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Aug 5, 2009

On the awfulness of Clive James

Australian Literary Review have published another whopper Clive James poem. His poetry is "self-parodic" and "depressingly bad" , sighs Guy Rundle.

Sigh. Another Australian Literary Review, another Clive James poem, its very existence subtracting from the sum worth of poetry as a mode of expression. This one Aldeburgh Dawn is about a literary festival that James attended. When it’s not merely self-parodic:

Later, near midnight, on the esplanade
A pair of ancient people hand in hand
Sit on a bench. Ideally they should be
The ghosts of Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich…

It’s merely depressingly bad. Take the start:

‘From slate sea that would gleam white were it not
The Gulf Stream cooled by nothing except England
A run-down sun emerges to remind me
How far it came from last night where it always
Behaves as if it had never been to Europe
And burns your cheeks….

Dexterous, yes. Sets a global context, time of day, hints at author’s origins, knows what a horse is. The point? Even though the sun’s out, it’s chilly. Amazingly for a poem that begins with small-talk about the weather, it gets more boring as it goes on, quite an anti-achievement. The ‘it’s coolish’ passage has the mark of great bad poetry a la former laureate Alfred Austin, whose famous lines in a poem on the death of George V set the standard:

Across the wires the electric message came
He is no better, he is much the same.

There’s nothing wrong with writing popular verse and/or submitting to the discipline of rhyme and scansion. Betjeman and Larkin could do it, because they wrote about things people know and are moved by, suburban life, hospital visits, the tedium of work, etc etc. James attempts a popular mode, then lards it with references that, in 2009, only cultural specialists will know:

The light is thin, the wind is chill-
The strain of love as sung by Peter Pears-

Which piggybacks on Pears’s — Benjamin Britton’s lover and preferred interpreter of his vocal music — performance of Peter Grimes*. Most people who get that reference (used to little effect in any case) will be nauseated by the poem’s doggerel style, while for most of those who like the sing-song, it’s a dead line.

Why do people keep publishing this stuff? It’s not as if James doesn’t give us a clue — in his unentertaining novel The Remake, he has a stocky character named ‘CJ’ jogging around a track. Who’s that guy someone asks? Writer, someone replies, “his poetry sounds like reproduction furniture looks.”

The fact that this line is exact and telling suggests James’s tragedy: he’s a gag writer and whatever lightning-strike gave him that skill simultaneously foreclosed the capacity to do something else. The more he strains to take the world seriously (witness his 900 page Cultural Amnesia, a self-serving book of drive-by essays, dedicated to Aung Sung Suu Kyi, among others) the more awful the result.

The man’s a brilliant highbrow parodist, a capable light-verse writer, but he has never been and never will be a poet of interest. His continued publication in that mode in Australia is pure cultural cringe (when it isn’t actual sycophancy), to the boy who made good in London. Yet, with the exception of Peter Porter, all the genuinely talented poets — Hope, Murray, Wright, Gig Ryan, Kevin Hart, Forbes, and many more — stayed or returned, as did the novelists, while the critics, commentators and hustlers (James, Hughes, Greer) went. The process is self-selecting.

It’s reasonable that something like ALR would want to publish relatively more accessible poetry, rather than a full John Kinsella head-reaming, but there are plenty of poets who write in that mode. It doesn’t matter where they are, it just matters that they’re good. James ain’t. Posterity will record him as remarking that Arnold Schwarzenegger looks like a “condom stuffed with walnuts”** and that’s it. A small grave, but not nothing. I’ve measured it from side to side/tis one line long and four words wide.

*I think. Unless it’s something else. I had to read the libretto of this depressing opera as a set-text in Year 8. Why? Why?

**even here he’s tiresome, insisting that the funnier version is his original remark that the governator looks like “a brown condom stuffed with walnuts.” But the joke has been wiki-edited in the retelling to be tighter and funnier. You don’t need the word “brown”, because any condom stuffed with walnuts would look like a body-builder — so the colour distinction is redundant and slows the gag down. Christ, I badly need to retrain for a new profession.

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23 thoughts on “On the awfulness of Clive James

  1. Frank Campbell

    Later, near midnight, on the esplanade
    I strangled Clive James
    But only the poet.

  2. simon blackall

    In his double asterisked footnote Guy says he badly needs to retrain for a new profession. One can only agree if he continues to refer to someone called Benjamin Britton (as opposed to Britten).

  3. Jean Webster

    Phew, I thought it was only me.
    Clive James has always been a second-rate club act, though without the self-awareness for which second-rate club acts are generally so renowned..

  4. Richard Murphy

    Sure it’s dreadful, and it resembles much else that continues to be published at least until the last niche lit mag finally gags on reader indifference. Which in turn suggests we are witnessing a historico-cultural phenomenon: no-one can rhetorically speak for anyone else anymore no matter how artful the prosody. Like ‘fine’ art poetry in English is losing or has lost the power to advance its own cultural perspective.
    Mainstream art forms have lost or are losing the power to serve as beacons for the community in its search for meaning in contemporary life. So, are we on the verge of a quantum leap in universal consciousness? 2012 is not that far away.

  5. james mcdonald

    Good review, Guy, of another in our legions of social-realist depressives who believe that accurately conveying a mood — any mood, particularly those of a writer with the black dog on his back — is something worth serving up to the world.

    Only Raymond Chandler was able to raise such non-statements to art form: “Nobody came in, nobody called, nothing happened, nobody cared whether I died or went to El Paso.”

    The sense of empathy can be darkly seductive to the more introspective readers — I even get a hint of this in your footnotes, so I hope you’ll review something more upbeat for us next time.

  6. Guy Rundle

    not really simon, i’d be slapdash in everything i did.

  7. james mcdonald

    Oh, and Simon Blackall? One of the things I like about Guy is he’s old school, a bit of a Tom Wolfe successor, and carries all this stuff around in his head; he doesn’t write with one hand constantly on the mouse for wikipedia references. As they say about hand-made furniture: “Minor flaws emphasize the hand-made quality.”

    If your definition of quality journalism is scrupulous adherence to the reference spelling for everything (a quite recent development in English writing, by the way), then perhaps you’re wasting your money on newsletters and would be happier browsing dictionaries and phone books.

  8. george

    “…all the genuinely talented poets … stayed or returned” What about Randolph Stow?!?!

  9. paddy

    I’m with you Guy. It would have to be a very dark and stormy night, before I could bring myself to read anything Clive “Bulwer-Lytton” James claimed as his poetry.

  10. John Inglis

    The similarity between the art and form of Clive James and that of a Vogon is obvious. We need to ask him two questions.
    Where is the planning department ?
    Can we get a lift ?