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.