Kevin Saving on

Clive James
Poetry Notebook 2006-2014 (Picador, 2014)
Sentenced To Life - Poems 2011-2014 (Picador, 2015)

Although his nearness to death is frequently advertised, the polymathic TV personality, essayist and novelist Clive James continues to publish his reflections on numerous poets, the current state of poetry (as well as the stuff itself). And, of course, long may he do so.

Poetry Notebook is something of a pot pouri of occasional pieces originally commissioned by the likes, inter alia, of Poetry (Chicago), Wall Street Journal, Quadrant, the Financial Times and TLS. Though it does not, as James freely admits, constitute a fully thought-through, unified theory of poetics, some interesting views emerge.

James defines himself as a 'die-hard formalist' but allows that 'too many poems without rhyme, without ascertainable rhythm -without almost everything- have been unarguably successful. Although he 'loves' John Ashbery's 'Daffy Duck in Hollywood' he declares that he is unable to understand large chunks of it. He finds the later Wallace Stevens too intent in writing after the manner of 'Wallace Stevens' and avows, perhaps incomprehensibly, that 'nobody should mind incomprehensibility as long as incomprehensibility is not the aim'. Whether we should take this to mean that it's okay to write impenetrably/obscurely/meaninglessly, but only if it happens through incompetence, is anybody's guess.

James professes to dislike the prevalent anglophone literary orthodoxy and takes an antithetical delight in the well-wrought, felicitous and, above all, startling phrase. He observes, tellingly, that 'today's deliberately empty poetry can get a reputation for a time [...] but it will never be as interesting as how it got there'. He seems to find the influence of William Carlos Williams to be particularly reprehensible: 'When he realised, correctly, that everything was absent from [Walt] Whitman's poetry except arresting observations Williams, instead of asking himself how he could put back what was missing, asked instead how he could get rid of the arresting observations. The result was a red wheelbarrow...'

James continually revels in analysing technique and tries to demonstrate how so many of the acknowledged masters were, above all else, resourceful technicians. Unfortunately, some of the more recent salon gunslingers whose cause he espouses (in book reviews) fail to establish themselves as quite the exemplars he would have us believe them to be. Championing the reputations of Les Murray and Peter Porter may be excused as an act of Aussie-mateship, but little -at least in the extracts quoted here- justifies his encomium for the American, Christian Wiman -erstwhile editor of Poetry (Chicago)- unless it is the sympathy flowing towards one very ill man from another.

Elsewhere, in 'On a second Reading' we find an in-depth analysis of a poem by yet another Antipodean, Stephen Edgar.


Hardly a feature in the evening sky
As yet -near the horizon the cold glow
Of rose and mauve which, as you look on high,
Deepens to Giotto's dream of indigo.

Hardly a star as yet. And then that frail
Sliver of moon like a thin peal of soap
Gouged by a nail, or the pairings of a nail:
Slender enough repository of hope.

There was no lack of hope when thirty-five
Full years ago they sent up the Apollo-
Two thirds of all the years I've been alive.
They let us out of school, so we could follow

The broadcast of that memorable scene,
Crouching in Mr Langshaw's tiny flat,
The whole class huddled round the TV screen.
There's not much chance, then, of forgetting that.

And for the first time ever I think now
As though it were a memory, that you
Were in the world then and alive, and how
Down time's long labyrinthine avenue

Eventually you'd bring yourself to me
With no excessive haste and none too soon-
As memorable in my history
As that small step for man on to the moon.

The poem continues satisfactorily enough towards its perfectly-acceptable two-point landing, but it has already reached its apex -and James is quite right (though, perhaps not harsh enough) in criticising Edgar's decision to self-reference another of his own poems a few lines later. Thus a near-perfect flight-plan got tipped on to an unfortunate, and easily-preventable, trajectory. Ironically, James is commenting upon a number of his own characteristic flaws: the tendency to both personalise and over-elaborate, coupled with a compulsion to press on further into the territory of lesser reward. Yet he is also undoubtedly right in praising his compatriot's ingenuity and under-appreciated talent. The rest of the poem can be found quoted in Poetry Notebook, together with further information on how to access Edgar's other work.

James packs a lot (not always completely congruently) into his Poetry Notebook: reflections in 'Listening to the Flavour' as to how we got to 'Here'; 'Five Favourite Poetry Books' (Yeats, Frost, Auden, Wilbur and Larkin); an attempt at a re-evaluation of Louis MacNeice; 'Product Placement in Modern Poetry' (which examines the use of brand names in the work of E.E. Cummings, Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot and Betjeman among others); 'A Stretch of Verse' considers the centrality of 'the memorable bits' within much longer work and some marginal -yet discernable- talents like those of Michael Donaghy and John Updike get their working-over. Eventually we recognise that James is constantly thinking about poets, poetic craftsmanship and Poetry -probably in that order- and still retains his extraordinary ability to conjure up, at short notice, a few thousand words, both impressively argued and wittily referenced, which can be positively guaranteed to hit their target approximately half the time.

