One-Minute Book Reviews

December 11, 2008

And Today’s Gusher Award for Hyperbole in Reviewing Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:19 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Clive James in the essay “Little Low Heavens” in the September 2008 issue of Poetry:

“ … think of ‘Spring,’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Everyone knows the first line because everyone knows the poem. ‘Nothing is so beautiful as Spring’ is a line that hundreds of poets could have written, and was probably designed to sound that way: designed, that is, to be merely unexceptionable, or even flat. Only two lines further on, however, we get ‘Thrush’s eggs look like little low heavens’ and we are electrified. I can confidently say ‘we’ because nobody capable of reading poetry at all could read those few words and not feel the wattage.”


“Previously in this magazine I mentioned the Amy Clampitt poem with the exquisite few lines about the cheetah whose coat, when she ran, turned from a petalled garden into a sandstorm. Nobody who has ever read that poem can possibly have forgotten that moment.”

Clive James is a wonderful critic whose many sparkling reviews include a much-anthologized evisceration of Judith Krantz’s Princess Daisy that remains a model of its form nearly 30 years after its publication. And “Little Low Heavens” makes the worthy argument that the structure of a poem matters.

But James loses it in “Everyone knows the first line because everyone knows the poem,” “nobody capable of reading poetry at all could read those few words and not feel the wattage,” and “Nobody who has ever read that poem can possibly have forgotten that moment.” These lines are just gush. It’s pure snobbery to say that if you can’t “feel the wattage” of Hopkins’s words you’re not “capable of reading poetry at all.” People respond to poetry on different levels.

As for James’s comment that nobody “can possibly have forgotten” the Clampitt line: I mentioned earlier this week that I had forgotten seven lines from Hamlet, a work I revere above all others in English literature. Alas, poor Clampitt, I could forget hers, too.

Read James’s essay here

Previous winners of Gusher Awards include Jonathan Franzen and Claire Messud Enter the word Gusher (without quotation marks) in the Search box at right to find others.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Glad to have found your blog … I’d had misgivings about the tone of James’ pronouncements when I first read the essay; you have pinpointed the problem sentences, and have prompted me to put some broader thoughts together on James’ themes versus his style here.

    Comment by davidlumsden — December 13, 2008 @ 8:39 am | Reply

  2. Thanks, David. Enjoyed your post. I agree that Clive James might have faulted his comments if another writer had made them.

    Often when I give Gusher Awards, I have the sense that the “winners” don’t know what’s wrong with what they’ve written (because, for example, they’re using language that, though hyperbolic, has become widely accepted). But as I read James’s article in Poetry, I thought: He knows what’s wrong with this. Let’s hope he gets his form back in the next review.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — December 14, 2008 @ 8:49 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: