Poetry: The Book of my Enemy — Introduction | clivejames.com
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The Book of My Enemy :  Introduction

When, in 1986, I decided it might be worth trying to keep some of my poems alive under the all-embracing title Other Passports, I gave that book an introduction which breathed intermittent fire. Behind the pyrotechnics, it was really a form of apology for blundering into territory already well marked out by figures whose credentials I knew to be in better shape. If the introduction to this volume turns out to sound less embattled, that will be because, although I have quite a few subsequently written poems to add, I feel less need to crack hardy about why I should want to do so. Other Passports surprised me by getting away with it. As the first paperback collection of contemporary verse that Picador ever published, it appeared in the airport bookshop spinners like any of my other books, or any books by any author sharing the same imprint. In such a context it had all the marks of a misjudged venture simply begging to be overlooked. But somehow it made its way, and eventually, over the course of about fifteen years, it sold out, leaving a gratifying space in the warehouse where there might well have been a hulking tumulus of printed paper slated for the pulp machine. The original Jonathan Cape hardback edition even got some favourable reviews, although all but the very best ones took it for granted that I was expressing myself in verse form only as a sideline to my other activities, most of them pretty reprehensible. I still had my face on screen a lot in those days, so it was axiomatic that the mind behind the face could only be playing with serious matters as a supplementary strand of entertainment.

I was ready to go along with that, and still am. I still think that a career as a poet is the wrong idea for most people who write verse, because it can lead to a concern for the reputation, and hence to that unedifying process — be it ever so sedulous and even sacrificial — by which the output is kept up when a real inner need is lacking, and the Muse doubles as an inflatable doll. But the writer who confines himself to never writing a poem except to answer a specific impulse might have to resign himself to having no reputation at all, because he looks like a part-timer. His best course, I now think, is to take it on the chin. He should forget his pride and remember his privilege. With no established apparatus to speak for them, his poems will speak for themselves. If they don’t, he will have no ground to recoup before he tries again. If they do, it might be partly because nobody was expecting him to speak at all. At the pool table, the first weapon of the hustler is to look as if he does not belong.

Sceptics will assuredly spot that a book called The Book of My Enemy is a naked attempt to co-opt the notoriety that accrued to my poem ‘The Book of My Enemy has Been Remaindered’. No doubt because of the intensities of cynicism, envy and hatred that it allegedly revealed, that poem was much anthologized in both Britain and Australia, and there is a German version appropriately rephrased for the nation that invented Schadenfreude. Needing whatever help I can get on the bookshop shelves, I would be a fool not to capitalize on an established brand. But in its truncated form, and transferred to the spine of a book, the title has another meaning. The urge to write in verse has always been my financial enemy, and I have always done my best to resist it, right from the beginning of my professional career. I had a family to feed, and prose paid. For poetry, the established magazines have always paid something, but when you measure the income against the time taken to compose in verse, it falls a long way behind fossicking for gold on Hampstead Heath. Like the ward sister who wants her nurses kept on short commons so as to freeze out any misfits who might secretly dream of auditioning for the Spice Girls, I persist in seeing some virtue in this wedding of the vocation to a vow of poverty. My great Australian contemporary Les Murray has argued convincingly for how a lifetime poet should get a better share of the revenue he will eventually generate, but not even he much likes the idea of subsidized poetry. He doesn’t think the world owes him a living: he just thinks the publishing industry owes him a fair shake. I agree with that, but on the understanding that a fair shake must work out at not much more than a token payment for an expenditure of time, effort and concentration that can never be rewarded at its true cash value. If it could, any dullard who put in the graft would be on easy street. In that sense, my poems are my best claim to seriousness. Everything else I wrote paid me for my time. My poems never did, and still don’t. But they still keep coming. The enemy is still with me.

