Dr Stephen McInerney is the academic director and deputy chief executive of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.
For most of his writing life Clive James was a much better poetry critic than he was a poet. Though he was wrong about Hardy, whose work he undervalued, he was particularly strong on twentieth-century poets, including W.B Yeats, W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Richard Wilbur and Philip Larkin, and he had an eye for newer talent (such as Stephen Edgar) others tended to miss before James spotted it. As a poet, though, he was for many years lost “through comfort” (to quote MacNeice on minor poets) – the comfort occasioned by celebrity and his remarkable achievements as a critic, memoirist and television personality. This makes his late flowering as a poet even more precious.
In 2007, he wrote: “I can only wonder, looking back, if my name as a poet would not have made quicker progress had I been less notorious for other things”. It wouldn’t have, as the main reason many people read James’s poetry was because of the other things, not despite them. Did any other contemporary poet’s work appear in airports and at train stations in proximity to Bret Easton Ellis’s shrink-wrapped American Psycho? No, the attention James’s poetry received, and its regular appearance in prestigious American journals like New Yorker and Poetry, owed as much to James’s celebrity as it did to his undoubted gifts as a poet. Since he deserved his celebrity, we should not begrudge him the help it gave to his reception as a poet, but we should not believe the myth that it hindered it.
When his work appeared in Peter Craven’s Best Australian Poems in 2003, James reacted like the local boy who’d made good, using his review of the anthology to promote his own poems and “the Australian poetry boom” – a boom James would not have noticed (or made readers aware of) had his own voice not been considered part of it. Auden said that it was every poet’s hope to be, “like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere” but James didn’t feel he’d arrived as a poet till he’d arrived back at home – and his appearance in Craven’s book was his arrival, or so he wanted us to believe. In reality the best anthologies of Australian poetry in the 80s and 90s (Les Murray’s New Oxford Book of Australian Verse; Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s Australian Poetry in the 20th Century, and Peter Porter’s Oxford Book of Modern Australian Poetry) all included James’s work, and the worst didn’t, a sure sign he was doing something right, even if there was a sense through this period that his rare talent was still waiting to be fully realised. The time afforded James by his retirement from television was a necessary condition for its realisation but it was an insufficient condition. What he needed was a crisis.
He got two. In 2011 he was diagnosed with leukemia. Then, the next year, after the aptly named “A Current Affair” exposed his infidelity, it turned out that at least some of James’s talent had been buried “between women’s breasts”, another fate of the minor poet MacNeice had identified. When accused of infidelity on an earlier occasion, James was quoted as saying his practice was to ‘look but not touch’. Most could forgive what this portended if not James’s uncharacteristic recourse to cliché, if only because it ironically contrasted with the supposed practice of the more innocent generation his parents belonged to, which was believed to touch but not look, with the lights off. James, however, never looked with Kantian detachment; his kind of looking was always going to lead somewhere. Happily, he emerged from the onscreen exposure chastened, even ascetic, with all the serious raw material to match his serious gifts as a poet: two new sorrows – terminal illness and a wounded family – to add to the one he’d nursed since his childhood, when he grew up without a father. These subjects – his dead father (and the effect of his death on James and his mother); James’s betrayal of his wife, and his own looming death – inspired most of his best work. The rest of the best was inspired by his meditations on Sydney – what it meant to grow up there, and what it meant to be apart from it – and his wry and wise celebrations of the rich and famous (actors, sportspeople, intellectuals), such as Johnny Weissmuller, Gabriela Sabatini, Shirley Strickland de la Hunty and Egon Friedell.
I’ve come to praise James, but before identifying his strengths as a poet, and the poems that will survive, it is important to explore two of his weaknesses – (i) his failure convincingly to handle the larger philosophical and religious themes he unwisely took up from time to time and (ii) his failure to assimilate his influences, especially Larkin – since these strike a fatal blow to the recent claims that James is a major poet.
His poem “Natural Selection” illustrates the first weakness. It takes 35 lines to say what Robert Frost said much more memorably and movingly in 14 lines, in “Design”, the greatest sonnet of the twentieth century. Here is Frost’s closing couplet. Watching a white spider holding up a moth “like a white piece of rigid satin cloth”, the poet wonders:
What but design of darkness to appall? –
If design govern in a thing so small.
And here is James, drawing a similar though not identical conclusion from the fact that scorpions’ tails are “equipped for murder” and that some children are “born to pain”:
Creation, if the thing’s to be believed –
And only through belief can life be loved –
Must do without that helping hand from Heaven.
Forget it, lest it never be forgiven.
