Jason Guriel gives Clive James props for focusing on the "counterintuitive" aspects of poetic technique:
At bottom, James is loyal to poems, not poets. He’s concerned with the question of why some stretches of verse stick with the reader and why others don’t. It’s clear he has spent years white-boarding problems that contemporary poets no longer give much countenance. For example, most of us dabblers would delight to be able to manage a brilliant line or two of poetry per poem. But James is preoccupied with not just how to generate brilliance—feat enough—but how to muffle it slightly so that it serves a larger light show. As he says of Frost: “His easy-seeming, usually iambic, conversational forward flow is a deception, a way of not just bringing show-stopping moments to your attention but of moving them past your attention, so that you will form the correct impression that he has wealth to spare and does not want the show stopped for such a secondary consideration as brilliance.” Brilliance as a “secondary consideration” is, well, brilliant—a counterintuitive point at a time when the practitioners who tend to trend, like Frederick Seidel and Patricia Lockwood, specialize in show-stopping lines. Elsewhere, James reminds us that poets once taught readers how to pronounce a word simply by its placement in a pattern of stresses. He can talk couplets, alliteration, nuts, bolts. It’s not that Poetry Notebook is perversely arcane; it’s rather as if a ballet textbook had readmitted to its pages, after years of doing without, the pirouette.