Clive James's new collection of poetry looks at his past but is far from mournful nostalgia; it celebrates his eventful life
Clive James’s new poems are full of the feeling of growing old. But they are different from most of the poems of which that can be said. The dominating note is struck in a line in the first poem in the book, addressed to a lover he has known for 40 years. “Time was more friend to us than enemy,” James tells her. He is not going to sigh and mourn. That is not the sort of thing he does. He looks at his past, is glad of it, recreates it and even finds it better than he thought it was.
One of the many excellent poems here, “Fashion Statement” recalls his life as a young man in Sydney. Although he and his poet friends wore army surplus khaki and “the first T-shirts”, he sees now that they were extraordinary dandies — not in their dress, but in their words:
To see the harbour glittering in the sun
Like fields of diamonds and the squall arrive
Across the water sudden as a gun
Was bound to bring the optic nerve alive
Searching for words, and we who wrote them down
Might not have looked it, but we owned the town
For nothing rules like easy eloquence…
He rejoices now in the thought of what they were, even though they did not realise it: “We were dandies. We just did not see it then.” Moreover, he still has that “easy eloquence”, and uses it now to bring the whole harbour scene to life again.
Another splendid poem, “Book Review”, is addressed to Prue Shaw, who edited Dante’s Latin tract, De Monarchia, from the manuscripts, and spent 20 years on it. With a deft, joky touch he begins:
If Dante waited seven centuries
To see his Latin tract receive such care
He can’t complain…
then soars into a kind of awed, classical eloquence: her work was
Pursued through busy days in precious hours,
Pored over word by word and line by line
Year after year with concentrated powers
Of selfless duty to the grand design…
It is a poem of pure celebration. And he teases himself in it — when he first met her in Florence as a young man he spotted at once her “brilliant scholar’s soul” because “you took notes at the same speed that I ate”.
This combination of sturdy straightforwardness and a quick, dashing play of mind and wit has marked everything that James has done since he arrived in Britain. It was there in his early television reviews, where he once called the long-running TV saga Poldark “a wall of corn from Cornwall”, and it was there in his marvellously funny performances on TV, announcing at midnight the arrival of the coming year. They have made New Year’s Eve dull ever since he stopped doing them.
One can only be glad that he has turned these gifts again to the writing of poetry. Besides “Book Review”, there are other poems here which praise the human qualities that he admires, without him showing a jot of care in some of them for political correctness. The title poem is inspired by the sight of the famous painted head of Nefertiti in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin which, kept in a flak tower for five years, survived both Allied bombing and Russian assault — and the implicit heroes are the Germans who saved it, even though he acknowledges that the tower was “built by slaves”. He also throws Nefertiti a good word — she “looks as if she never heard a thing”.
There are also poems about poetry that make clear how much it has always meant to him. “The Later Yeats” is an extended metaphor, brilliantly sustained, in which he portrays the array of Yeats’s great late poems as
a majestic vessel made
Out of the sea it sails on, yet so strong
We never, watching it our whole lives long,
Doubt its solidity. All else may fade,
But this stands out as if it had been sent
To prove it can have no equivalent.
The poem also acclaims the role of music in the poem — “it holds the flow of splendour in one place” — just as in the poem “A Perfect Market”, about Ronsard, he observes that there is “no mystery more profound/Than how a melody soars from a string/Of syllables”. So what about James’s music? Well, these are primarily discursive, not lyrical or dramatic poems, and for them he uses that established base line of English verse, the iambic pentameter. Occasionally it falters in his hands, but for the most part he uses it extremely well, speeding it or slowing it subtly, never wasting the effect of pauses at the end of the line, and giving all he has to say a steady urgency that draws us on. Some of the poems, although mostly still using that line, are composed in stanzas with rhymes, while the Yeats poem is a series of sonnets. In the Ronsard poem, he deplores the modern “flight from rhyme”, which he nevertheless sees ruefully as
a technically precise
Reponse to the confusion of a time
When nothing, said once, merits
His own rhymes perform well their job of lifting and dropping emphasis in a well-crafted, song-like way.
It must be said that there is not much self-doubt to be found in these poems. You sometimes catch an echo of Larkin’s voice in them, and you feel he probably loves Larkin, but though James can be rueful about the way the world is going, it is not in his temperament to be rueful in Larkin’s way about himself. Even when he laughs at himself it is usually knockabout comedy.
There is, however, one poem in which the line of feeling turns back on itself. In “Habitués” he begins by deploring the way in which old clubmen and people on sea cruises cease thinking critically and “lapse into familiar comfort”. He thinks it shows proof “your life was lost on you”. But then he suddenly wonders
How sure are we the failing is not ours,
Our cold contempt a portent of the void
Which is the closed heart…?
Even so, he bucks himself up by making a learned joke, only mildly self-critical, about the way in which lively, contemptuous souls such as he can waste their own lives doing such things as puzzling out the dialogue in
Act I, Scene IV of Cymbeline, which no one
Has remotely, since the day when it was written,
Enjoyed or even partly understood.
Overall, we can perhaps find an epigraph for this enjoyable book in a late poem of Yeats that James does not quote, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”. “I am content to live it all again,” says Yeats as he looks back on his life,
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
Do not ask Clive James for mournful melodies. Give him a cheer!