Poetic Justice

Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958-2008 and The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008 by Clive James

John Gross

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.

No one of them, however, is quite as powerful as a slightly earlier piece, “The Great Wrasse”, the longish poem which James wrote some ten years ago to mark the 60th birthday of the Australian poet Les Murray. This is an extraordinary affair. A wrasse is a marine fish. Murray is the big fish of Australian poetry. The wrasse of James’s poem swims in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, in what proves to be an utterly sinister habitat. The other sea creatures, gorgeous though many of them may appear, are merciless predators. Their accoutrements (“The frills, the fronds, the fans, the powder puffs”) serve merely to “soften the razor’s edge”. Only the wrasse itself — the wrasse as emblem of Les Murray, that is to say, not the actual fish — somehow transcends the slaughter. A benign presence, it “siphons up Hell’s Kitchen/ And turns it to serenity”.

On the one hand the poem portrays a world of horror — what Keats called, in a comparable passage (in a verse-letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds) “an eternal fierce destruction”. On the other James asks us to believe in the redemptive power of art. He can’t be said to bridge the gap between the two visions. They coexist rather than cohere. But it doesn’t really matter. What counts is that “The Great Wrasse” shows his imagination working at full stretch.

A poem about another poet, “What Happened to Auden”, is far weaker. It opens with a desperately infelicitous image — 

His stunning first lines burst out of
the page
Like a man thrown through a wind

And I don’t know how James can go on reprinting the bit about Auden ending up “as a poor old fag at bay”.

He is, of course, a notoriously uneven performer. The Worst of Clive James would make a memorable volume. But why dwell on the failures, when there are so many achievements to celebrate?

That is true of the poetry, at least. But about the criticism, I feel more divided. He can be a penetrating critic as well as an entertaining one. Nobody disputes his versatility and panache. However, he can also be slick, bombastic, hell-bent on raising a laugh — and these are faults that get in the way. You can’t just ignore it when he elects to write an essay on a major European author, Arthur Schnitzler — in a big, ambitious book, Cultural Amnesia — and then devotes a large part of it to some not particularly funny thoughts about Steve McQueen’s haircut.

The knockabout stuff is less distracting in his latest prose collection, The Revolt of the Pendulum, which doesn’t claim to be more than a gathering of miscellaneous bits and pieces. Many of these were worth rescuing. James is at his best on Australian subjects — the poet A. D. Hope, the philosopher John Anderson — but he also has interesting things to say about figures as different as Karl Kraus and Tommy Cooper. He takes an invigorating swipe at Elias Canetti, and tells us that American English is “the dominant language of modern reality”. (Discuss.) He talks some good sense about politics. It is a lot more rewarding to read the poems, though. They are what is going to last.

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