Poetry: Injury Time | clivejames.com
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Injury Time

Picador, 2017

To the nurses, doctors and staff of

Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, England:

with all my thanks for these unexpected recent years.

simplex munditiis

Plain in thy neatness.

— Horace

An author is not to write all he can, but only all he ought.

— Dryden


When I locked up the final text for my previous volume of short poems, Sentenced to Life, I thought, rather grandly, that there would be no time left except perhaps for a long poem that might gain in poignancy by being left unfinished. I should have known better than to flirt with the metallic music of downed tools. Before my avowedly last collection was even in proof, new short poems had begun to arrive, and after a year or so it was already evident that they might add up to a book, once I solved the problem of how to write about, say, the death of Ayrton Senna. (Surely an appropriate obsequy would need a thousand-horsepower sound-track.) In my experience, it’s never a book before certain key themes have been touched on, but once they are, it always is, or anyway it’s going to be. It helps, of course, to have a publisher who thinks the same; and on that point Don Paterson at Picador was once again the ideal mentor.

For this collection, I have kept the rule of providing notes at the end of the volume, but only if they help to explain factual points that might be obscure. If the note explained the poem itself, the poem would be incomplete. In my later stages I have got increasingly keen on that precept. Explaining itself is what a poem does. Helping me to be certain that any new project really did have something intelligible to say for itself, David Free, Stephen Edgar, Tom Stoppard, my wife Prue Shaw and my elder daughter Claerwen James saw nearly all these poems in their early stages, and often I would also run them past Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. Though not all of these busy people thought everything I had written was marvellous, if any of them showed doubts it was always enough to make me think twice. But the day has not yet quite arrived when circulation by e-mail will count as tending an audience. Print still rules, and finally the editors of the periodicals will have to see and judge what the author fancies to be a finished product.

Once again I must especially thank Alan Jenkins of the TLS, Dan Johnson of Standpoint, Paul Muldoon of the New Yorker, Tom Gatti of the New Statesman, Sam Leith of the Spectator and Les Murray of Quadrant, while welcoming a new and generous grandee to my range of principal editorial mentors: Sandy McClatchy of the Yale Review. I should also thank the Kenyon Review, one of whose operatives has only just now written to discuss a printing schedule for a couple of poems that I can’t remember having sent. I go to sleep and dream of editorial ninjas breaking into my study and microfilming the MS of the unfinished epic in my bottom drawer. Remembering how wrong I turned out to be when I thought the poems in Sentenced to Life would be my last, I should say at this point that I had to think twice before giving this book a title suggesting that the game might soon be over. As it happens, I am writing this introductory note on the morning after an operation at Addenbrooke’s in which items of machinery — some of them, in my imagination, as big as the USS Nimitz — had been sent sailing up my interior in search of organic damage. I would have liked to be awake, in order to pick up the running commentary of my lavish range of nurses and surgeons. Alas, the relaxing agent they had given me relaxed me all the way to sleep, so the only interesting dialogue I heard was from the actors in Fantastic Voyage, which, by a trick of senescent memory, had been running in my waking brain for days beforehand, and was now running, even more vividly, in the depths of my slumber. From dreams of Raquel Welch navigating between the platelets I awoke to be told that I could once again safely have breakfast.

Or perhaps even safely begin writing something new. And indeed even now, a full six years into the trajectory of my dying fall, I do still have plans for other books, including a funeral oratorio which might celebrate at some length the very fact that my confidently forecast imminent demise turned out to be not as imminent as all that. There could also be a clinching volume of memoirs, its credibility endorsed by the bark of a Luger from my study late at night.

But I can be fairly sure that I am by now more or less done with the short lyrics. They take more concentration, and therefore more energy, than any other form of writing. I used always to keep the rule that if a poem started forming in my head then I should stick with it until it was finished. Here in my hideout in the Cambridge fens, in the middle of a dreary winter, with the prospect of further medical intervention retreating only to loom again, that rule begins to look too expensive. I can still imagine myself, however, feeling compelled to break it. Finally a poem can demand to be read only because it demanded to be written, and it is notable that the dying Hamlet is still balancing his phrases even when young Fortinbras has arrived outside in the lobby. At one stage I thought of calling this little volume The Rest Is Silence, but that would have been to give myself airs. It is quite pretentious enough to evoke the image of an exhausted footballer still plugging away with legs like lead.

Cambridge, 2017

Jacket Blurb

The publication of Clive James’s Sentenced to Life was a major literary event. Facing the end, James looked back over his life with a clear-eyed and unflinching honesty to produce his finest work: poems of extraordinary power that spoke to our most elemental emotions.

Injury Time finds James with more time on the clock than he had anticipated, and all the more determined to use it wisely — to capture the treasurable moment, and think about how best to live his remaining days while the sense of his own impending absence grows all the more powerfully acute. In a series of intimate poems — from childhood memories of his mother, to a vision of his granddaughter in graceful acrobatic flight — James declares ‘family’ to be our greatest blessing. He also writes beautifully of the Australia where he began his life, and where he hopes to 'reach the end'. Throughout Injury Time, James weaves poems which reflect on the consolation and wisdom to be found in the art, music and books which have become ever more precious to him in his last years.

The poems in this moving, inspirational and unsentimental book are as accomplished as any he has ever written; indeed the unexpected gift of James’s Injury Time shows him to be in the form of his life.

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.


‘One of the most important and influential writers of our time’
Sunday Times
‘A worthy successor to his 2015 collection, Sentenced to Life ... Injury Time, on the whole, reminds us that James is, and has always been, a poet of clarity and control. His mastery of metre and rhyme is indisputable ... Some of the more personal ones about his looming-but-deferred death have so much in common with the tone and diction of late poems by John Donne that it can seem as if the intervening four centuries had never happened ... If Injury Time proves to be James’s last collection (as it well may not) it will be a more than memorable testament to have left behind’
Sydney Morning Herald
‘James has always been a fine poet with a considerable mastery of traditional forms as well as a marked capacity for the elegiac ... Injury Time is a significant achievement and lasting testament to a man who is a marvel of a wordsmith and who in the face of a death sentence that has allowed him injury time has written some of his best poems ... this is a book by a true artist. It will ring in the ears and tug at the heart of any reader’
Peter Craven, The Australian
Injury Time heads the latest/last collection of his poems, which are rightly heralded as “a major literary event”. Though the title’s sporting metaphor is characteristic, it has very little to do with “sport”. The poems are as widely ranging and inventive as ever, both in their form and their content. They range daringly from a splendidly substantial celebration of the deaf Beethoven to various self-revealing meditations on his own carcinoma. The latter can be admired at full strength in “Night-Walkers Song”, but his playful wit and imagination are as ever wonderfully varied’
Katherine Duncan-Jones,
Times Literary Supplement, Books of the Year 2017


The Guardian

The Times Literary Supplement

Sydney Morning Herald