The subtitle of Clive James’s Poetry Notebook, added for the American edition, is “Reflections on the Intensity of Language.” This is because it is the “intensity of language,” not formal unity, James writes in the volume’s introduction, that marks “the real difference between poetry and prose.”

This doesn’t mean that James is soft on form—or not entirely. Technique, he writes, “will always be part of the poet’s schooling,” and formal unity is a poem’s “binding energy,” even if it’s not “the most important of its energies.” What matters most is a phrase, a line, or a stanza that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before and will never forget. This is what James calls a poem’s “moment”—an incalculable, “unforgettable” spot...


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