Poetry: Hudson Review review | clivejames.com
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Given the Gift of Time

by R S Gwynn, The Hudson Review, Spring 2009

"During fifty years of writing verse," begins Clive James in his introduction to Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958-2008, "I have never wavered from the conviction that the self-contained poem is the thing that matters." The problem presented here to readers is twofold: first, it runs against the grain of what James, excepting poets (or writers of verse) like himself, calls "the total achievement of a professional poet with a reputation," one of that tribe who has built careers "writing poems that could not be spoken aloud at all even in the merest moments of their language" and who have profited from the curious academic belief "that this development might even be considered an advance in the art form." The second is that James arrives on the shores of American poetry preceded by a reputation as a television celebrity and cultural critic who, though he is not as well known here as in his adopted Great Britain, is doubtless familiar to readers of Slate, where a good number of the essays in his recent bestseller, Cultural Amnesia, originally appeared. On the one hand, we are asked to read the poems of a relatively unknown poet, each on its own terms; on the other, we may be reminded that in order to write the poems of Clive James one has to be Clive James—globetrotter, intellectual-without-portfolio, media maven, inquisitor of the Spice Girls, and pal of Princess Di—and that it's not always easy separating the message from the messenger.

That caveat out of the way, I can report that Opal Sunset is a joy to read; and, if it's not always clear if one is enjoying the Poetry of Clive James or a collection of poems written by someone who happens to be named Clive James, it is nevertheless a pleasure to meet a poet so deliberately out of tune with the critical temper or, for that matter, "any field of creative endeavour that becomes a successful commodity." True, there may be one too many cameos by Elle MacPherson and one too many jeux d'esprit like "Bring Me the Sweat of Garbriela Sabatini" or "Last Night the Sea Dreamed It Was Greta Scacchi" that do go on a bit, but a book that begins like this is hard to resist:

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered.
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-praised effort sits in piles
In that kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.

I wouldn't ordinarily recommend picking out poems to read first on the basis of the table of contents alone, but James's titles—"Deckard Was a Replicant," "Johnny Weissmuller Dead in Acapulco," "Museum of the Unmoving Image," "The Australian Suicide Bomber's Heavenly Reward"—are beguiling enough to get anyone flipping the pages and ignoring the poet's careful arrangement.

It's not difficult to ascertain the poet of the canon whom James most admires. In an article on five favorite poetry collections he lists Yeats, Frost, Auden, Wilbur, and Larkin. Reaching further back, he might have added Byron, the guiding spirit behind his several ottava rima digressions, and his countryman A. D. Hope, who wrote the kind of poems for the "international English-speaking world" to which James also aspires. Of the moderns, Larkin, as one could predict, is the most persistent guide and thorn in James's flesh. "A Valediction for Philip Larkin" contains James's typical vices and virtues; at 166 lines (in the five-line stanza that Larkin used in "Reasons for Attendance") it rambles on, from James's learning of Larkin's death after landing in Nairobi, through several pages of witty though inconsequential travelogue:

And had I not observed the elephant
Deposit heaps of steaming excrement
While looking wiser than Immanuel Kant,
More stately than the present Duke of Kent?
You start to see why I was glad I went.

Which is to say, until I began to feel that the poet's chatty self-indulgence had got the better of him. Then, at precisely the point of no return, he finally manages to get down to Larkin's brassbound tacks:

You were the one who gave us the green light
To get out there and seek experience,
Since who could equal you at sitting tight
Until the house around you grew immense?
Your bleak bifocal gaze was so intense,

Hull stood for England, England for the world—
The whole caboodle crammed into one room.
Above your desk all of creation swirled
For you to look through with increasing gloom,
Or so your poems led us to assume.

The implicit envy here reminds me of Auden's "Who's Who," where "the greatest figure of his day ... sighed for one / Who, say astonished critics, lived at home." James has surely learned one lesson from the Sage of Hull, to write verse that doesn't "sound like poetry one bit, / Except for being absolutely it"; nevertheless, he must still rue the vast space that separates the poet from the gifted journalist, the one who is forced to admit, "Those who can't see the world in just one street / Must see the world. What else is there to do ... ?" Well, Byron wouldn't have been much of a poet either if he'd stayed home in Nottinghamshire instead of heading off for points south and east.

"Heading off," first from Australia to England and thence to almost everywhere else, has been such a defining characteristic of James's life that the consequent theme of "heading back" provides him with one of his richest veins. Australia, specifically Sydney, is revisited in the book's title poem and in several others, especially the marvelous "The Eternity Man," a narrative about the life of Arthur Stace, a near-illiterate homeless man who, after a religious conversion, spent the rest of his life on a singular mission, writing the word "Eternity" an estimated half-million times on the public sidewalks and walls of Sydney (a replica of Stace's flowing cursive, with lighted fifty-foot-tall letters, now adorns Sydney's Harbour Bridge). There are also affecting poems about and addressed to the poet's father, who died in an airplane crash returning from a Japanese prison camp in 1945, and about the death of his widowed mother, who "now ... wears / The same robes of forgetfulness you do." Finally, there is the touchy matter of James's long marriage and family life, about which he has been famously silent except to lament his shortcomings as husband and parent. "Anniversary Serenade," a frankly sentimental ("You are the stroke of luck I can't forget") yet touching love poem, manages to say the "private words addressed to you in public" that Eliot could muster only once; "The Nymph Calypso," the penultimate poem in the collection, is perhaps the best of the lot, becoming in context the poet's apologia for a life of Odysseus-like rambling. At its conclusion, having returned to Ithaca and reclaimed his throne and bed, our hero looks into Penelope's face

And saw Calypso. What the nymph would be,
Given the gift of time, was there made plain,
Yet still more beautiful. Penelope,
Because she knew that we grow old in pain
And learn to laugh or else we go insane,
Had life unknown to immortality,
Which never gets the point. 'Well, quite the boy,'
She murmured. 'And now tell me about Troy.'

Clive James can certainly tell us about Troy and a slew of other places. He may be known primarily for asking the questions, but his answers to the self-interviews contained here are the sort of things you simply cannot get from any other living poet.