Poetry: Sentenced To Life | clivejames.com
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Sentenced To Life

Poems 2011–2014

Picador, 2015
to Prue

If you’re the dreamer, I’m your dream, but when
You wish to wake I am your wish, and grow
As mighty as all mastery, and then
As silent as a star
Ablaze above the city that we know
As Time: so very strange, so very far.


I should thank Prue Shaw, Deirdre Serjeantson, Tom Stoppard, David Free and Stephen Edgar for reading these poems as they came out, and for saying what they thought. As in my two previous collections, Don Paterson helped me choose the order and bring the manuscript to a workable finality. I owe special thanks to my elder daughter Claerwen for planting the Japanese maple tree in my garden. As for my younger daughter and my entire family, and for how they looked after me at this fragile yet busy time, I lack the words to thank them sufficiently, except to say that the words might be somewhere in this little book; too much decked out with the trappings of premature sorrow, perhaps; but any strength of form is surely a reflection of how well I was guarded against despair by the joy and kindness with which I was surrounded. As often happens with poetry, the ostensible meaning and the deeper meaning might be at variance. To put it less grandly, you can say that you’re on your last legs, but the way you say it might equally suggest that you could run a mile in your socks.

There are editors and poetry editors to thank: of the New Yorker, the Yale Review, the New Statesman, the Spectator, Standpoint, Quadrant, the Australian and the British Medical Journal: Supportive and Palliative Care. But above all other editors I must thank Alan Jenkins of the TLS, who encouraged me in the notion that a poet who is up against it might well make a subject out of being up against it. At my base in Cambridge, Susie Young and Dawn Crow combined their efforts to guide a stream of electronic manuscripts into my website and out again. I should also thank the editors and anchor-persons of various radio and television stations in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Canada who kindly asked me to read some of these poems aloud: an offence, perhaps, to those who believe that a poem should be merely overheard, but an unbeatable way of barking for one’s act.

Note (from Collected Poems)

The epigraph is yet another borrowing from Rilke, whose lost tomb is so often plundered that there ought to be a five-star hotel on the site. He had a tone of sex-soaked spirituality that nobody wants to own but anybody might need to rent, like morning dress. The translation is my own.

Jacket Blurb

In his new collection of poems — several of which have already become famous before their book publication — Clive James looks back over an extraordinarily rich life with a clear-eyed and unflinching honesty. There are regrets, but no trace of self-pity in these verses, which — for all their open dealings with death and illness — are primarily a celebration of what is treasureable and momorable in our time here.

Again and again, James reminds us that he is not only a poet of effortless wit and lyric accomplishment: he is also an immensely wise one, who delights in using poetic form to bring a razor-sharp focus to his thought. Miraculously, these poems see James writing with his insight and energy not only undiminished but positively charged by his situation: Sentenced to Life represents a career high point from one of the greatest literary intelligences of the age.

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 was a Sunday Times bestseller and his collections of verse have been shortlisted for many prizes. 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.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same


‘Here are these amazing works, highly praised, technically and emotionally heart-stopping poems reflecting gratefully on a life ... James’s famous voice twinkles even in its weakened state.’
— Douglas Murray, Spectator
‘Clive James’s poem “Japanese Maple” is more than a poem now... It is a piece with the other productions of Clive James, intelligent, witty, skilful, highly crafted and, under the lightness, serious: deadly serious in fact.’
— George Szirtes, Guardian
‘James’s confrontation with his approaching death is nothing short of inspirational’
— Joan Bakewell, Independent
‘Wise, witty, terrifying, unflinching and eaxtraordinarily alive ... both a great pleasure and a chill in the nerves’
— A S Byatt, Guardian
‘James has approached the time of his vanishing with grace and good humour, not sentimentality or anger. These poems are death-haunted but radiant with the felt experience of what it means to be alive’
Financial Times
‘Here are these amazing works, highly praised, technically and emotionally heart-stopping poems reflecting gratefully on a life ... James’s famous voice twinkles even in his weakened state’
— Douglas Murray, Spectator
‘James’s recent poems ... represent the very best work James has ever done in verse’
— Jason Guriel, New Republic

Clive’s introduction for the original clivejames.com Website

I never expected to see Sentenced to Life published in my time. I didn't even expect that there would be enough poems to fill a thin pamphlet. When I got sick in 2010, I wrote some poems while I lay in hospital in either Cambridge or New York — a few of those poems were done in time for the publication of Nefertiti in the Flak Tower — but when I got out of hospital I thought that my energy would keep on draining away; and to complete a poem takes plenty of energy. When its first fragments arrive in your head like benevolent shrapnel, they demand to be assembled: and the process is the mental equivalent of heavy lifting. It's a big ask if you aren't breathing properly. But time went by, I was breathing better, and the drugs got on top of my ailments; so there was no excuse to down tools. Besides, I had too many ideas. Most of the results went into the section still marked Recent Poems, but from that section I have now subtracted the poems that went to form this book, and mounted them here instead, under the heading Extracts. Also there are some of the reviews that the book has already attracted at the time of its publication. (It became, I'm glad to say, the No 1 book on Amazon.co.uk's Poetry list even before it was published.) I have been careful to include any literate review even if luke-warm, although there was one effort I felt justified in leaving out because its author is such a vulgarian that his praise hurts worse than his blame. In these and all other respects — links to the relevant broadcasts are here too — I shall try to make this page the gateway to a complete record of what might well be my last book of poems, although I am informed by some commentators, apparently well qualified in medicine, that my version of leukaemia is no great thing, and that I might live forever. I would dearly like to, so as to get a few more things written: but wishful thinking is no more wise for being ambitious, and as I write I am back on chemo for keeps. Well, it's another subject for verse. Meanwhile, as I write, the gratifying ripples raised by this little book continue to spread. I would be churlish not to enjoy the fuss.

Reviews of Sentenced to Life
BBC Front Row The New Statesman
Observer Slate Review
Channel 4 News Guardian (1)
Per Crucem ad Lucem Independent
Sydney Morning Herald The Australian
Daily Express Saturday Paper
BBC Today Show Guardian (2)
BBC News ITV Anglia
RTE Radio 1 RTE Ten News
Friday Night Boys BMJ
Curator The National
The Lake Downunder Literatura (Spanish review)