Clive James, who died a year ago aged 80 after a long illness, was many things: a media celebrity, a TV pundit, an interviewer and roaming traveller; an essayist, literary critic and author of five volumes of autobiography; lastly, a poet.
Indeed, putting aside the other hats he put on and off in rapid succession, I suspect that poetry, that fascination for using words in a compressed space for memorable effect, was his first and last love. Much of television fame is, by its nature, ephemeral; not so the endlessly reverberating lines of great poets.
That is why, in the last months of his life and prompted by his wife who, as he writes in tribute, “helped him realise that his final trek to the exit should be a contribution to knowledge, rather than just a celebration of himself”, he put together the poems he had loved during his life, had largely committed to memory and which were “the milestones marking the journey of my life”.
James dedicated his book, The Fire of Joy, “to the next generation”. He wanted them to experience his own excitement, wonder and lifelong absorption in poetry, especially at a time when learning poetry by heart in school is no longer fashionable. (I am reminded of an earlier, much-loved anthology, Other Men’s Flowers, compiled by Field-Marshal Lord Wavell, who relates that this task was a daily exercise at his public school, Winchester College, before WWI.)
James was also lucky in this respect; at his primary school you were allowed home early in the afternoon if you could recite a given poem faultlessly; as a boy with a sponge-like memory, he soon associated poetry with “freedom”.
Like Wavell, James includes a running commentary on each poem in this anthology. These are classic examples of his familiar style: constantly making jokes — they can occasionally be tiresome; gossiping irreverently (and irrelevantly) about the personal lives of his subjects; showing off his considerable knowledge about literature; and making highly insightful and combative remarks about particular words, lines and stanzas.
Sometimes he appears to patronise his readership: do those who will buy this collection really need rules on how to read poetry aloud? But perhaps they were written with the next generation in mind, rather than other seasoned poetry lovers.
The selection, naturally, is quirky and eclectic, running from the 16th to the 21st century; it does not include translations (James remarks pointedly that Ezra Pound never learnt Chinese), eschews what he calls “pseudo-modernist” efforts, and generally shies away from quoting extracts from longer poems. Thus, he includes Tennyson’s The Kraken rather than stanzas from In Memoriam, which I would have preferred. But then, breaking this rule, James includes several verses from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, GK Chesterton’s Lepanto and Wordsworth’s The Prelude.
On the Rubaiyat, he comments that “my mother used to read [it] to me. She was not a literary person and this was when I was very small.” (In his long autobiographical poem, The River in the Sky, there is a palpable absence throughout: his father, who tragically died in an aircraft accident on his way home to Australia at the end of the War, when his son was six.)
There are other glimpses of his youth; as literary editor of the Sydney University student newspaper, Honi Soit — “busily engaged in accepting and printing my own stuff” — James tells us that at parties in the late 1950s (before he made Cambridge, England, his permanent home), he would always monopolise the Caedmon LP of poetry for the radiogram. In this way he first heard the voice of Dylan Thomas reciting Thomas Hardy’s In Death Divided, writing “I still shiver…that last line still stops my breath.” He includes Thomas’s In My Craft and Sullen Art — querying the use of the word “sullen”; but underneath the critical commentary his response to poems is always visceral.
He does not, of course, always hit the right note. His comment on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 sounds unusually flat; there is waffle about Coleridge’s Kubla Khan; selecting Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a certain slant of light”, he perversely remarks that she might have tried her hand at longer poems, concluding with a practised rhetorical flourish: “Shadows still hold their breath when she speaks”.
Lovers of TS Eliot will detect aloofness in James’s commentary (the poem is La Figlia Che Piange); it is clear he much prefers Yeats, although he is dismissive of his “mystical accoutrements”.
Nonetheless, there is still much to absorb and delight the reader in the poems selected and in James’s energetic commentary. He introduced me to two fine poets I hadn’t known: Keith Douglas, choosing Canoe and Vergissmeinnicht; and Anthony Hecht’s Japan. In his commentary on the former he recalls: “My father went away to the war; he, too, was fated never to return”.
He gallantly champions a neglected poet, Charlotte Mew. He is humble enough to admit that he hadn’t worked out the meaning of Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream” until he chose it for his selection. And in including Keats’ Ode to Melancholy, he breezily — and characteristically — suggests that “ideally, the reader should memorise all the Odes at once…”
Behind the bravura of this last book is James’s own courageous acceptance of his approaching death. In those final months, barely able to see or walk, sharing the poems he loved was a last generous act. He writes poignantly at the conclusion: “I might, given time, add a chapter about how I became a lover of poetry in the first place” — but he was not given the time. Poetry, he believes, is “the conjunction of all our best desires.”
As to committing verse to memory, although he doesn’t use the word “consolation” it is inferred when he confides that reciting Louis MacNeice’s The Sunlight in the Garden helped to diminish the pain as he was once waiting for an ambulance. Significantly, writing about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, “How do I love thee?” he adds that her description of love is “the best thing life can offer, now that God is out of the picture”.
In this review I haven’t covered even half the poets James includes, such as GM Hopkins, John Masefield, Philip Larkin and Kipling (his Captains Courageous was “the first great book I ever read”). I recommend his anthology unreservedly. After all, he informs us that it is the only book about poetry “to mention Kirk Douglas twice”.
One is reminded that James was as partial to low culture as he was to its higher manifestations. The postscript includes the intriguing title, “Growing up in poetical Australia”. The country of his birth remained an abiding love. In a collection of his own later poetry, Sentenced to Life, James wrote that he wanted his ashes flown back to Sydney and scattered by the harbour wall. “I chose the right spot to be born, just as I chose the right profession — poetry — and followed it to the end.”
On the dust jacket, his daughter, Claerwen, who closely collaborated with her father in putting the book together, includes two photos: the first, dated 1959, shows the young James as a Sydney student, with the necessary cigarette in his mouth; the second, dated 2019 shows an old man, clearly stricken by illness but not felled by it. One commends his bravery — as in this book he commended the poet Sir Walter Raleigh who, approaching his execution by beheading, “was not unmanned by fear.”