I can’t help suspecting that you published Philip Metres’s letter [January 2013] accusing Clive James of thinking that “poems exist only for the page” not only because you enjoyed the way Metres champions memorization, but also because you hoped to get many letters defending James from that accusation. Certainly I can’t resist getting in on the fun.
I admire James precisely because he so obviously loves bringing alive the words of a good poem in his body. “That it can be got by heart is one of the ways we tend to define a poem,” he says [“A Stretch of Verse,” November 2012]. And later: “Ungaretti said that the touchstone of poetry was the hammered phrase within the singable scheme.”
I was just told yesterday, again, that poems are really puzzles that you have to decipher. But as soon as James asks himself what a line by Auden means (“The earth turns over, our side feels the cold”), he dismisses the question: “Better for the reader to just enjoy the feeling of disorientation — or rather, of being oriented toward everywhere, a sliding universality.” And if that way of putting it doesn’t send you back to the poem ...