Poetry: As Good as Heaney? | clivejames.com
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Prospect review of Angels Over Elsinore

The following is the text of an essay by Julian Gough that ran in the January 2009 issue of Prospect, under the unfeasibly flattering title “As Good as Heaney?”, which I presume was the editor’s choice. My thanks to Julian Gough for kindly making the text available after Prospect strangely decided to be coy about granting web access.

 As Good as Heaney? 

I’ve been reading Clive James since I was in short pants and he was in flares. Back then, it was impossible to predict where he would end up, because he was shooting off in all directions at once like a burning box of fireworks. What couldn’t he do?
From 1972 to 1976, James’s Observer television columns used riveting language to nail down the ephemera of an entire culture as it moved into a democratic age. It was only after the tapes were wiped that people realised it had been these ephemera that showed you what was happening. He twigged it first. In 1979, his Unreliable Memoirs did to its genre what Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint had just done to the novel. James admitted to flaws and inadequacies that nobody who wrote that well had ever owned up to before: the minor ones; the embarrassing ones. Liberating, brave, Unreliable Memoirs was also hugely influential; Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook is its charming but undisciplined bastard child. Then, from 1982, his ITV show Clive James on Television invented the reality TV aesthetic: a celebrity chuckling while ordinary people ate ants to get on television. The ordinary people were Japanese, from imported gameshow clips; but the British, shown it was possible, soon evolved into anteaters.
After the show, he’d go home (reading Tacitus on the tube, in the original), and write a poem about Egon Friedell. James was the barbarian who had travelled to the capital of the old empire and, casually mastering its every art, become more civilised than its natives. He was, and is, an inspiration to younger writers worldwide, whose backwaters lack role models.
In the later volumes of the memoirs, James constantly attacks himself for his selfishness, his ego. But I always used to think that—especially in the novels and poems—he wasn’t selfish enough. In looking up to so many writers and thinkers, he put himself down, and thus risked failing to reach the heights of his true potential. I now realise that what I saw as a flaw was in fact his greatest virtue as a poet and essayist.
All through these early and middle years, the essays and poems quietly punctuated the bigger stuff. Now, though, something unexpected is happening. The small stuff is starting to acquire a shape: it turns out to have been a grand, unified project after all. And it is noble; and it is successful. Here, he has achieved greatness. While our attention has been on the big fish—the novels, memoirs, television—the essays and poems have accumulated, year by year, like polyps making coral; until you realise that the most important thing isn’t the fish, it’s the reef, which makes all else possible.
When we talk on the phone, James says firmly: “I think that for anyone who writes poetry, it [the poetry] is the most important thing.” So—how good is the poetry? Well, things began to come into focus in 2003 with The Book of My Enemy, a collection of James’s verse from 1958 to 2003. It is a mansion of a book, built on classical lines—but also containing slot machines and a pool table. His excellent song lyrics and parodies both get their own wings; the Robert Lowells are savagely good, and will destroy Lowell for you. With this latest volume, Angels Over Elsinore (the collected verse from 2003 to the present), he has added a beautiful conservatory. The new poems again apply faultless technique to subject matter that ranges in weight from helium to promethium.
But let’s step back. These poems are dazzling—and, because of this, the reader may think they’re built to dazzle; and may then go on to wonder, as I did for years, why a poet of such gifts doesn’t loosen that total control of the words and see where they take him. So I ask him.
“I threw away surrealism early on. I thought I’d try and be clear and intelligible, at least on one level. A retreat in order to advance.”
It worked. He needed a base in truth and clarity, because he didn’t yet have a base in self. He would have floated away – as so many young poets do— in a second-hand drunken boat, down an endless, meandering river of bullshit. But it takes a precocious wisdom to realise that. Instead, he mastered the art of writing brilliant poems that contain no ambiguity (much harder work than it looks). There is a clear line of ethical argument running through each of them, superbly expressed. They look playful, but the words are always doing a specific job.
“I expect to be judged on each one. I’m a great believer in the stand-alone poem. And the stand-alone poem—you have to be able to stand by it. If you’re toying with any ethical conundrum then I think your position should be clear. For me, the essay and the poem are very close forms.” And his poems are beautifully, and formally, constructed to carry an idea. First there is the idea: then the poem.