* * * * *

Egotists can die hard. 29 out of the 37 poems contained within Sentenced To Life might be read as valedictory. They express sorrow at the transience of life; self-reproach for past misdemeanours; pleas for forgiveness; self-pity and, most memorably, a kind of puzzled joy at the unexpected vividness concomitant with an increasing certainty of imminent extinction. Clive James' poetry, indeed much of his other output, has always displayed a tendency towards self-absorption -rather as if, like van Eyck in 'The Arnolfini Wedding', he can't quite bear to paint himself out of the picture. Such flagrant egocentricity can be hard for others to take. Not since Thomas Hardy's sequence, 'Poems of 1912-'13', has a writer so determinedly and publically charted his reactions to an event in his own personal -and presumably private- life. On occasion it can be salutary to remind ourselves of our own almost total lack of significance, although few worthwhile poems would get written from this perspective.

Notwithstanding the afore-going remarks, I sense that 'Japanese Maple' may well establish itself as a classic:

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. {...}

My daughter's choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same {...}

Slyly opening in the third person, the poem initially teases its reader that it is concerned with a deciduous scrub, Acer Palmatum, before abandoning the deception to reveal that, yes, it was really about its author, Clive James, all along. Still, there is a poignancy and beauty peeking through the rather 'knowing' craft:

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

Splendidly simply and simply splendid.

James is highly exercised by fame. In the rather pointless 'Only the Immortal Need Apply' he appears to be fascinated by just how many art celebrities the adventurer and putative poet, Gabriele d'Annunzio, could have met in Paris in 1909. In 'Asma Unpacks Her Pretty Clothes' he worries about the apparent incongruities that surround Asma al-Assad (British born and raised), her status as a fashion icon -and the malign practices of her husband, Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader. Again, the poem's attention is misplaced: despots have always chosen attractive trophy-consorts, and had them tricked out in the finest.

The stocking-filler 'One Elephant, Two Elephant' is really just a 117 line vers libre safari anecdote -half-interesting at best. 'Bugsy Siegel's Flying Eye' takes 36 lines of free verse to do nothing more startling than to explain its own title. It is the 'Valediction poems' by which this collection must stand or fall (and it currently appears to be selling well -for a book of modern poetry, that is).

Clive James' status as an immediately recognisable 'celebrity brand' is, for the moment, assured. He was, in the past, frequently 'on the telly', after all. He may even, quite possibly, be 'The Last Formalist' (Felix Dennis, who had long since said everything he'd got to say, but who kept on saying it anyway, died in 2014). It is probable that James would like to be seen 'signing off' with something of the magnitude of Philip Larkin's 'Aubade' -though, of course, Larkin wasn't actually dying when he wrote his own valediction (he had another seven years still to live).

Even allowing for James' mis-focus -he is like a man wearing reflective sunglasses with the mirrors facing the wrong way round- there is a kind of magnificent narcissism going on here:

I still can't pass a mirror. Like a boy,
I check my looks, and now I see the shell
Of what I was. So why, then, this strange joy?
Perhaps an old man dying would do well
To smile as he rejoins the cosmic dust
Life comes from, for resign himself he must.

(From 'Star System') and

And so begins another day of not
Achieving much except to dent the cot

More/ And more I sit down to write less and less,
Taking a half hour's break from helplessness
To craft a single stanza meant to give
Thanks for the heartbeat which still lets me live:
A consolation even now, so late-
When soon my poor bed will be smooth and straight.

(From 'Elementary Sonnet') and

...I breath the air
As if there were not much more of it there

And write these poems, which are the funeral songs
Which have been taught to me by vannished time:
Not only to enumerate my wrongs
But to pay homage to the late sublime
That comes from seeing how the years have brought
A fitting end, if not the one I sought.

(From the conclusion of 'Lecons de tenebres' [or 'Lessons of darkness']).

In 'Sunset Hails a Rising' James achieves a coda which touchingly encapsulates his acceptance of the inevitable with clarity, grace and wistfulness.

Very few people get to find the end they sought and James, at least, is fortunate in believing that his own might be somehow 'fitting'. It can sometimes be helpful in assessing a writer's work to enquire just what, if anything, were their intentions towards their readership (outside the obvious ones of attempting to elicit either 'Admiration' or 'Financial Reward'). James, I fancy, is making the pardonably human effort to solicit -or 'manipulate'- his reader's sympathy -and committing the understandable error that this is even partially achievable.

The traditional poetic virtues of self-abnegation and stoicism espoused by a number of the Victorians (W.E. Henley and Christina Rossetti for example) appear now to belong not only to a different century -but, almost, to a superseded species of humanity. Clive James in his own lifetime has enjoyed far more than Andy Warhol's (infamous) 'fifteen minutes of fame' and it appears to have afforded him both the opportunity to find a form of self-justification and the vehicle from within which to express his belief in the justification of Self.

Kevin Saving © 2015