in the public sphere. Burnside quotes the President’s 1963 remarks during a memorial for Frost “at Amherst, just a month before his own death, a deeply moving speech in which he began by praising a poet who had once said, ‘Were an epitaph to be my story I’d have a short one ready for my own. I would have written on my stone: I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.’” Kennedy went on to say,

Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us . . . The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and officious state.

Burnside quotes more of this magnificent speech. I commend it to you as one of the high points in American political rhetoric. Would that it were all true.

Frost was already compromised by his own ego. At the end of his life, ill and at times mentally confused, he made an ill-fated trip to Russia on Kennedy’s behalf. He got along well with Khrushchev in their meeting but bungled his report of it to the press, complicating international relations. Burnside tells the story very well, using honest reportage by the poet F. D. Reeve, who was along on the journey. Frost had been compromised in another way at Kennedy’s inauguration, when he tried to read the poem he had composed for the occasion, the forgettable “Dedication,” but was prevented by the glare of winter sunlight off the snow and marble monuments. Instead he recited “The Gift Outright,” a poem I have never been able to stomach due to its approval of manifest destiny. It might be argued that the only truly good thing about Frost’s relationship to Kennedy was the way it inspired the President’s speeches. We could do with a lot more of that good spirit now.


One can quibble more with Burnside’s excellent book. His moving chapter about poetry and grief brings in Rilke and Tsvetaeva but makes no mention of Tennyson, for example. I might guess it’s due to a vaguely suppressed anti-English feeling, yet the chapter takes its title and epigraph from Shakespeare, albeit the Scottish play: “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak / Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.” Burnside numbers himself among those who “persist in the sentiment that, in spite of everything, we are more Pict or Celt than Christian or Brexiteer.” Not accidentally, his penultimate chapter is devoted entirely to Seamus Heaney, another figure who wrestled with the social responsibility of the poet. The fact that Heaney resisted simplistic demands where such responsibility was concerned, that he remained true to his vocation as much as his politics, is entirely laudable. Burnside writes,

Admittedly, one poem is only a drop in the moral ocean, but a lifetime’s work, especially an oeuvre that has become as much a part of the cultural fabric as Heaney’s, becomes something more like a wave. To anyone reading Heaney the risible contention that poetry is politically ineffective is like saying that raising a child or planting a tree is a waste of time. It means nothing, because it gets the timescale wrong, and it ignores the law of unexpected consequences.

Hopeful words. And it should be remarked that Burnside’s final chapter, “The Poets in Ghana,” gets its title not from the Singaporean, Botswanan and Native American poets it discusses, but from the ironic phrasing of a poem by Frank O’Hara, so multiculturalism is seen as both desirable and problematic, like the phenomenon of translation and the inevitability of cultural appropriation. Burnside’s idealism is decidedly circumspect, while his sympathies remain useful and attractive. In his chapter on Albrecht Haushofer, he writes,

I remember being told, as a child, that if you shine your torch beam up into the night sky, the light travels on for ever, to the very edge of the universe. And so it was, I guessed, with sound. Everything—all the music of what happens—travels out from the surface of the earth into farthest space. I have never been entirely sure that this is true (wouldn’t the sound waves decay, eventually?) but I would like to think it is.

On second thought, he might consider the frightful noises humanity makes that would equally be inclined upward and outward into space. At the very least, poetry remains, in the eyes of Clive James and John Burnside, an attempt at the antidote.
[1] SOMEWHERE BECOMING RAIN: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin, by Clive James. Picador. £12.99. THE MUSIC OF TIME: Poetry in the Twentieth Century, by John Burnside. Princeton University Press. $35.00.