Clive James’ most anthologized poem is commonly known by its first two lines: “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered/And I Am Pleased.” Those lines tell the uninitiated almost all they need to know about the pleasures to be found in reading James: chief among them, his wit and his appreciation of the underlying absurdity of so much literary effort — including his own.
What those famous lines don’t reveal about James is his erudition, lightly worn but very much on display in his latest book of criticism, called Poetry Notebook. In his introduction, James says that, for him, poetry has been “the occupation of a lifetime.” It’s a lifetime that’s drawing to a close — James was diagnosed a few years ago with leukemia and this short book is shot through with an awareness that the poems he’s talking about will outlast him; or, as James more elegantly puts it. “There is a grief in all poetry. … Poetry holds itself together, and eventually we ourselves do not.”
Poetry Notebook is a rousing compendium of short essays about poetry and poets that James has published over the years.