Poetry: Opal Sunset — Contents | clivejames.com
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Opal Sunset : Introduction

During fifty years of writing verse, I have never wavered from the conviction that the self-contained poem is the thing that matters. I have written longer poems, but I always thought that they should not, in their constituent episodes, wander too far from the appreciable unity of the stand-alone poem which could be committed to memory and recited aloud by anyone who wanted to. A poem should make you want to say it even if you don’t understand it: that, indeed, is how you recognize it to be worth the effort of trying to understand.

Unfortunately, as I argued in my book of critical prose Cultural Amnesia, there is a penalty to be paid by any field of creative endeavour that becomes a successful commodity. Ceasing to be pursued for its own sake, poetry becomes a career move, and proves its academic prestige by deliberately putting itself out of reach of common appreciation. In the later part of the twentieth century the idea built up that a poet might go a long way towards writing poems that could not be spoken aloud at all even in the merest moments of their language, and that this development might even be considered an advance in the art form. There would be no local coherence, even in a single line. The poet would be appreciated through a ‘body of work’. As a consequence, the separable poems no longer needed to be the thing that counted most in the total achievement of a professional poet with a reputation. I have never trusted that idea, partly because, having been blessed, or cursed, with the knack of earning my bread in show business, I was seldom regarded as a proper professional poet, and for a long while had no poetic reputation to speak of, except perhaps as a kind of court jester who was occasionally allowed to perch in a window niche and sing a lament over the ruins of the night’s revelry.

In the course of time most of my earlier critics — the ones who were always keen to remind the world that I was only an entertainer — either died off or went silent, and I was allowed to have some kind of reputation anyway. But I still clung to the idea that the poem came first and the poet’s name came second. I didn’t think that a poet’s name should be remarked unless the poems were remarkable. That priority of valuation first got into my head when I was a student at Sydney University in the late 1950s. Modern poetry was not a subject on the course, and therefore I read it with redoubled passion. Though I paid proper attention to the longer works of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, even to the extent of memorising what struck me as the best bits, it was the shorter poems of W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice that got me in. When I first read Auden’s ‘September 1939’ I almost passed out from admiration, and MacNeice’s ‘Sunlight on the Garden’ I can still recite from memory, having learned it on the first day I saw it. The impact of these brief pieces was like a vision of love, and still is: even now, there are individual lyric poems, sometimes by people I have never previously heard of, that knock me sideways. In all my life, that is still the effect that I most hope to have myself, and each of the eighty-two poems in this book has been chosen in the hope that it might do that to someone who has never heard my name.

If a poet makes a name, it should evoke a particular tone of voice. One of my particular early favourites was E. E. Cummings, always spelt e. e. cummings in those days, both at his own insistence and out of a widely shared admission that he had earned the right to his personal orthography because he had done so much to light up the visual element of the poem on the page. I didn’t trust this latter claim for a minute. I adored his rhythmic swing and sexy humour, but his tricks of typography and layout seemed to me as mechanical as a rusting tractor, and just as obsolete. By now, the world-wide deployment of poetry that looks like shrapnel has wearied us of such effects, but the sad truth is that their chief inventors — Apollinaire got there before Cummings — wore them out instantly, because there was never any way you could say them. Considering that there was no way I could not say some of Cummings’s lyrics and satires, the putative inventiveness of his typographical graffiti looked like what it was: the compensatory razzmatazz of a failed painter.

But there was nothing failed about those Cummings poems that demanded to be spoken. Committing a couple of his love lyrics to memory, I recited them unprompted to potential girlfriends. Most of these remained potential, but they were impressed, as they ought to have been. Though he was much more of a natural fascist than I then realised, Cummings was magic when he was in love, and when being funny he was more magical still. ‘I sing of Olaf glad and big’ became my party piece. The urge to write party pieces of my own was born at about that time, and it has never left me, probably because I’m still trying to get better at it.

