In the introduction to his most substantial and perhaps his finest book, Cultural Amnesia, Clive James explains that over the forty years of its composition, he gradually came to realize that this collection of “Notes in the Margin of My Time,” as the subtitle has it, could be true to the pattern of his experience only if it had no pattern. There could only be “a linear cluster of nodal points,” working in the same way that the mind does as it moves through time: “a trail of clarities variously illuminating a dark sea of unrelenting turbulence, like the phosphorescent wake of a phantom ship.” It is a beautiful metaphor—beautiful in its accuracy as well as in the richness of its language—and wholly characteristic of this fabulously gifted, enviably well-read, generously inclusive, and always commonsensical writer.
That succession of adjectives ends, of course, with something of a thud. Many a critic known and praised for his common sense is in fact nothing more than a complacent mediocrity who will dismiss with a snicker anything that falls outside the rigidly maintained narrow band of his taste, experience, and perspicacity. Clive James’s interests know no limit. Consider the alphabetically organized contents page of Cultural Amnesia: under C we begin with Albert Camus, Dick Cavett, Paul Celan…, while E has Alfred Einstein followed by Duke Ellington. In his lifetime, now coming to an astonishingly productive end, James has been a stage manager and stage performer, noted TV quiz contestant, songwriter, poet and critic and translator—his Englishing of the complete Divine Comedy appeared not so long ago—television reviewer and presenter, radio broadcaster, novelist, satirist, memoirist, and travel writer.
He is as well known for his friendship with the late Princess Diana as he is for his championing of poets such as Stephen Edgar and Michael Donaghy. He interviewed, on various of his television shows, a large number of the less than great and rarely good among show business celebrities of the closing decades of the twentieth century; he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth; and he allowed himself, merrily if infamously, to be filmed for television cavorting in Hugh Hefner’s hot tub with a bevy of Bunnies.
In the way of things human, it was probably inevitable that such a rich and gloriously varied life would culminate in a slow disaster. Since 2010 James has been suffering from leukemia, emphysema, and kidney failure. In 2012 he announced publicly that he was dying and near the end. Three years later, he is still going strong, intellectually if not physically. His valedictory poem, “Japanese Maple”—“Your death, near now, is of an easy sort”—published in The New Yorker last September, became a not so small literary sensation, attracting many thousands of readers and a huge following on social media, a phenomenon that seems to have left the poet gratified and bemused in equal measure.
“Japanese Maple” is a magical work, direct, lyrical, moving, and wholly unsentimental. It marked the beginning of a late flowering that over the past year has produced an abundance of blossoms: Sentenced to Life, a richly exuberant collection of verse meditations on death and dying, was published in Britain earlier this year, and will appear in the US early in January. And still the buds keep unfurling: exquisitely burnished poems continue to appear from time to time, showing no diminution of imagination or technique.
Clive James was born in Kogarah, a suburb of Sydney, in 1939—“The other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War,” as he remarks at the opening of Unreliable Memoirs, the first volume of his candid and very funny multivolume autobiography. He was the only child of a “good-looking mechanic” and a “pretty girl who left school at fourteen and worked as an upholsterer.” In those days his name was Vivian, which became a grave liability when Vivien Leigh appeared as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, and with his mother’s consent he switched to Clive, after another screen character, this one played by Tyrone Power. His father joined the Australian army and fought against the Japanese in Malaya, and was taken prisoner after the fall of Singapore. He survived prison camp, but was killed when the plane returning him to Australia at the end of the war crashed in Manila Bay. As James wrote, “I can’t remember my father at all. I can remember my mother only through a child’s eyes. I don’t know which fact is the sadder.”
After graduating from the University of Sydney, where he studied psychology, he went into journalism and worked for a year as assistant editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. As his subsequent career showed, he was a natural journalist, with a talent for immediacy and humor, and possessed of a flashing, epigrammatic style; the television column he contributed to the London Observer for ten years from 1972 onward set a new standard in television criticism, a standard that few critics since—Julian Barnes is one—have managed to maintain.
James moved to England in 1962, and stayed. He worked at various temporary jobs, then studied English at Cambridge University, where Germaine Greer was among his contemporaries—there is a lively portrait of her, under the name Romaine Rand, in May Week Was in June, the third volume of James’s memoirs, which also contains fond and often hilarious accounts of other expatriate Australians of his acquaintance, notably the comedian Barry Humphries and the film director Bruce Beresford. At university James became president of the Cambridge Footlights drama club, which at one time or another listed among its members Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Salman Rushdie, and Emma Thompson.
It is clear from his writings on this period of his life that James loved the stage, loved the limelight, and loved entertaining people. Indeed, the aim to entertain was at the heart always of all his endeavors, whether he was rerunning clips from grotesque Japanese game shows on his own television programs or writing profound and polished works such as “Japanese Maple.” As he wrote in another volume of his memoirs, “even my poetry is predicated, even at its most hermetic, on pleasing an audience of some kind.”
