Poetry: Opal Sunset | clivejames.com
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Opal Sunset

Selected Poems, 1958 – 2008

Norton, USA, 2008Picador UK, 2009Picador Australia, 2009
Robert Weil

Clive writes (for the original clivejames.com)

My first book of verse to be published in America, Opal Sunset is a selection from poems written during the fifty years between 1958 and 2008. About half the poems in the book previously appeared in The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958-2003. The other half had not yet appeared in volume form when Opal Sunset was published in New York by Norton in September 2008, although some of them were already scheduled to appear in a new collection, Angels Over Elsinore, to be published in Britain in November 2008 by Picador. The American poetry market is very resistant to invasion by foreigners from unknown countries, so I was glad to find that Opal Sunset was noticed by such publications as The New York Times Book Review and The Village Voice. A British edition of Opal Sunset is scheduled to be published by Picador in 2009.

A Note on the Text

The poems in this selection are drawn from two main reservoirs of work. In the contents list, all the poems up to and including ‘The Great Wrasse’ (a word which the people of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef pronounce with two syllables, to rhyme with sassy) are selected from The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958–2003, a much larger volume which is still in print in Britain and Australia. The last poem in the contents list, ‘As I See You’, also appears in that book, leading the section marked ‘Earlier Verse’ in its role as the first poem of mine that ever saw the light of day: I have employed it as a closing number here because of the neatness with which it signifies that I somehow, at the age of eighteen, started off with my sense of impending doom already intact. Apart from all those poems, no poem on the list from ‘Status Quo Vadis’ (whose title is a howler I stole from the movie Strictly Ballroom) to ‘The Nymph Calypso’ has yet appeared in volume form anywhere, although all of them first appeared in any one of several newspapers and magazines whether in Britain, Australia or the United States.

The book thus breaks roughly into halves, with the selected work of my first forty-five years as a poet forming the first half, and the selected work of the next five forming the second; but I hope the apparent disproportion doesn’t mean that I have been less rigorous about choosing the later poems. What has happened to me in recent years will be familiar to anybody who does this sort of thing for a living: I hit a productive streak. I was just lucky enough to hit it late, when a lot of things I had always wanted to say were at last ready to be written down. It isn’t so much that you finally get good enough to say it. It’s that it finally agrees to be said.


My thanks are due to the editors of The New Yorker, the New York Times, Poetry (Chicago), the Australian, the Australian Book Review, the Australian’s Review of Books, the Australian Literary Review, the Monthly, Meanjin, Encounter, the Listener, the London Review of Books, the New Review, the New Statesman, the Liberal, the Spectator, the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement, in which many of the poems from which these were selected first appeared. Even when I failed to gain acceptance, I always got consideration; and since nobody wants to be published by the kind of editor who prints everything, I have always tried not to gripe when one of them bounces my latest effort. Often enough, they are right, and, more than often enough, they actually print one of my poems, an event that has never lost its thrill for me in half a century. Like any old hand I like to think myself cool, but I have never quite managed to take it for granted when I see my poem on the page. They say that when he landed after his first trip through the sound barrier, even Chuck Yeager cracked a smile.

Speaking of editors, my special thanks should go to Alan Jenkins, Karl Miller, Anthony Thwaite, Claire Tomalin, John Gross, Tina Brown, Alice Quinn, Christian Wiman, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Ben Ramm, Mark Amory and the late Ian Hamilton, all of whom, at various times, played uncomplaining host to the kind of guest who not only moves in, but spreads himself out. I should also, on a point of national pride, acknowledge the generosity of Shelley Gare, Les Murray, Peter Porter, Peter Rose, Sally Warhaft, Luke Slattery, Donata Carrazza, Peter Craven, Judith Beveridge and Stephen Romei, for their gratifying conviction that some of my work in verse should be brought home to Australia, the land that continues to inspire it all, even when I have been so long away. I should say at this point, however, that I am nowadays very often shuttling between my two homelands, and that several poems in this book were composed at high altitude. The Atlantic run, also, has become a steadily more favourable mobile atelier for verse, especially when the aircraft is surfing in the jet-stream: somehow the extra speed gets into one’s scansion.

