Keving Saving on
Angels Over Elsinore, Collected Verse 2003-2008
and Opal Sunset, Selected Poems
both Picador (2008)
For those of us of a certain age, there was a time when Clive James seemed to be almost everywhere. He once occupied that sameTV-cultural 'rent a larynx' niche which Stephen Fry has more latterly usurped. Articulate, opinionated chaps, the both of them, linked only by their degrees in English Literature, courtesy of Cambridge University. Of the two, the Aussie, James, was always the practitioner - publishing poetry alongside his other musings on matters critical, autobiographical and televisual.
Though we might have dipped (briefly) into Other Passports: Poems 1958-1985, it was the advent of The Book of my Enemy: Collected Verse 1958-2003 which allowed us to realise that Mr James now very much wanted to be taken seriously. He'd let it be known that he 'hung out' with the 'heavyweights'; that he saw himself not simply as a transiently witty media personality, but as a genuine 'contender'.
Angels over Elsinore ('verse', one notes, rather than 'poetry') compares favourably with other, earlier, offerings. 'Publisher's Party' reads like a somewhat wittier companion/antidote to 'The Book of my Enemy' - in which the protagonist now finds himself admitting 'my new book's hopeless and I'm getting fat'. This, self-deprecatory tone is continued with James disclosing (in 'Literary Lunch') that he once learnt poetry 'by heart' in order to woo women. Nowadays, ladies might
...take it as a compliment
Unmixed with any claim to more delight
Than [their] attention. Such was my intent
This morning, as I planned what to recite
Just so [they] might remember me tonight...
(...whilst in other men's arms). 'Tramps and Bowlers' (in which he observes the disciplined realpolitik of local vagrants who bivvy-down in an adjacent park) has some good lines
...no one reports their nightly stay.
People like me who take an early walk
Just after dawn will see them start the day
By packing up. They barely even talk,
Loading their duffel bags. They leave no trace,
Thus proving some who sleep rough aren't so dumb.
Tramps blow their secret if they trash the place...
but ends-up more than a little ludicrously, contrasting the vagrant's street-wisdom with the quiet complaisance of his Crown Green Bowling neighbours:
Which way of life is better? Don't ask me-
I chose both, so I'd be the last to know.
'Anniversary Serenade' contains a nice conceit drawn out just a smidgen too far -something of a habit. As 'The Carnival' rightly asserts
These wonders get familiar by the last
Night of the run. A miracle fades fast.
You spot the pulled thread on a leotard.
Those double somersaults don't look so hard.
Elsewhere in Angels over Elsinore James reverts to his more customary fare - in which leaden weights (slightly obscure classical allusions, fustian imagery and shameless name-dropping) stand-in for weightier leads.
It is noticeable that over half of James' Selected is drawn from work produced during the five years prior to 2008: an editorial decision reflecting shrewd self-assessment. The earlier poems are inclined to carry too many high-cultural references, with nods towards Donatello, Mayerhold, 'Phaeton' (and their like) degenerating into a wearisome palsy.
'Reticent' is one adjective unlikely ever to have been levelled at Clive James. In the author's own seven and a half page introduction to Opal Sunset I counted over eighty appearances of the personal pronoun 'I', and 22 of the proprietorial 'My'. Even the first person singular, 'Me', reached double figures (to say nothing of 'one', 'the poet' or 'mine' etc). This narcissism is a pity because James, the critic, has some interesting things to say about the primacy of the individual 'poem' over that of the rather more diffuse notion of 'a body of work'; about a 'name' poet's perceived need to be seen to be productive; and about the artist's imperative to be memorable above all else.
Angels over Elsinore and Opal Sunset both reproduce two wholly memorable set-pieces. In the former collection's title-poem, James advances upon some splendidly ripe conclusions:
Hamlet himself knew just what to expect:
Steady reduction of his body mass
Until the day, his very coffin wrecked,
Some clown picked up his skull and said, 'Alas'.
In 'State Funeral' (in memory of Shirley Strickland de la Hunty, 1925-2004) he laments the passing of an athlete (and environmentalist) who'd won 'seven medals in three separate [Olympic] Games' whilst disdaining to compromise either integrity or physiology via the crafty infusion of dubious 'performance-enhancing' drugs.
When Shirley raced, the wings on her spiked shoes
Were merely mythical, like Mercury's.
She did it unassisted, win or lose.
The world she did it in died by degrees
While she looked on. Now she is spared the sight
At last. The bobby-dazzler won't be back,
Who ran for love and jumped for sheer delight
In a better world and on a different track...
The momentum here is important. In eulogising someone else, James has, for one moment, lost sight of himself. After half-a-lifetime spent in production of the mildly entertaining -if distinctly clever-clever- could it be that this writer has finally gotten wise?
Kevin Saving © 2010