Most of what he has made me do since the publication of Other Passports has here been added to the section called Recent Verse, a classification I have felt worth retaining because the date when I began feeling more confident about speaking in my own voice still feels recent to me even as the distance stretches to half a lifetime. Among the many additions are the handful of poems included in my essay book The Dreaming Swimmer, now out of print and probably fated to remain so. All the other Recent Verse additions, however, have not previously appeared in book form. The rest of the classifications from Other Passports can be retained without quibble, although one of them needs, like Recent Verse, to be substantially expanded. To the section called Verse Letters and Occasional Verse extra, mainly longer, poems written in later years have been added. In the section called Verse Diaries, I have restored the preface to the first, book-form publication of Poem of the Year, a preface I deleted from Other Passports on the principle that poems should proceed to their fate unaccompanied by explanations. But the preface, I have since decided, is something other than an explanation, and anyway it contains a tribute to Louis MacNeice’s wonderful long poem Autumn Journal that it is only fitting to record here, because nothing else in the twentieth century so affected my idea of what public verse should aim to do. MacNeice’s name is not heard as often now as it ought to be, but some younger readers might catch from the preface the urge to read his masterpiece themselves, and thus be taken back to a point in time when a lavishly gifted poet invented a whole new possibility — a possibility that he fulfilled with a candid dignity, a wealth of invention, and a mastery of rhythmically propelled colloquial eloquence that not even his more famous friend W. H. Auden could ever quite match.

Two new sections have been added. One of them is called Song Lyrics. For almost a decade in the late 1960s and the early 1970s I regularly wrote song lyrics for the music of Pete Atkin, who performed our songs on half a dozen commercial albums which eventually proved not quite commercial enough, the English chanson tradition being at that time short of a market from the viewpoint of the recording industry. It still is now, but now the A&R departments of the record companies are no longer the sole arbiter, because the World Wide Web can circumvent them and assemble a niche market out of enthusiasts. It turned out, as the Web expanded, that our own early enthusiasts had reproduced themselves, and now all the original Pete Atkin vinyl albums are available on CD to meet the demand, which can satisfy itself directly through the shop at the exemplary website www.peteatkin.com without going near a high-street record store: a very satisfactory development from our angle, because the music business in its unreconstructed form found it all too easy to lose our work in the shuffle. One consequence of this encouraging rebirth is that Atkin and I are back on the road at the eleventh hour, touring a song show in both Britain and Australia. After thirty years I am once again choking on the nosh in motorway cafes, and writing song lyrics in my down time between gigs. (As you can gather, I have dusted off the old vocabulary, if not the old flared trousers and polyester paisley shirts.) Already there is a whole new album, called Winter Spring. Many of the song fans have shown an encouraging interest in my other work in verse, and it doesn’t seem impossible that the same interest might operate in the other direction. Not many poems are really lyrics in the sense that they can be set to music, but the idea is at least five hundred years old that there are lyrics which are really poems, give or take the odd stretch where only the melody can make sense of the scansion. The connection suits my prejudices and indeed my practice. In poetry I try not to write anything that can’t be said, and it is a short step from saying to singing, although a tricky enjambement will often turn the step into a limp. But with due allowance for the necessity to keep a lyric clear line by line and not too compressed, I try just as hard with a lyric as with a poem to say as much as possible in a short space, and the two superficially different enterprises belong together deep down: so deep down, in fact, that I often don’t know, when the first phrase comes, whether the finished piece will end up on stage or on the page.

Another section, at the end of the book, is formed from a single poem, my mock epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World. The opus was written for performance at the ICA in June 1974, with myself as the narrator, Martin Amis in the role of the eponymous hero and Russell Davies brilliantly incarnating all the other roles, the models for which, in many cases, were sitting, and sometimes writhing, in the auditorium. The text was subsequently published as a limited-edition pamphlet by the New Review, and later as a book by Jonathan Cape, with illustrations by the aforesaid, omnicompetent Davies. It did well enough as a publication to tempt me into folie de grandeur, and over the next three years I published annual mock epics on different subjects. In the introduction to Other Passports I could be heard still harbouring the illusion that the four long poems might one day be reprinted as an integral work. Since then it has become clear even to me that only the first poem has a right to life. Its three sequels have all dated incurably, so I must let them go, with due anguish for the effort they took and the ambitions I rested in them. In this form as in any other, including the television script, I have always written everything as carefully as if it was meant to last forever, and in the full knowledge that I would be lucky if even a few things did. If you could tell in advance which project had the wings to dodge oblivion, you could go easy on all the others. Alas, it doesn’t work that way. As Peter Cook once said, the BBC is full of transvestites, but we can’t tell which ones they are.