James’s sing-song iambic pentameters and half-rhymes try to pack too much in, yet they end up saying significantly less in these two (and too) confident, bouncy declarative sentences than Frost does in a single interrogative one – and what they do say is silly. “Only through belief can life be loved”? Surely the content of belief – not simply “belief” per se – is what counts. But what could it mean to believe in “Creation” minus a creator? Why would it – and how would it – receive our forgiveness of its horrors? And why would it matter if we did not forgive it? Pathetic fallacies are one thing; fallacious pathos quite another.
Frost’s poem is chilling precisely because it presents two equally terrifying alternatives: either nature without design, void of all meaning, or creation by a creator who has ingrained violence at the very heart of his design (“design with a vengeance”, as Randall Jarrell described it) because evil is at the very heart of his own divine nature. James thinks the first option is clearly preferable, but there is no sense that he has suffered into this truth; there is nothing of Frost’s recognition that the alternatives are both horrendous (or, as Paul Simon puts in a very different context: “every way you look at it you lose”). Neither does James rise to Robinson Jeffers’s sense of awe at the purity of nature’s indifference, nor achieve the clarity and solemnity of Robert Gray’s declarations on this subject (“all partly autonomous things / trample others down, / even what is their own”). It seems the choice for James is as easy and obvious as choosing champagne over cask wine:
Better by far
To stand in awe of blind chance than to fear
A conscious mechanism of mutation
Bringing its fine intentions to fruition
Without a qualm about collateral horror.
He gets closer to Frost earlier in the poem, but in a way that shows just how far away that is:
Those who believed there must have been a wizard
Said the whole thing looked too well-planned for hazard.
The theme is the same as Frost’s, but what a difference!
The problem here is not only poetic. James didn’t have many gaps in his cultural knowledge, but he had some, in the way a commercial trawler’s net sweeping up the ocean’s contents has gaps. He caught almost everything, except the smallest and biggest creatures. Sometimes – as in “Natural Selection” – James treats a big subject (Christianity, the problem of suffering and evil, and the weaknesses in the argument from design), like a small one, precisely because its contours and texture elude him. Watch James foundering on the problem of evil in his Talking in the Library interview with Piers Paul Read and you’ll get the point. James drags his big net to the surface with its glittering catch (including Ivan Karamazov’s speech on the impossibility of reconciling a child’s suffering with the idea of a loving and just God) but the whale stays far beneath it – and far out to sea – gazing back at James out of the depths of Read’s eyes. It wasn’t the only time the big one got away from James. He managed to write an essay on Sophie Scholl without once mentioning the most important fact about her: that she was a devout Christian motivated to resist the Nazis and meet her death by her faith in Christ. James turns her instead into an excuse to write an essay about Natalie Portman, and into a saint for secular humanism, which is a bit like mistaking the Sistine Chapel for the Rothko Chapel. But I digress.
The second weakness is more serious. Paul Valéry said that God created the world out of nothing but the nothing shows through. One might say of James that he created his poems out of everything (and everyone) but the Larkin shows through. Consider the first stanza of James’s “Event Horizon”:
For years we fooled ourselves. Now we can tell
How everyone our age heads for the brink
Where they are drawn into the unplumbed well,
Not to be seen again. How sad, to think
People we once loved will be with us there
And we not touch them, for it is nowhere.
The stanza unintentionally evokes and is overwhelmed by comparison with at least four of Larkin’s best-known poems. The first sentence (“For years we fooled ourselves”) positions the speaker, like Larkin, as one of the less deceived, a wised-up version of one of Larkin’s old fools (“What do they think has happened, the old fools?”). The second line (“everyone our age heads for the brink”) echoes the eighth line of “High Windows”: “everyone young going down the long slide”. But it is in the fourth, fifth and sixth lines that James really gets going, or rather Larkin’s “Aubade” does. Consider first James:
Not to be seen again. How sad, to think
People we once loved will be with us there
And we not touch them, for it is nowhere.
Now consider Larkin:
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere…
No sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love and link with….
The “nowhere” that ends each stanza of James’s poem not only apes the “not to be anywhere” of “Aubade”; it is clearly the “nothing” Larkin sees in “High Windows”, that “is nowhere, and is endless”. And the rather pedestrian “How sad” (How inadequate! Why isn’t James screaming?) is surely derived from the titular first sentence of Larkin’s plangent “Home is So Sad”.
Larkin jumps up elsewhere. For some reason, James thought the closing lines of “The Whitsun Weddings” were among Larkin’s best, which is no doubt why he falls back on them (though he is not consciously alluding to them) to conclude his own poem, “The Place of Reeds”. In fact, the image Larkin threads along his closing lines is one of his weakest and most strained, as the beautiful, closely-observed detail that animates the rest of “The Whitsun Weddings” gives way to an unconvincing and imprecise image. Here is Larkin:
We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
And here is James:
Led by the head, my arrow proves to be
My life. I took my life into my hands.