Having exiled myself to London in the early 1960s, I was short of outlets. The literary editor of the student newspaper in Sydney had regularly accepted my poems because I was the literary editor. In London I held no such post and had to get used to the idea of writing poems that were not published. Since I went on writing them anyway, the evidence accumulated that I was serious, in my motivation if not in my achievement. I had new examples now of what seriousness looked like. It wasn’t always solemn. Kingsley Amis (whose reputation as a novelist continues even now to mask his stature as a poet) was often outright funny, and Philip Larkin, my new top favourite, had such a range of tones that he could give sheer despair its enchanting moments. Larkin, indeed, was the exemplar of the poet whose creations were articulate in every part. But he exemplified the poet only in that he gave everything he had to each poem, including the love and energy that might have been devoted to a less restricted private life. He was dignified about his role, but he didn’t expect it to be taken at face value without the poems to sustain it.

Thus was a lasting lesson made apprehensible to anyone with ears to hear. It was the poems that counted. Larkin was the author of poems like ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ and ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. They were compulsorily sayable, and it was his profusion of sayable poems that made him a poet. As I forged on with my own efforts, the standard that I was falling below got higher and higher. At Cambridge I decided that Thom Gunn’s stronger poems came early on, and that the same applied to Ted Hughes. The same already applied to Robert Lowell, although the full emptiness of his careerist productivity still lay in the future. I liked those Marianne Moore poems that highlighted her phrase-making rather than her syllabic intricacy. When Robert Graves recommended Norman Cameron, I was embarrassed to find that I preferred the obscure Cameron to his luminous sponsor, because there were so few unarguably successful poems among Graves’s many, and so many among Cameron’s few. Solemnly I re-evaluated Dylan Thomas, having long ago realised that ‘Fern Hill’ was largely a put-up job, along with almost everything he had ever written longer than a page, but having finally realised that ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’ was a little masterpiece that justified a lifetime of midnight flits and borrowed money. Both at Cambridge and later on in Fleet Street, I would recite that poem in the pub and defy my helpless interlocutors to identify the poet. The mention of the raging moon usually gave it away.

In the work of all these poets and many others, the distinction became ever clearer between poems that were written out of inspiration and those — usually the overwhelming bulk — that were written to keep up the reputation. Part of Sylvia Plath’s tragedy was that her last poems were the most her, as it were; the brilliantly observed and imagined poem about her cut thumb outclassed so much of her previous work that had been sweated on (‘working on a book of poems’ was always a deadly phrase) to put her young name on the map. Among other Americans, it was most conspicuously Richard Wilbur that I revered for his high number of perfectly achieved things, but it was because I revered the things, not the public figure: he was dedicated and scholarly and clearly determined to last a long time, but what made him an exemplar was that he had written poems like ‘A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra’ and might write more. Many years later — too late to catch him while he was alive — I discovered Anthony Hecht through one poem in an old anthology. It was called ‘Japan’ and I thought it was perfect. I still do.

And so it went on for decade after decade of accumulating inspirations to fuel my own impulse. Sometimes it was a matter of rediscovering someone unfairly belittled early on. Edna St Vincent Millay’s best love sonnets were really a lot better than I had at first thought. Elinor Wylie, whose high-flown pretensions had long been laughed at when she was remembered at all, had written at least one poem (‘Wild Peaches’) so strongly phrased that it committed itself to my memory without permission. The same applied to Charlotte Mew, to Keith Douglas, to Mervyn Peake: each had at least one poem with its own life. (Mervyn Peake’s is about Belsen, and ought to be as famous as Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’.) In Australia, my ever-beckoning homeland, there was James McAuley. Why had I never realised that his quietly desperate lyric ‘Because’, with its mesmerising phonetic punch, put him up there with the very best of Kenneth Slessor and A. D. Hope?

In any language that I can read — there were several of them as the years went by — I was always looking for the poetic phrases that, as Eliot said, communicated before they were understood, and I always found that they had been looking for me. That feeling of being chosen by the language, I think, is a common property of all readers and writers of poetry: it’s the invasion of a body snatcher. But the takeover makes you more individual, not less. In Cambridge I had been published frequently in the university magazines, of which I was not always the literary editor; and later on, in Fleet Street, I got poems into the serious periodicals even while I was functioning as a TV critic and literary journalist. Then as now, I made a point of sending nothing out that I did not think sprang from a solid idea, and not just from the urge to gain recognition for an additional string to my bow. When I moved full-time into television I went on sending out any poem that I thought had a right to independent life. Finally I sent out a poem called ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered’, and even my most determined critics began to admit that I might have a voice. In the long run, that’s the only moment of validation that matters. One absorbs many an influence, but only in the cause of sounding more like oneself. To the extent that I can tell, I never copied anyone, and am still careful not to do so, except through the occasional admiring allusion. I don’t believe that poetry can fall into styles, periods or even into genres, because I don’t believe in poetry, as such. I believe in poems, which come one at a time, and out of nowhere, and prove themselves to be something substantial only by their impact, like meteorites.

