Poetry: Collected Poems | clivejames.com
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Collected Poems

Picador UK hardback, 2016Norton USA hardback, 2016Picador Australia hardback, 2016

To Prue

Or v’è sola una piuma, che all’invito
Del vento esita, palpita leggera:
Qual sogno antico in anima severa
Fuggente sempre e non ancor fuggito.


A single feather sought out by the wind
Hesitates and lightly trembles,
As an old desire remains in a strict soul:
Always about to fly but not yet flown.

Quod si inseris me lyricis vatibus,
feriam sidera sublimi vertici.


If you rank me with the lyric poets,
my exalted head shall strike the stars.

Each man starts with his very first breath
To devise shrewd means for outwitting death.

James Cagney


In past collections I was always careful to list the publications in which my poems first appeared, and to thank their editors. But here at the end of a long life the full list would go on for pages, and the names of the editors would look like a mechanically historicist notation, especially since some of them are by now deceased. Almost in that condition myself, I feel justified in providing a mere sketch. Some names, however, were crucial in those times when I was either only just emerging as a poet, or else threatening to destroy my incipient literary reputation in the gaudy fire of celebrity accruing to regular appearances on television. No matter how well-known I got in all the wrong ways, the London editors Karl Miller, Ian Hamilton and John Gross still printed my poems, as did Claire Tomalin and Anthony Thwaite, nowadays the only survivors of that brilliant crew. Young writers of today sometimes look back in envy on the bustling cockpit of the London Literary World in the 1960s and 1970s, but unless they realize the decisive importance of the editors they miss the real story. The editors could write; which meant that the poets could not bluff them, and had to graft hard for prominence. In the back of the limousine to the studio, I was very aware that I might not look as if I were starving for my art.

In more recent times, after I retired from the small screen at the turn of the millennium, my personal picture clarified; and after I fell ill ten years later I necessarily looked almost as serious as a writer can get. In cold fact I went on writing because there were still some subjects waiting for their proper expression, so really I was beginning again. To help make that latter-day ambition seem worthwhile, the judgment of editors continued to play a part. Though the structure of literary journalism went on dissolving towards a condition of universal click-bait, there were still, at key points, highly qualified people on the lookout for work that might last; and I would particularly like to acknowledge the scrupulous attentions of Alan Jenkins at the TLS, Paul Muldoon at the New Yorker, Christian Wiman at Poetry (Chicago), Daniel Johnson at Standpoint, Tom Gatti at the New Statesman and Hugo Williams at the Spectator. In Australia, Les Murray at Quadrant has continued with his kind willingness to bring some of my work home: our country’s supreme poet would be an historically important editor and anthologist even if he had never written a poem of his own. Peter Rose at the Australian Book Review and Peter Craven at Best Australian Poems have also been generous with their hospitality. Sometimes a single editor, by taking a single initiative, can alter the geography of a poet’s ambition: during her time at the New Yorker, Tina Brown published my poem ‘What Happened to Auden’, and suddenly I saw the possibility of ranging across the Atlantic. In later years, and also in New York, Robert Weil has been a great encouragement by offering me access to his publishing labels at Norton and Liveright. The poems that have come to me in the recent period of my ill health have benefited greatly from close reading by Stephen Edgar, David Free, Tom Stoppard and two members of my immediate family, Prue Shaw and Claerwen James. Finally and as always, I should bless my luck in having attracted the curatorial advice and courage of Don Paterson at Picador: courage because for the editor of a lifetime collection to suggest to the poet that some of his poems might be better left out is to court tears and petulance. But if it is not done, the volume dies of its own dimensions; and after all those years as a professional entertainer I would not like to lose the virtues of keeping things brief.

Jacket Blurb (Picador edition)

Clive James’s ‘technically and emotionally heart-stopping poems’ (Spectator) have been delighting readers and winning awards for decades. His recent poems, which look back over his extraordinarily rich life with a clear-eyed and unflinching honesty, have brought him an even wider readership: some, such as ‘Japanese Maple’ (first published in the New Yorker in 2014), became global news events upon their publication. His collection Sentenced to Life was a phenomenal bestseller in the UK and in Australia, and his translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy was a Sunday Times top ten bestseller upon release.

In this book, James makes his own selection from over fifty years’ work in verse. From his early satires to his late poems of valediction, he proves himself to be as well suited to the intense demands of the short lyric as to those of the comic excursion. Collected Poems places James’s effortless fluency, his breath-taking thematic range, his lightly worn erudition and his emotional power on full display — and puts beyond dispute his position among the important poets of his time.

About the Author

Clive James is the author of more than forty books. As well as essays, he has published collections of literary and television ctriticism, travel writing, poetry and novels, plus five volumes of autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, Falling Towards England, May Week Was In June, North Face of Soho and The Blaze of Obscurity. As a television performer he appeared regularly for both the BBC and ITV, most notably as writer and presenter of the ‘Postcard’ series of travel documentaries. His translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and his 2015 collection Sentenced to Life were both Sunday Times bestsellers. In 1992 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia and in 2003 he was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for literature. He holds honorary doctorates from Sydney University and the University of East Anglia. In 2012 he was appointed CBE and in 2013 an Officer of the Order of Australia.

Praise for the poetry of Clive James

‘James writes with exquisite perception and surgical precision: he is a poet of powerful argument and emotional force’
The Times

‘James has the primary, sine qua non gifts of a poet. He rejoices in language, and he shows enormous skill in using it’
Sunday Telegraph

‘Wise, witty, terrifying, unflinching and extraordinarily alive, both a great pleasure and a chill in the nerves’
— A. S. Byatt, Guardian

Archive Editor’s Note

As with the Other Passports and Opal Sunset collections, all of the works included in this volume have previously been published in other collections of Clive’s verse. I have once again taken the decision to omit these titles from the local section of the main (left-of-screen) menu, to avoid duplication. Instead I have generated a Contents page which indexes them all, each title acting as a clickable link to the page containing the relevant poem, catalogued (with some exceptions) under the name of the publication first containing it. From there the ‘Fast Track’ blue buttons (bottom of page) will step you through the pages of that publication rather than this collection, but should you prefer to stick with the Contents page your Web-browser’s ‘Back’ button will return you there.