Peregrine’s quest, however, goes on, and always will. There is always someone like him: goggle-eyed at the splendour of the literary world and aching to be part of it. (I can remember when he was me.) But if the bedazzled young Perry was wrong about the glamour of it all, he was right in his capacity for admiration, and especially in his admiration for the poets. Even among the careerists and the poetasters, there are few who have ever made a name without writing at least one stanza that got into the common memory, and they could not have done that without sacrificing, at least for a short time, their ordinary pleasures to the stringent demands of the enemy. His modus operandi is to invade the mind with a single phrase, and then take over your life until you find all the other phrases that belong with it in a tight perimeter that excludes the ones that don’t. Should you succeed, he retreats, and you may return to your other responsibilities. The surest mark of the incurable poet, the lifer, is to fear, rather than hope, that the enemy might not attack again. By that measure, and for what it is worth to say so, this book is not a supplement to my writing life, but at the heart of it. Poetry as a career, perhaps not: but as a mental condition, certainly. What kind of treatment might be appropriate for the mental condition is for the reader to decide. There were critics who recommended a straitjacket, but I have heard less from them as time goes by. If he lives long enough, the patient takes over the asylum.

— London, 2003

Original Introduction to Other Passports: Poems 1958–1985

During thirty years of writing verse, one hopes to have improved, but can only have done so by becoming more self-critical, a development which tends to winnow the crop in advance of the harvest. Therefore I am pleased to find some things asking to be kept even from early on. If it does not sound too grand to say that there was an initial phase, it was the ten-year period in which I wrote what were meant to be lyric poems. These mainly went into university magazines and newspapers either in Sydney or in Cambridge, and in the pages of those publications most of them demand to lie undisturbed. Though I never had what it took to be obscure, clarity still had to be worked for. Local outbreaks of straightforwardness from the early part of this struggle are here preserved under the title Earlier Verse, not because I want to disown them but because even at their most transparent they try so hard to disown me. To write in his own voice is every poet’s object, and my voice, I have since realized, was the prosaic one I speak with. It was so close to hand that it took an age to reach.

A big help along the way was a second phase, not represented here. At Cambridge I began writing song lyrics for the music of my fellow undergraduate, Pete Atkin. In the next eight years we published half a dozen record albums. I never wrote from a surer instinct. But there came a point, while I was still writing song lyrics, when another instinct awkwardly insisted that I was not yet quite through with writing verse. The awkwardness lay in the fact that the new urge was theatrical. Having my song lyrics performed had given me a taste for going public. My mock epic poem Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage was the brazen outcome. Eventually it had three successors, and all four mock epics might one day appear together in a single volume suitably annotated, but here I need only say that before attempting that first, long, parodic poem-for-performance I wrote a number of isolated parodies, imitations and lampoons, most of which were first published under the name of Edward Pygge.

Hard news about Edward Pygge might prove useful to those scholars who concern themselves with the London Literary World in its more subterranean aspects. Pygge’s activities were designedly shrouded in mystery, but by now there is a new generation of literati on the scene to whom the mystery looks like a conspiracy. It never was. Pygge simply happened. In his heyday he was three people. Ian Hamilton invented him, and composed, mainly for the pages of that astringent little magazine the Review, his first withering attacks on current poetic fashion. My own additions to the swinish canon were made in order to generate more material for a one-night literary spectacular presented at the ICA in the Mall. Rehearsed irregularly at the Pillars of Hercules in Greek Street, Soho, and unofficially known as the Edward Pygge Revue, the show was produced by Hamilton and myself but stolen outright by Russell Davies, who made a dramatic, unheralded appearance in the role of Pygge. Seemingly just off a plane from Chicago, Davies wore a dark suit, darker shirt, white tie, pointed shoes, and a black fedora with the brim pulled low over the eyes. He carried a violin case under his arm as if it contained a Thompson sub-machine gun loaded ready for action. He read our Pygge poems in a variety of voices to stunning effect. It should also be said that his own Pygge poems, when he could be persuaded to write them, were of deadly accuracy and unmatched inventiveness. He had that flair. The last two lines of ‘The Wasted Land, for example, were supplied by Davies sotto voce, or perhaps blotto voce, as he sipped a pint at rehearsal. I appropriated them without compunction.

