J D McClatchy (b. 1945) was one of America’s foremost poet-critics. His five collections of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted Hazmat, are widely acclaimed for their formal ingenuity, coupled with their fluency of thought and feeling. He edited The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry and an edition of contemporary American poetry for the same publisher. His extensive writing on poets such as Anne Sexton, James Merrill and Elizabeth Bishop has been collected in White Paper and Twenty Questions and made him the natural choice to edit an important series of audiobooks for Random House, The Voice of the Poet, featuring archival recordings of famous American poets. He was also an accomplished opera librettist whose work has been performed in opera houses around the world including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and Covent Garden. McClatchy served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and  was a Professor of English at Yale where he edited The Yale Review.

McClatchy’s formal skill, what has been described as his “civil tongue” (San Francisco Chronicle) imparts an unruffled surface to his work. The fluid syntax of longer narrative pieces such as ‘Er’ or ‘A View of the Sea’ is complex but controlled, whilst the tighter constraints of his sonnets, such as the sequence ‘My Mammogram’, do nothing to dispel the impression of ease. Beneath this classical poise, however, there are disturbing depths as McClatchy examines the damage people inflict on one another in the name of love. Often in these poems it seems that love and pain are inseparable, that human relationships are no better than the coupling of the feral cats in ‘The Rented House’. The risk inherent in being a living, feeling person finds disturbing expression in the image of the plant in ‘The Agave’, the terrible thorns of which sometimes grow so distorted they pierce its own leaves. No wonder that in ‘Er’ the souls of the dead ask to come back as birds and animals, but though the narrator of this poem is re-born as a warbler, McClatchy himself stays loyal in his poems to “Those humans who shout and slash and smell of flesh.”

In this recording McClatchy’s calm reading style and his dark-timbred voice realise the tension in his work: how thought and feeling, disciplined by form, can be dangerous, like a gas kept under pressure.

These poems come from a special recording made for The Poetry Archive on 5 May 2005 at The Audio Workshop, London. Producer: Richard Carrington.

Books by J D McClatchy



Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters

Prize website

Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets

Prize website

Connecticut Governor's Arts Award.

Prize website

President of The American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Prize website