Inevitably, this popularizing strain in his character was deplored by many in the London literary world, not only enemies but friends also. He knew the criticisms he was leaving himself open to by becoming a television star—and for many years he shone very brightly indeed in the prime-time firmament—but he knew also that the money he earned as a television personality “made a civilized life possible for my family, and made it possible for me to write only from inner compulsion, and never to a market imperative.” Still, noses were turned up, and no doubt more than one cold shoulder was presented to him. He remained sanguine, however; one of the remarkable aspects of his recollections of this period of his life is the lack of rancor he displays. Here he is writing about the critical reception of his nonfiction books:
In the heavyweight journals they were usually given to the best-qualified reviewers and almost always taken seriously, to the extent that there were polite sighs of regret that I should be wasting my time on television. But exactly there lay the problem: a serious man wasting his time can easily find himself regarded as a timewaster trying to be serious. Most of the adult papers had already grown the arts equivalent of a gossip column…and in these new message boards any coverage of my work always began with the assumption that a would-be Hamlet had been stripped of his paint to reveal the clown. Obviously I would be running this risk for as long as I tried to circle the ring with one foot on each horse.
Poetry, however, was always “the centre of my life” and “ever and always at the heart of my desire.” The truth of these assertions is apparent in his poems, of course, but also in his writings about poets and about poetry; it shines forth especially from every page of Poetry Notebook, a collection of pieces that he wrote beginning in 2006 for the magazine Poetry, published in Chicago, and for other magazines and newspapers. One says “a collection of pieces” but the book, although necessarily heterogeneous, stands as a whole as a manifesto to an essential faith in the force and beauty of language, especially language wrought to a high intensity by the shaping power of the poet.
What we have in Poetry Notebook is, as James says of Dryden’s critical writings, “the poetry criticism of a poet,” and although he sets his face firmly against theory in poetry, he does admit to the possibility of a theory behind his approach to criticism: “the theory that concentrated meaning should be what any poet was after.” Although “a diehard formalist myself,”* he is perfectly ready to look, with interest, if not always enthusiasm, at Hart Crane, or John Ashbery, or even Ezra Pound—“The Cantos is, or are—or perhaps was or were—a nut-job blog before the fact”—yet the lament that sounds throughout the book is for the willed abandonment of coherence. “At times in modern poetic history the temptation to let go of rationality has risen to the status of a command, just as, in the history of modern painting, it became compulsory to let go of the figurative.”
In a pivotal chapter in the Notebook—pivotal in placement and pivotal in importance—“Technique’s Marginal Centrality,” he makes the point that free form in poetry is only to be permitted after the rules of strict form have been learned. In this context he remarks that “the whole of English poetry’s technical heritage was present in Eliot’s work, and never more so than when it seemed free in form.” However, Eliot’s time is gone:
The idea that form can be perfectly free has had so great a victory, everywhere in the English-speaking world, that the belief in its hidden technical support no longer holds up. Or rather, and more simply, the idea of technique has changed. It is no longer pinned to forms…. The general assumption that beginning poets had to put in their time with technical training, like musicians learning their scales, is everywhere regarded as out of date.
He returns again and again, with the urgency of a man who feels himself running out of breath, to an insistence on the poet’s task, and duty, of arriving at “an achieved clarity.” Writing of Keith Douglas, the English poet who was killed in action in World War II at the age of twenty-four, he notes that the loss was “especially piquant…because dozens of surrealists survived to help make a fashion of not knowing what they were talking about.” Not that he claims to have cracked for himself the mystery that is poetry; for most of his adult life, he writes, he has been “trying to figure out just how the propulsive energy that drives a line of poetry joins up with the binding energy that holds a poem together.” What he is certain of, however, is that a poem, no matter how intricately or even torturously made, as in Donne or Marvell or Hopkins, must communicate something immediate to the reader—there must be passion, which he seems to associate with simplicity. Celebrating that “brief but bewitching masterpiece,” Robert Frost’s poem “The Silken Tent,” he notes that it
is written in the most limpid of plain language throughout. It’s a kind of level-headed dizzy spell. There was one academic—I forget which one—who thought that the mention of “guys” [in the poem] meant men instead of ropes, but on the whole the poem’s language is of a simplicity that not even an idiot with tenure could get wrong. And yet it is as complex as could be.
One of the most thrilling aspects of the Notebook is the interrogatory tenor of the discourse. James has none of the complacency displayed by so many “tenured” critics. He is in a direct line from Johnson and Coleridge all the way down to Randall Jarrell, Cyril Connolly, and, above all, Edmund Wilson, another of the great literary interrogators. James is never afraid to return to first principles in order to get down to “bedrock”—one of his favorite and most frequently used metaphors. In the introduction to the Notebook he addresses again the question that has troubled us all since the advent of modernism, namely, “What is a poem?” One answer he offers is neat enough for him to find it still “serviceable as an epigram.” A poem, he writes, “is any piece of writing that can’t be quoted from except out of context.” But a better question, he thinks, would be: “How do you recognize a piece of writing as a poem?” To this it is easy to devise trick answers, he concedes:
But the best answers are not tricks. They are registrations of what we feel and think when we encounter a stretch of language that transmits the thrill of human creativity by all its means, even by the means with which it is put together.
