Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Salt Companion to John James

Not having studied English Literature beyond A Level, I'm not necessarily the best person to be assessing a book of critical essays on a poet who, despite frequently being as accessible as any mainstreamer, remains firmly in the 'unjustly neglected' stable.

Except, maybe I am. Having read two of these volumes (I bought the one on Lee Harwood last year too), it strikes me that they fill a gap in the market not only as far as giving an in-depth analysis of certain poets is concerned, but also in allowing late starters in poetry to get to grips with the whole business of critical appreciation. There's nothing especially difficult about James, and although the essays here lack nothing in academic rigour, there's nothing difficult about them, either.

Edited by Simon Perril, this book provides pretty much every perspective you might need on the Cardiff-born, Cambridge-based James, placing him in several intriguing contexts.

Perril's own pieces, a pithy introduction and an essay on the 'politics of indolence' that locates James simultaneously within the Welsh praise tradition, English Romanticism, and the playfulness of the New York School, are among the most enjoyable reads here. Garry Kelly does a fine job in relating James' work to the worlds of late 70s reggae and punk, too, while John Wilkinson's essays are all excellent.

On the down side, I did struggle a bit with Romana Huk's piece, finding it rather repetitive, although given that one of its subjects was repetition in James' poetry, perhaps that was part of the point that I was missing.

But, that doesn't really matter. It isn't a book you're going to read through in one sitting - you'll want to dip in and out as and when the fancy takes you, probably as you visit or revisit the poetry itself. And in that respect, it does its job admirably. If you already, as I did, loved the poetry of John James, you'll find that it sends you back to the work with renewed enthusiasm. If you're a relative newcomer to it, you'll probably want to get hold of everything the bloke's ever written.

As it happens, Salt have just the thing for that, too. Buy the Collected Poems too, and you've got as good a two-volume summary of a poetry career packed with invention, exuberance and intellectual curiosity as you could ever wish for.

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