A man to respect, a back-room boy, an itinerant torpedo whose power depended on the obscurity of his turned-up coat collar, Edward Pygge found his reputation turning into fame, with all of its attendant dangers. On two occasions there were double-page spreads of Pygge poems in the New Statesman. Pygge started showing up in the same paper’s weekly competition. He became a handy sobriquet for anyone who had a spoof to launch. The feminist termagant Edwina Pygge put in an appearance. Obviously it would have been only a matter of time before Edward and Edwina were joined by Kedward Pygge and their Nordic cousin, Hedwig Pygge. The star having gone nova, he duly dissipated into a nebula. Occupied by long confections far out of scale with Pygge’s pinpoint focus, I forgot that I had ever been part of the collective brain beneath that dangerously angled black hat.

As well as the mock epics which are not here, I wrote verse letters which are. The first seven of these were published in book form under the title Fan-Mail, a term which Philip Larkin, in a letter, correctly pointed out should not have a hyphen. A slim volume verging on the flimsy, it was reviewed like the plague but did me good. The different verse forms I adopted were identical in their salutary discipline. It sounds like masochism and sometimes felt like it, but in the long run the exigencies of rhyme and metre made plainness mandatory by revealing would-be profundities as fudge. Here I have felt bound to discard only the first verse letter I wrote. Addressed to John Fuller, it was too clumsy to keep, in view of the high standards of craftsmanship he has set for those poets of his generation who have followed his example in producing, or trying to produce, urbane and entertaining public verse.

The only other things I have subtracted from the Fan-Mail verse letters are the italicization, extra capital letters and cognate olde worlde furniture which excused them as a deliberate throwback, when I should have admitted that I meant every word of them. I have included two verse letters written less apologetically later on, the ones to Michael Frayn and Craig Raine, and in the same section put two birthday poems, for Anthony Thwaite and Gore Vidal. This whole intermediate phase of extended rhyme-scheming was rounded out, symbolically if not chronologically, by my fourth mock epic Charles Charming’s Challenges, for which the West End critics demanded that its perpetrator be transported to Botany Bay, and were not to be mollified by the information that he was born there. Adopting a new disguise as a novelist, I discreetly vacated the poetic scene.

While hiding out through a long winter, I remembered Pygge. Having found a legitimate freedom of language through strict form, I was ready to recapture, in propria persona this time, my share of Pygge’s laconic anarchy, his mimetic disdain, his heroic disinclination to be impressed. It occurred to me that the poems I had written under his name were the first that had been entirely mine — the reason that I reproduce them here, minus the porcine pseudonym. A strange characteristic of parody is that by tightening your grip on someone else’s throat you can loosen your own tongue. Pygge would pitch his voice at any level that suited the case, shade it to any tone. Either he trusted his own personality to come through anyway or else he simply didn’t give a damn. Now that he had finished copying everybody else, I resolved to copy him.

The shorter pieces grouped under the heading Recent Verse were composed in the euphoria of this very elementary breakthrough. Taking strict form from my longer poems and polyphonic courage from Pygge, I wrote them in matching stanzas when the occasion demanded, and free verse when it did not. But the freedom would not have been the same without the discipline, nor the discipline without the freedom. In the compound of those two elements resides the only concept of the modern that I am willing to understand. Recent verse is a category which I hope I will go on adding to for the rest of my life. It turned out, however, that the urge to write longer poems was not extinct, merely dormant. They rose again in the form of verse diaries. ‘An Address to the Nation’ was the rehearsal for Poem of the Year. I include them both here, without the author’s note attached to the latter when it was first printed in book form. If these two verse diaries seem to take up a disproportionate space, it doesn’t mean that I value long poems more than short ones. But I don’t value them less, either. At any length, the aim is brevity.

— London, 1986