It’s instructive to compare Clive James, poet, to that most famous living example of the type, Seamus Heaney. If the blaze of the television lights has left us squinting to get a clear look at James’s talent, the glint off the gold of Heaney’s Nobel is equally distracting. Clear the mind, though—read both by candlelight—and the talents come into focus as being not only of the same type but of the same order of magnitude.
To make the scales balance, you have to throw in the essays of both men. James is, on his best day, as good a poet, but he’s written fewer poems. Heaney is, on his best day, as good an essayist, but he’s written fewer essays. Both are morally scrupulous—careful not to be intoxicated by the ferment of their feelings. They have given up some of their power in order to be certain they are not doing evil. If, on many days, I prefer the wilder poems of more morally reckless poets (poets with far higher failure rates), I nonetheless always return—a little sulky and hungover—to Heaney and to James. Their murmur and boom are the voices of my conscience.
Many critics would refuse the comparison and call James superficial. They’re wrong. James is an absolute master of surface, and the great critic of surfaces, not because he is superficial but because he believes that the distortions on the surface tell you what’s underneath. Style is character. His simplicity isn’t simple and his clarity has depth. With the essays and the poems—which I think you have to consider as one great project—he’s built an immense, protective barrier reef around western civilisation.
With Cultural Amnesia in particular, he has audited a century of thinkers and writers, praised the heroes, damned the villains, and rescued the forgotten. The dead speak through him, and you should listen. He’s very close to being the least selfish writer we have, and to being the most valuable. James, like Heaney, is holding the pass of western civilization so that less responsible artists like me (and Russell Brand) can frolic in the hills.
          “I haven’t really published anything as a poem that I didn’t thoroughly believe in. I try not to finish anything that isn’t coming from a really solid idea. I don’t write poems for the sake of it.” And how. Because (and it took me too long to realise this) his poems are not built to dazzle, they’re built to enlighten. The poems are the special ops troops of his criticism. While the essays advance on a broad front, each of his new poems takes apart a selected target: a bridge (“Grace Cossington Smith’s Harbour Bridge”), a grove of trees (“Under the Jacarandas”). And, again and again, a painting (in “Woman Resting” it’s a Mancini nude, in “Ghost Train to Australia” a landscape by Jeffrey Smart, in “A Gyre from Brother Jack” an enigmatic, joyous painting by Jack Yeats.) And each of these poems is an ethical audit of what is being observed. The Book of My Enemy contains a bunch of them. A poem like “What Happened to Auden” (which states the moral case for refusing to get carried away by words) is a little miracle of intellectual compression; a mind expressing itself about as richly as it can.
“I certainly write poetry in order to keep myself disciplined as a prose writer, I always have. If you pay that kind of attention to a poem it will transfer to your prose; you watch every word, you watch the balance.”
The balance in his prose sentences is extraordinary, even when the sentence is just doing its job. And some of the most poetic writing is, I tell him, in the essays.
“Well, the forms are continuous with each other.”
Sometimes I’d love to see you just let rip.
“Yeah, that might be coming. You don’t know what’s coming next, and neither do I.”
The new poems about your father are very beautiful.
“Well that only became possible after my mother died.”
And the poems about your wife are gorgeous.
“I’ve been married 40 years, and it’s time to write these things. And the poets tend to leave that one out. Yeats was always writing lovesick poems to girl after girl, he’s something like 90 years old and having monkey gland injections… I loved writing ‘Anniversary Serenade.’ Sometimes you get a line and you think, wow, I’ve been waiting for that one for a long time. There’s a line about ‘the curving ribbon of a climbing kite.’ I saw that when I was a kid, and then you wait about 50 years, and you get the words for it. Or, let’s be frank, 60 years….”
Your emotional territory has really opened up in the last few years.
“Yes. Yes. That’s why I need more time. Because you get into what my friend Bruce Beresford calls the Departure Lounge, and two things happen: suddenly time really matters, you can hear the clock, and also you have all these freedoms, because you’ve got more of life to reflect on. There’s no young man’s version of the stuff I’m writing now.”
Clive James's father, as a young man, survived Changi POW camp, then slave labour in Japan. The plane flying him home, after the war, crashed. His body lies in Sai Wan War Cemetery, Hong Kong. He sacrificed his future so that his son could grow up (and think, and write), in freedom. Among the things the son has written is the recent, strong and true poem “My Father Before Me,” which ends “Back at the gate, I turn to face the hill, / Your headstone lost again among the rest. /I have no time to waste, much less to kill. /My life is yours; my curse, to be so blessed.”
I should have told James that to have become the man capable of writing both Cultural Amnesia and “My Father Before Me” is to have repaid that vast debt in full. But guys don’t really say that kind of thing.