Slate: According to the BBC, you are a "personality and a critic." What does it take to be a personality in the British literary world?
James: I've never known what it takes to be a personality. I wish they would stop calling me that! Personality is something terribly abstract and universally available. And I don't think I am one. I'm not even sure I've got one.
Slate: In all seriousness, though, how has living in London shaped your critical outlook?
James: I like the old empire. I like the complexity of British social life—the interplay of ironies and tone. London is still a fascinating city. I'm kind of stuck with it. I was a long time getting nowhere here, and then when I got somewhere I became sort of wedded to the place.
Slate: One thing that always strikes me about your criticism is how heavily it relies on metaphor. Can you talk about that?
James: The resources of poetry are resources I'd be very reluctant to throw away when I am writing critical prose. I regard critical prose as the opportunity, in fact, to use the poetic in unusual circumstances, to find a very compressed way of saying something. And the most compressed way of all of course is humor. A really successful joke is a truth. I try to use every opportunity the essay offers to make the language do far, far more work than it usually does. I haven't got a neutral style, which is the main reason I can't sit down at 10 a.m. and do my stint, though I wish I could. I have to wait for it the way I have to wait for a poem, and you know what that's like. Once it's in your head, it won't let you go, yet it doesn't want to come on Tuesday or even Wednesday, but on Thursday, when you've got other things going on. I think there is a continuity between prose and poetry; there is definitely a continuity between essays and poems. They are two versions of each other. I really don't like the poems that have no essay content. And I don't like the essays that have no poetic component. I like the two things to be continuous.
Slate: That explains why you've written so enthusiastically about poets like Auden and Larkin.
James: Yes. I was very interested in the discussion Slate has been having about Auden, by the way. You're a fan of "The Fall of Rome," I take it—what a poem: "Muscle-bound marines/ Mutiny for food and pay"! It's the poem I refer to when people, especially Larkin, say Auden wrote nothing good in the United States. Indeed, it was worth going there to write that poem. Unless you think it is worth going through a whole thing—an unhappy marriage—for one poem, you shouldn't be a writer. The effort it takes to write is disproportionate.
Slate: What attracts you to poetry?
James: I love the way the sense impressions accumulate in your head. It's not a prose logic, is it? It's a sense logic, it's a connection of intensities. For me, it is the big thrill. I think it is for every poet, really. There is a wonderful poet in Australia called Stephen Edgar—some of his poems are on my Web site. There is one called "The Man in the Moon." This guy can really do it, and he doesn't know how he does it. We often talk about where it comes from. I love asking poets about where it comes from.