Streaking in through your eye to lodge deep in your head, the strong line is always the first sign of a poem’s life. An arresting poem might have only a few of them, or even only one. (Very few admirers of William Empson’s mighty line ‘And now she cleans her teeth into the lake’ can recite the rest of the poem, but they all know that that line is by Empson, and know that a glittering handful of such lines are Empson.) But if it has no strong lines at all, then it doesn’t start. There can be such a thing as a counterfeit poem by the original author: an accomplished poem written in the poet’s own manner, recognizable at every point as a poem by him yet with nothing driving it except the habitual urge to add yet another poem to his store. He is likely to be especially submissive to that urge in later life. The results, alas, are often flat. They contribute to what the academics who draw a salary from studying him would like to call his body of work, or his total achievement, or his poetry. But as Robert Frost tried to warn them in advance, if they are not talking about the poet’s poems, they are usually talking about nothing. A poet courts such extended flatness when he starts to believe in his own career: an acreage of the self-similar, the architecture of a car-park.

Condemned by circumstance, for most of my life, to not having a career as a poet, I have sometimes fretted from the neglect, but always enjoyed the lack of responsibility. It could also be that I have enjoyed a crucial freedom. I have never been a prisoner of anything except the strangely inescapable duty to realise the idea when it comes. There are occasions when the idea itself is not real and never can be, and one works long and hard on something that refuses to come alive. Frequently the labour amounts to such an investment that one is reluctant to admit having given birth to a dud. I hope I have left most of those occasions out. Everything here, in its author’s opinion at least, is the result of the genuine bolt from the blue. Randall Jarrell, a classic case of the industrious modern poet who wrote only a few real poems among the many in his own manner, said truly that a poet must wait to be struck by lightning. All poets believe it but few wait.

The lightning strike is as unmistakable as it was for Lee Trevino on the golf course. But it comes so seldom, and hits so hard, that you can’t blame a literary operator for wanting to insure against its damnable infrequency. That, sadly, is the true story of modern formless poetry in general. Its aim is to insure against the occasional nature of inspiration by engaging in the continuous production of a kind of verbal plasma that can be cut off into marketable lengths. I only wish I could do it: life would be a lot easier. But I can’t shake the belief that the self-contained poem is the thing that matters. Nearing old age now, I have put in enough unpaid time at this activity to prove that the title of poet is one I might claim, if it is permissible to do other things and still claim it. My volume of collected verse, The Book of My Enemy, which came out in 2003, was greeted by the next generation of British and Australian critics in terms which must have set the previous generation spinning in their graves. They had so often found me guilty of sounding as if I were having too much fun, and now here were this new bunch suggesting that I just might be — with due allowance for the poisonously long half-life of television celebrity — some kind of poet after all.

But none of that will matter unless at least some of the pieces of writing in this much smaller book strike the reader as being poems. I have called it Opal Sunset because in my home city the sun goes down through a pink and azure sky, and because my beginnings are still with me. Indeed I have ended the book with the first poem I ever had published, fifty years ago. A student friend of mine learned it and quoted it back to me. I don’t think he was just hitting me for a cigarette, although I staked him to a whole pack as a reward. In a culture growing weak from forgetfulness, to be memorable should be the aim. Remembering is a sign of recognition. Whether from the poet or the reader, recognition of the poetic moment is unequivocal: suddenly nothing else counts, and for as long as the thing runs, your life has a new focus. The reader, however, is free to come and go. The poet has to stay. The poet is a lifer. Anyone who gets into the game will soon start wishing that there was a version of it with lower stakes, but there isn’t.

— London, 2008