I loosed it to its wandering apogee,
And now it falls. I wonder where it lands.
The image is not the only give away; the main pause in the last line of each poem is identical. James said in a short piece on Richard Howard that he – James – had to be careful not to read too much poetry when he was writing his own poems, lest the poet he was reading cut across his own music. The problem is, as “Event Horizon” shows, he knew Larkin’s music so well he was incapable of turning it off.
Other poets’ lines appear unintentionally from time to time, too. In 1983, Les Murray’s magisterial “Bentwater in the Tasmanian Highlands” appeared in The People’s Otherworld. In that poem Murray describes the movement of water, “headlong…a hairlip round a pebble”. The next year, James published “Johnny Weissmuller Dead in Acapulco” in The London Review of Books. In it he writes: “headlong, creek-around-a-rock trough”. As with the presence of Larkin in James’s “Event Horizon”, this is not a deliberate literary allusion; rather, it’s one more example of the weight of all that James has read and admired making itself unintentionally felt in the imagery, phrasing and cadences of his own poetry. He has the best lines at hand, it’s just that they are not always his. In a first volume of verse by someone in their 20s this kind of thing is common, and forgivable, but in a mature poet?
Still, the rest of this poem works a distinctly Jamesian magic. “Johnny Weissmuller Dead in Acapulco” charts the declining fortunes of its eponymous hero, the star of the Tarzan films and later the Jungle Jim movies, and the poet’s early fascination with these heroes whom he first encountered on Saturday afternoons, on the big screen, at the Rockdale Odeon. The movement from Tarzan to Jungle Jim corresponds to the movement from vigorous young manhood to middle age, and takes the author back in the other direction, to his childhood:
With eighteen Tarzan movies behind him
Along with the five Olympic gold medals,
He had nothing in front except that irrepressible paunch
Which brought him down out of the tree house
To earth as Jungle Jim
So a safari suit could cover it up…
…[O]nce it had all been intact, the Greek classic body
Unleashing the new-style front-up crawl like a baby
Lifting itself for the first time,
Going over the water almost as much as through it,
Curing itself of childhood polio
By making an aquaplane of its deep chest,
Each arm relaxing out of the water and stiffening into it,
The long legs kicking a trench that did not fill up
Until he came back on the next lap,
Invincible, easily breathing
The air in the spit-mouth, headlong, creek-around-a-rock trough
Carved by his features…
…[W]hen Tarzan dropped from the tall tree and swam out of the splash
Like an otter with an outboard to save the Boy from the waterfall
It looked like poetry to me,
And at home in the bath I would surface giving the ape call.
James’s admiration for Weissmuller’s physical prowess matches in intensity his lust for the beautiful young women he celebrates elsewhere (see especially the superb “Bring Me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini”) and his sense of awe at moral courage and genius (“Egon Friedell’s Heroic Death”). Except when he is looking down Sabatini’s dress, or describing Weissmuller’s paunch, in poems of this kind he positions himself as a mere mortal, looking up from far below at the glorious stars.
Friedell is an important figure in James’ Cultural Amnesia but nowhere in the essays that comprise that volume does James write so well about the Jewish intellectual as he does in his poem “Egon Friedell’s Heroic Death”. The last two stanzas are as close to perfection as contemporary formalist poetry gets. Seeing the Nazis approaching in the street below, and knowing what they have in store for him, Egon takes matters into his own hand:
So out into the air above the street
He sailed with all his learning left behind,
And by one further gesture turned defeat
Into a triumph for the human mind.
The civilized are most so as they die.
He called a warning even as he fell
In case his body hit a passer-by
As innocent as was Egon Friedell.
Hopkins said “What I do is me” – expressing the view, traceable in the first instance to Aristotle, that our actions reveal and shape our identity – a reality James captures perfectly in the rhyme of fell/Friedell, which links the Jewish intellectual’s name inextricably with his manner of death. In giving up his life, and ensuring no one else is harmed in the process, Friedell’s gesture, in James’s estimation, contains all that is best in life.
Actions like Friedell’s are, for James, where life approaches the perfection of art and then outdoes it. This concentration of an entire way of life in an image is what he is always looking for – the point where art and life throw down their brave but doomed challenge to the flux of time that will overwhelm them. James invests the unlikely (and now long gone) Sydney ferry token with such possibilities in his poem of that title, one of his many beautiful evocations of Sydney:
Not gold but some base alloy, it stays good
For one trip though the currency inflates –
Hard like the ferry’s deck of seasoned wood,
The only coin in town that never dates.
