Clive James’ Recommended Poems

Last week we lost Clive James, writer and critic from Australia, which naturally led to sales of his books that will do him no good. I picked up his Poetry Notebook and, in the early pages, came across a blog-friendly list. You know blogs and lists. A marriage made in Purgatory.

Still, James was of the opinion that good poetry is best put to memory. Some educational methods never go out of style — or shouldn’t.

Here’s a Clive James Starter List for Memorization of Very, Very Good Poetry:

  • Sonnet 129 (Shakespeare)
  • “The Definition of Love” (Marvell)
  • “Ode on Melancholy” (Keats)
  • Vitae Summa Brevis” (Dowson)
  • “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” (Yeats)
  • “you should above all things be glad and young” (Cummings)
  • “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (Stevens)
  • “The Sunlight on the Garden” (MacNeice)
  • “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love” (Auden)


Granted, old school. And very DWM (Dead + White + Male). His list called Five Favourite (sic) Poetry Books has the same slant:

  • The Tower (W. B. Yeats)
  • Collected Poems (Robert Frost)
  • Look, Stranger! (W. H. Auden)
  • Poems 1943-1956 (Richard Wilbur)
  • The Whitsun Weddings (Philip Larkin)


Not exactly a wild and crazy list, right? In his defense, James quotes Wilbur who, in his critical book on poetry, Responses, says there might be an occasional revolution in poetry, but it will always be a palace revolution. (Oh those poets and their ivory towers. They love to circle the ivory wagons and get all insular and interbred, don’t they?)

Writes James: “The mission of the poet is to enrich literary history, not to change it. When the academic study of a poet begins to concentrate on his supposedly game-changing impact on the history of literature, it’s time to watch out. All too often it will be a case of the publicity outstripping the event.”

There you have it, poets. Leave revolutions to the firebrands. Make like Rockefeller and enrich!