20 November 2015

The Poet Has Come Down to Earth

The Book of My Enemy
by Clive James

I love a good poem, which is why I so rarely read any poetry. But there are no stinkers – none that I found, anyway – and few clunkers in this collection of Clive James’s career in verse. 

Mr James is often cleverer than many readers will be willing to tolerate, and his Ian Flemingish love of scientific and technical terminology, and of unpoetic objects like Focke-Wulf Fw. 152s, will put some readers off – especially if they happen to be female. I don’t suppose his general view of things would appeal to many women, anyway. Clive’s a man’s man. That’s okay with me.

Since most of these poems were written in the Seventies and Eighties, there’s a Cold War day-before-Doomsday air about many of them. Reading them today almost makes one nostalgic:

Snow falls again. The atmosphere turns white.
The airfields of East Anglia are socked in.
The atom bombers will not fly tonight.
Tonight the Third World War will not begin.

The earlier verse tends to be shorter, less ambitious and more involved with traditional poetical concerns — that is, with what Wordsworth called ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. I didn’t care for it so much. The later verse, in James’s mature style, is about just about everything, and it’s brilliant.

A generation ago, London literary pundits debated whether James was even a poet. Hadn’t he started out as a pop songwriter (and a not very successful one at that)? Didn’t his embrace of old Italian rhyme-schemes (ottava, terza rima) suggest an unhealthy obsession with technical matters, and perhaps an agoraphobic recoil from the wide open spaces of Modernism? The self-consciousness with which he deployed these metres suggests that he wasn’t too sure about it himself. Being Australian didn’t help, of course. 

Still, a poet and a good one is what Mr James indubitably is. And now that he’s translated the whole of Dante’s Commedia, it seems people are willing to accept him as one. Good on old Clive; those laurels were hard-earned. Here’s a collection of the work he did to earn them, and it’s brilliant. Buy. Read. Enjoy.