'Collected Poems' by Clive James celebrates decades of learning, growth

Clive James continues to pour forth verse – as unabashedly alive as ever.

Collected Poems: 1958-2015 By Clive James Liveright 592 pp.

In 2011 Australian-born journalist, critic, novelist, and all-round cultural yard dog Clive James received a dire medical diagnosis – which seems to have done little or nothing to check his legendary productivity. Five books have appeared since, each one every bit as tenaciously, ferociously engaged as all the others (including a translation of Dante's "Divine Comedy"). Indeed, James's writing has always been so unabashedly alive and it has not changed at all.

The voice, the bare-knuckled assessments, the steep aesthetic erudition so often hidden under punchy, direct language, the spot-on phrasing. There's been no fundamental change, neither intensification nor (almost unthinkable) diminution; and it keeps coming. The only overt signs of those earlier dire pronouncements have been James's own somewhat puckish apologies that reports of his demise were a bit premature. And he keeps on writing.

If there has been a change in James's work since 2011, it has simply been that it has often occurred in an unwanted kind of split perspective, at once celebratory and commemorative.  

One of his latest books reflects this: new from Liveright is his Collected Poems: 1958-2015, and again there's the involuntary invocation of a terminus – this stately volume very much looks like a life's work neatly and finally finished.

The poems themselves, thankfully, don't read that way at all. James's verse bursts with life and wry laughter and an insistent playfulness on both the structural and the thematic levels. They share in common with all the rest of James's prose a collar-grabbing demotic plainspokenness that makes them oddities among the abstruse, self-absorbed productions of so much of contemporary poetry. James's poems want to tell you things in language you might not have used but can instantly understand. In his brief introductory note, he offers some cautions regarding fashionable “poems about nothing,” noting poetry's origins in lyric storytelling. “When the poem strays too far from the song,” he warns, “it risks death by refinement.”

The poems gathered here are not about nothing, although they often feature a degree of refinement James himself might downplay. The volume includes a smattering of early poems, selections from previous collections like "The Book of My Enemy," "Angels Over Elsinore," and "Nefertiti in the Flak Tower." There are songs and parodies and pastiches. There are long passages of passionate love poetry and shorter bits born of snark or irritation.

There are long, delightfully chatty pieces, like “To Martin Amis: a letter from Indianapolis,” crafted as a letter to the author's friend: “Dear Mart, I write you from a magic spot./ The dullsville capital of Indiana ...” And these are carefully counterbalanced with more reflective pieces like the well-known “What Happened to Auden” with its arresting opening: “His stunning first lines burst out of the page/ Like a man thrown through a windscreen ...” There are detailed tributes, such as “Gore Vidal at Fifty” (“This is the pit from which none can escape/ Your wit lights up that we might see its shape”), and there are adaptations on classical mythology, as when “The Nymph Calypso” shows us a minor goddess propelled by pride to explain the departure of Odysseus from her island: “She spread the story that he'd only gone/ Because she told him legends must go on.”

Because the poems are drawn from previous collections in roughly chronological order, shadows lengthen over the book as the pages turn. The sensual, omnivorously inquisitive jump and play of the earlier works gradually gives way to a more measured undertone, and glances at the past become full-blown sentimental reminiscences of the poet's wild Australian youth, as in “Fashion Statement,” when he and his fellow dandies were caught up in the immemorial pastimes of the young:

To read the poets – seldom on the course –
To write a poem – never quite resolved –
To be removed from Manning House by force –
It was where the women were – to be involved
Completely – never fear what might befall –
In the task of doing nothing much at all.

The main flow of the poems carries on despite time – the classical allusions jostle right alongside the pop culture references, and always James the poet is watching people with the assessing eye of a sympathetic critic, but there are more frequent brushes of mortality like the one in “Sentenced to Life” that talks of autumn skies in England and memories of the bright sunlight of Australia.

The book is an infectiously exuberant performance, carried out over decades of learning and growing and reading and changing. Let's all hope for more.

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