The Notebook provides such registrations on every page. Few contemporary critics display the passionate commitment to the idea of poetry, and to the idea of poetry’s centrality to civilized life, that James does, here and elsewhere, not only in his criticism but in his poetry, too. “Sunset Hails a Rising,” the closing poem in the volume Sentenced to Life, has epigraphs from Marlowe after Ovid and from Valéry, which James translates in the last two lines of the first of the poem’s two stanzas—“Run slowly, slowly, horses of the night./The sea, the sea, always begun again”—and then proceeds to draw from them a magnificent affirmation of the consolatory force inherent in poetry:
In English of due tact, the great lines gain
More than they lose. The grandeur that they keep
From being born in other tongues than ours
Suggests we will have time to taste the rain
As we are drawn into the dreamless sleep
That lasts so long. No supernatural powers
Need be invoked by us to help explain
How we will see the world
Dissolve into the mutability
That feeds the future with our fading past:
The sea, the always self-renewing sea.
The horses of the night that run so fast.
Because of their occasional nature, the pieces collected in the Poetry Notebook range far and wide. In the memoirs James mentions frequently how in his younger days he would sit for hours in libraries or at café tables hidden behind a barrier reef of piled-up books. And indeed, books have been one of the true loves of his life—he is a dedicated, indeed it would seem a compulsive, collector—as the breadth of multilingual reading that went into the making of Cultural Amnesia attests.
In the Notebook all things are considered—there is even a chapter on “Product Placement in Modern Poetry,” which is highly entertaining and surprisingly illuminating: a mention of Arrow shirts in E.E. Cummings’s “POEM, OR BEAUTY HURTS MR. VINAL” provokes a nice peroration on Cluett Peabody, the shirtmakers who took over the Arrow brand, whose advertising figure, the fictitious Arrow man, “drew up to 17,000 fan letters a day”; inside every poet there lurks a mad-eyed statistician.
Naturally, James writes best about poets and poems that he loves. Particularly affecting is his short but intense piece on Michael Donaghy, the American-Irish poet and folk musician who moved to London and died at the age of fifty. Donaghy, another “diehard formalist,” is a man after James’s own heart, and inevitably he is led forward, with grace and restraint, and invited to stand up for formalism. James quotes Donaghy quoting Proust “to telling effect: ‘The tyranny of rhyme forces the poet to the discovery of his finest lines.’” Seamus Heaney too is a favored voice, even though it was James who in one of his satirical squibs famously gave him the nickname “Seamus Famous,” and it stuck. Here, he celebrates the consummate poet that Heaney was:
When he described a spade digging into the peat, you could see it and hear it. In the long day’s work of churning butter, he could see the whole process with a specificity of memory that no literary description could have equalled, except perhaps his. Later on, as he got successful, his work was less impregnated with these memories, and some of us thought that he was running thin. If we were wise, we knew that it was only the difference between gold and beaten gold….
If there is such a thing as a reader of genius, then Clive James is it. The pieces in Latest Readings are small, but small in the way that a Patek Philippe watch is—in other words, gleaming and intricately assembled miniatures. In the introduction to the book he tells how, after being diagnosed with leukemia in 2010, he wondered if it was worth the effort of going on reading; the cure for this was an invigorating plunge into Boswell’s Life of Johnson. The pleasure he derived from that great work, which he had not read in its entirety until then, showed him what he would be missing, in even the short span he believed was left to him, if he gave up on books. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”
In fact, what he does mostly in this book is reread. So he ranges from a largely sympathetic but unsparing assessment of Hemingway—who in his later work “overstated even the understatements”—through telling glimpses at Conrad and Kipling, to celebrations of his abiding favorites such as Richard Wilbur and Stephen Edgar. As always, James is eager, is avid, to point out to us things we might miss or never attend to. He is never merely didactic, but always encouraging. In the “Coda” to Latest Readings he sets out, clearly and movingly, his abiding aim as a critic:
The critic should write to say, not “look how much I’ve read,” but “look at this, it’s wonderful.” If the young feel compelled to come and see your tomb, there should be something good written on it. Here in Cambridge, in Trinity College Chapel, there is a plaque dedicated to Ludwig Wittgenstein. It says, in Latin, that he released thought from its bonds in language. If I ever had a plaque, I would like it to say: He loved the written word, and told the young.
In the chapter “Five Favourite Poetry Books” he lists Yeats’s The Tower, Robert Frost’s Collected Poems, W.H. Auden’s Look, Stranger!, Richard Wilbur’s Poems 1943–1956, and Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings. ↩