Poetry: Collected Poems : Introduction | clivejames.com
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For this collection I have chosen, from a lifetime’s work in verse, only those poems and lyrics that I believe might stand alone. Previous selections — Other Passports, The Book of My Enemy and Opal Sunset — were already winnowings, and this volume makes even more of a point out of setting things aside that once cost many nights of labour. At the time, I thought that anything I wrote was indispensable, but eventually, sometimes after only a decade or so, a sense of proportion came to the rescue. With a few exceptions, my longer poems have been left out on the grounds that they were tied to their time; although one day Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage might return in a book of its own, because its picture of the London Literary World still strikes me as true even if most of its cast have by now been carried from the stage. The excitement of that clueless young man as he took his place among the poets and the critics was still with him as he met his doom.

Excitement and poetry ought never to be alien to one another, but there is always a tendency, in the homeland of poetry in English, to look on the fabulously rich literary heritage as an established church. The privilege of the American, Irish and Australian poets — not to mention poets from Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, India and the Caribbean, and there might be one from Belize — is to provide fresh reminders that the tradition is not a litany, but a permanent upheaval, not to say a carnival. As an Australian in England for more than half a century, I have never felt cause to stop setting some of my poems in my homeland. The British readership likes hearing about it, and nowadays even the Americans can make a fair stab at guessing where Australia is. As for the critics, guardians of the ramparts, eventually they have to listen to the readers: and anyway the jokes about Australian culture being a contradiction in terms are by now so out of date that only a politician would use them, out of his head on Australian wine as he does so. There are quite a few poems about Australia here, even more of them near the end than near the beginning; but really they are all about the English language, which is the powerhouse at the heart of the subject. Even a poem about nothing would have to be about that.

Poems about nothing can be useful to anyone who wants to combine cult status with academic respectability, but that combination always struck me as something dependent on an abstract concept of literature, instead of arising from the sung lyricism of the English lyric before Shakespeare — the same sung lyricism that my daughters heard when they bopped around with Abba’s greatest hits blasting in their headphones, and that is heard today by my granddaughter, aged ten, as she contemplates on YouTube the enthralling intricacies of Taylor Swift singing ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’. When the poem strays too far from the song it risks death by refinement. Luckily, from my Cambridge Footlights days onward, I was in a position to test this idea through my working partnership with Pete Atkin. Some of the lyrics I wrote for him are here. The music is on his albums, and shows what the form and its punctuation are meant to be like: but the lyric on the page still has the phrasing, which, for me, is the bedrock of the whole thing. If a poem or a lyric does not end up studded with turns of phrase that I had no idea were going to happen, I should not have begun it.

But it’s easy to lay down the law now, when the light is fading. The trick is to follow your creative principles in the long years before you even know how to define them. I hope that younger readers, especially, will find this book to be a progression from one clarity to the next, even when it seems like one mystery after another. That’s just how it was for me.

Cambridge 2016