Having by chance heard Clive James read from his latest collection of poems, written between 2011 and 2014, on Radio 4 recently I was interested enough to get hold of a copy of the book, Sentenced to Life. James was a postgraduate Australian student at Cambridge in the 1960s and quickly made an impression. He has gone on to have a very public and successful career as an author, critic, broadcaster, journalist, poet, translator and chat show host.
How would he like to be remembered? I raise the question because New Yorker columnist, David Brooks, asks a similar one question in his book, The Road to Character, which I mentioned in my last blog: do we want to be remembered for our CV, listing all our qualifications and worldly successes (in the way that Wikipedia lists all James’s considerable output in several different fields), or do we want to be remembered for the way in which our “character” has impressed other people? By character, Brooks means qualities like steadfastness, perseverance, integrity, loyalty – and humility.
Humility is generally the first casualty of fame – and James is a famous media personality. Yet the reason I went out and got a copy of his poems is because behind the wheezing tones of an old man (he is suffering from the life-limiting conditions of emphysema and leukaemia) I sensed a deeper note of authenticity in his voice, a recitation not played for laughs (which have always come easily to James in the past), but instead, stating how reality now strikes him, in short, well-crafted, moving lyrics.
They reflect the sorrows and regrets of his life – not least the pain he caused his wife when details of an affair were widely publicised in 2012. Driftwood Houses includes the line, “A sad man, sorrier than he can say” and in Rounded with a Sleep he writes, “No cure, that is, for these last years of grief/As I repent and yet find no relief”. They show him facing up to death without flinching or self-pity: “Today I am restored by my decline/And by the harsh awakening it brings.” In My Home he describes his writing, in a beautiful image, as “the sad skirl of a piper in the rain”, adding, “If I seem close to tears/It’s for my sins…”
“Sins” is a word it’s hard to avoid, even when you are an atheist like James. He has described religions as “advertising agencies for a product that doesn’t exist” and in an interview with Jon Snow on Channel 4 in 2010 he made it clear he believes there is no life beyond this one. “That it is here we live or else nowhere” is the constant refrain in the poem Event Horizon.
Yet behind this conviction there is, I sense, a yearning for some form of immortality. There is so much awareness of natural beauty, so much intense self-reflection and so strong a wish to get life into some perspective – “I spent a lifetime pampering my mind” he laments in Change of Domicile – that I think his poetical and creative heart is at odds with his rational, argumentative mind.
Sometimes the crafting of a poem is the nearest one can get to the mystery of eternal beauty.