(“The Ferry Token”)
Except that it did date, and is now out of circulation, replaced by the Opal Card – which brings me to James’s most beautiful celebration of Sydney, “Go Back to the Opal Sunset”.
In this poem, the speaker imagines “bottoms bisected by a piece of string” wobbling “through the heat haze”, avocado mousse “thick and strong as cream from a jade cow”, “the midnight harbour lacquered black” and prawns that “assume a size and shape/Less like a newborn baby’s little toe”. (Living in England in 2011-12, I couldn’t look at a European or Honduran-sourced prawn from Sainsbury’s without recalling that image). The contrast between London and Sydney is intensified by the contrast between the speaker’s inertia and the hydrofoil’s determined energy:
Yet out there at the moment, through the swell,
The hydrofoil draws its triumphant line.
Such powers of decision should be mine.
Go back to the opal sunset. Do it soon.
Though he certainly had the hydrofoil’s powers of decision after his diagnosis, by 2012 James knew he’d never return to Sydney; his illness would not let him. His physical weakness, however, became his poetic strength. “Japanese Maple”, which first appeared in the New Yorker and was then collected in the best-selling Sentenced to Life, became an instant hit:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
In both Sentenced to Life and Injury Time, James is at the height of his powers, the derivativeness and dreariness of “Event Horizon” notwithstanding. “Sentenced to Life”, “Use of Space” and “Quiet Passenger” are triumphs, as powerful in their way as “Japanese Maple”. “Quiet Passenger” brings the poet back to where he left off in “Go Back to the Opal Sunset”:
When there is no more dying left to do
And I am burned and poured into a jar,
Then I will leave this land that I came to
So long ago, and, having come so far,
Head home to where my life’s work was begun.
But nothing of that last flight will I see
As I ride through the night into the sun:
No stars, no ocean, not the ochre earth,
No patterns of dried water nor the light
That streams into the city of my birth,
The harbour waiting to take down my dust.
So why, in that case, should I choose to go?
My day is done. I go because I must:
Silence will be my way of saying so.
It was just like James to imagine that the harbour had nothing better to do than await his dust, but, as always, we can forgive him, so sonorous are these lines. The measure of James’s talent though is nowhere more apparent than in the closing lines of “Leçons de ténèbres”, where we find the poet paying homage
to the late sublime
That comes with seeing how the years have brought
A fitting end, if not the one I sought.
That’s as good an end to a poem as there is.
The power and authority of these late poems notwithstanding, James – as I’ve argued – is not a major poet. He has many fine poems, but none that elevate him into the company of the giants of his generation: Murray, Heaney, Walcott and Mahon. Among modern Australian poets, he is down the list too. Even at their best, his meditations on death and terminal illness shrink in importance when compared to those of Philip Hodgins. But so what? Some of James’s poems will last, and what more can any poet hope for? His evocations of Sydney will no doubt be mentioned alongside Kenneth Slessor’s, Murray’s and Robert Gray’s. His translation of Dante will survive (and will even survive the unfortunate and unintentionally comic use of the phrase “going down” in the last line of Canto 5 of Inferno, on the sin of lust: “I went down as if going down to stay”), though his attempt at epic, River in the Sky, probably will not.
He may even find himself on the syllabus. And then we’ll be flooded with commentaries. One commentary, Ian Shircore’s So Brightly at the Last, has already arrived. It provides important and interesting biographical background to some of the poems, some important judgements about the work, including its weaknesses, and some engaging readings of individual poems. It is clearly the work of a friend, which is no bad thing, though what James also needs now is a scarifying editor to slim him down to size, so that his real achievement can shine.
Just as a poet should discard his limping lines, so a friendly editor who wants to serve James should publish a slim volume, about the size of Larkin’s High Windows, of James’s best 20 poems, discarding the rest, not because the rest are all bad (many are quite good) but because (as with all other poets) they are patchy and threaten to hinder a full appreciation of what James’ poetry really offers. In my view, the following 20 poems will ensure James survives as a poet. Any reader coming to his poems for the first time, should start (and perhaps end) here. The poems are:
“The Book of My Enemy has Been Remaindered”
“Johnny Weissmuller Dead in Acapulco”
“Egon Friedell’s Heroic Death”
“The Ferry Token”
“Bring me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini”
“Go Back to the Opal Sunset”
“Son of a Soldier”
“In Town for the March”
“My Father Before Me”
“Whitman and the Moth”
“Sentenced to Life”
“Early to Bed”
“Leçons de ténèbres”
“Return of the Kogarah Kid”
“Use of Space”
Had James been as good a critic of his own work as he was of others, he would have published a slim volume of this kind himself, but very few poets are their own best judges. Still, if readers regard his poems only half as highly as James did, the place he already occupies as one of our country’s most entertaining and moving poets will be secure.