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Poetic Justice
October 2009

Clive James: A deeper note than mockery 

Clive James is an excellent poet. It is in his poetry, indeed, that his best work is to be found. But you wouldn't think so if you were to judge by his general reputation. He is far better known as a journalist, a critic, an autobiographer and a TV personality. As a poet he remains — by Clive-Jamesian standards, at least — relatively neglected.

Recently, however, the situation has improved, especially with all the talk about him being a possible Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and the appearance of Opal Sunset seems bound to mark an important further step towards his poems receiving their due. A rich but compact selection, it makes an admirable introduction if you want to find out more about them (though it would be even better if it included one or two of his parodies and a few explanatory notes). It covers his entire career, but it is particularly strong on the remarkable flow of work which he has been producing over the past four or five years.

The surface of his poems is often comic. Many of them would qualify, at a pinch, as light verse. At the same time, deeper themes — love, loss, fidelity, self-division, innocence, cruelty, suffering — usually lie in wait. The switch from light to serious doesn't always work: it is sometimes accompanied by a portentous shifting of gears. But mostly the poems remain all of a piece, successfully and subtly multi-layered.

The poem "Johnny Weissmuller Dead in Acapulco" — prompted by the passing of the greatest of screen Tarzans — is more than a piece of Pop Art fun or even Pop Art pathos: it is also about heroism and about childhood (the poet's childhood, anybody's). "Museum of the Unmoving Image", a brilliantly surreal consideration of clichés, is another poem which sounds a deeper note than mockery. The unmoving images are dead metaphors (the straw that broke the camel's back and so forth) laid out on display in glass cases — absurd-looking objects, completely drained of interest, until James makes us feel the life that was once in them.

Again and again, he demonstrates a delight in wordplay and a mastery of linguistic cunning. In "Iron Horse" he recalls a formative aesthetic experience, a childhood glimpse of a tiny model train running round a plaster landscape — and the skill with which he describes the working of the train is virtually a feat of precision engineering in itself. In "Status Quo Vadis", the interplay between the illusion of permanence and the reality of change is beautifully reinforced by rhythm and rhyme-scheme.

Around half the poems in Opal Sunset come from The Book of My Enemy, the bulky volume of collected verse James published in 2003. The rest have been written since and first appeared in book form last year, in the collection Angels Over Elsinore. The decision to give so much weight to the more recent poems is justified, I think. There are a higher proportion of undoubted successes among them. Together, they represent a remarkable flare-up of energy and invention.

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October 26th, 2009
4:10 PM
Clive James poetry, viewed as a whole or as certain specific poems is decidedly second rate. This review ill-serves the reader because James is not worth reading, not to mention not worth purchasing.

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