Art is long, but life is short…
Image by RubyGoes
All poetry critics are on the hunt for neon-lined, essential truths about their subjects—but James has an uncanny instinct for where to look. It’s precision not just of vocabulary—of intuiting the right words to describe a tone or style—but of thought. James has mastered the mental exactitude it takes to isolate a complex idea. Consider his praise for Sylvia Plath, her “gift for placing a phrase on the music.” Just so. At stake is how a line’s rhythmic propulsion (or prosody) can unite with a moment of clear, articulated perception so that the whole thing turns incandescent with energy. For James, crucially, such clarity is neither easy to pull off nor straightforward in its effect on the reader. His lyric ideal is as fine as it is conceptually nuanced: a “simple statement made complex by its own interior music.”
Several of James’ brilliant critical gestures nonetheless failed to convince me. He complains (in bewitching waves of argumentation!) that Milton weighed down his verse with learning. I would counter that the references in Lycidas and Paradise Lost create a sense of unique, overwhelming scope. And during an otherwise bravura takedown of Ezra Pound, which smartly knocks Pound’s “faith that a sufficiently gnomic utterance will yield an unswerving truth,” James impugns the lovely line from Canto LXXIV: “to build the city of Dioce, whose terraces are the colour of stars.” Why? Because we don’t know what color stars are and thus can’t see the terraces. And yet—aren’t images that at once provoke and defy our inner vision an occasional poetic asset? (And we know what color stars are—they’re the color of stars.) Wallace Stevens wrote, “She dreams a little, and she feels the dark/ Encroachment of that old catastrophe,/ As a calm darkens among water-lights.” My personal unwillingness to part with those lines is matched only by my inability to picture a single calm, whatever that is, dimming among water-lights, whatever those are.
Others will have bigger problems with Poetry Notebook. They’ll say that James is too dismissive of free verse. (He admits to being a “diehard formalist,” but also concedes that he could be wrong—what matters is the skill with which a poem’s standout moments are fitted together.) Conversely, James suggests that anyone attributing the force and sharpness of T.S. Eliot’s verse libre to facility with old meters is “betting on a case of correlation as causation.” (Fighting words! Especially as creative writing professors across the country assign students villanelles because it’ll improve your freeform stuff, I promise.) You could certainly censure James’ emphasis on white, male poets. He himself acknowledges that weakness, looking forward “to a time when women will dominate the art” and limply noting that “I ended up with almost as many lines by Elizabeth Bishop in my head as Robert Lowell.” Yet political critiques of Poetry Notebook, while wholly justified, seem to miss the point. Surely James, steeped in a waning canon as exclusionary as it is beautiful, can make contributions to the store of poetic knowledge. Surely we can attend to them without ignoring other voices, especially now. “The sound of a slamming door, but it’s behind you,” he writes, reflecting on his journey “into the empty regions.” For him as for anyone else, the enemy has always been silence, emptiness, a closed door.