I should also thank my book editors in London, Tom Maschler, Peter Straus and Andrew Kidd, for their generosity in countenancing the sort of publishing venture that joins the bottom line to the far horizon. Finally, my thanks to Robert Weil in New York, who took a chance on my prose book Cultural Amnesia, and now compounds the audacity by introducing an almost unknown foreign poet to an American audience. Ideally, of course, the poet doesn’t have to be known. The book of poems only has to be good. But someone has to publish it first.

See Also:


Contents in full

Jacket Blurb

Opal Sunset marks the exuberant introduction of Clive James’s poetry to an American audience.

Praised after the publication of Cultural Amnesia as one of the finest prose stylists of his generation, Clive James is now, with the publication of this collection, being granted recognition as the poet he has always been.

For much of his long career it was hard to realize that James’s gift for poetry underlay his achievements in other fields. First as a television critic on Fleet Street, and later as a television personality in his own right, he achieved such fame for writing the way he spoke that his poetry was regarded as an idiosyncratic sideline, as if no celebrity could write worthy verse. A conundrum presented itself: how could a serious poet also be a television star? But for James, a duty to the discipline of verse was always fundamental, and his accumulated poetic output became impossible to ignore.

As early as the 1970s, James’s long, mock epic “Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World” received widespread attention in his adopted England, while later, his satirical short poem “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered” not only became a standard verse quoted at fancy dinner parties but entered the culture as lines to be memorized by unpublished writers everywhere. James was suddenly in the odd position of having written famous poems well before he became a famous poet. Finally, the publication of a volume of his collected verse, The Book of My Enemy, earned him in 2003 the reputation as a serious poet that he has long deserved.

Less inhibited by fixed categories, a new generation of critics has confirmed what James’s public has instinctively known, that he brings his poems to life with all the resources to be found in his prose: wit, imagination, social observation, and a dazzling play of language. In addition, his poems have an unmistakably characteristic rhythm that makes it obligatory to read them aloud. Switching between strict stanzas and free forms as the occasion suits, James brings a compulsively readable coherence to either mode; and always, over and above the binding force of his metrical assurance, there is a lyricism that brings even the plainest statement to extra life, and which often enters deeply into realms of human emotion. His later poems about the tragedy that struck his mother and father, for example, show an intensity of regret that mark his maturity as a poet and bring out his unashamed nostalgia for his homeland, Australia.

Opal Sunset is a treasure chamber of epigrammatic jewels to which the reader will return again and again.

CLIVE JAMES, the author of Cultural Amnesia and As of This Writing, writes for Slate, the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review. His poetry and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker. He lives in London.


“At the writing desk, many poets are on their best behavior, but not Clive James, who allows his inner Byron to emerge — satiric, scathing at times, and keenly attuned to the frivolities of the day. Opal Sunset is a generous helping of his very best, guaranteed to lift the spirit and raise the eyebrow”
—Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate

“Clive James is more or less the only living poet who manages to be both entertaining and moving — a combination of abilities that requires a rare kind of genius, but which looks easy when James achieves it.”
—Edward Mendelson, editor of Collected Poems: W. H. Auden

“Clive James’s poetry has been greatly overshadowed by his prose, as is inevitable, but it is a significant achievement — taut, musical, and essayistic in ways that we haven’t seen since the eighteenth century but that feel absolutely contemporary.”
—Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry

“Lovers of Clive James’s wise essays and witty memoirs may have overlooked his poems; there are only so many hours in the reading day. But this selection of his verse shows him just as wise and witty in elaborate rhyme as in plain reason, and with an unexpected emotional note, poignant, direct, and pained, that may remind American readers of Billy Collins, Richard Wilbur, and, from moment to moment, more transatlantically, of Larkin himself.”
—Adam Gopnik, author of Paris to the Moon


Hudson Review

Australian Book Review


New York Times Book Review

Village Voice