Slate.com has been featuring adapted versions of essays from Clive James', Cultural Amnesia. The perspective he presents in his essays is fascinating. It's like looking at the lives of famous figures througth a kaleidescope rather than a microscope or magnifying glass. His presentations are multifaced and often beautiful.
How poets write great poems.
By Clive James
Posted Tuesday, April 10, 2007, at 7:30 AM ET
The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
Sometimes something wants to be said, sometimes a way of saying wants to be used.
—Paul Valéry, "Poésie et pensée abstraite," from Modern French Poets on Poetry.
By the age of 20, Ambroise-Paul Valéry (1871–1945) was already recognized as a promising poet, but he repudiated the ambition and stayed almost silent for a full two decades. He was 40 when he was persuaded to publish his early poems, a task he undertook only on the understanding that he would add a new, prefatory poem. This took him five years to write. Published separately in 1917, La Jeune Parque and Charmes worked to establish him as the most prominent French poet of his time. Even without publishing his private notebooks—some 287 volumes—Valéry still had a full 18 volumes of prose to give the world, and scattered among them are some of the best essays written in his time. With solid mathematical training to back up his humanist erudition, he could take almost anything for a subject, but he was especially good at writing about the arts: The essay on Leonardo and the little book on Degas are models of the genre.
The homage paid to Valéry by other writers is only fitting, because nobody could quite equal him at writing about the arts out of deep and unenvious love. If there is an objection to be made to Valéry, it is a milder version of the objection we make to Rilke: that the dedication to art verges on preciosity. Valéry, however, gives a better sense than Rilke of other artists than himself being fully alive. There was a generosity to him which his nation returned in kind, as if his capacity for appreciation were in itself a national treasure. Gen. de Gaulle came to his funeral.....
Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.
Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2163822/