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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. simon blackall

    Well James McDonald, I always thought critics were supposed to be accurate. Obviously you think differently.

  2. AR

    I’m a bit lost. Given Jame’s series of talks with Peter Porter many years ago (always rebroadcast during the Dec-Jan deadzone on ABC’s RN) really allowed me, a poetry loather from my first drawn breath, to understand, yay enjoy what they were discussing, I’ve always assumed that he wrote such crap for the same reason that ‘artists’ put bricks or urinals in art galleries, because the wankers can’t tell the difference.
    Are you SURE that he thinks it is good?

  3. Venise Alstergren

    Can I have a crack at awful poetry? Let’s see…an example of rotten poetry.

    England parted from colonial Empire
    where David Flint look alikes are filled with ire.
    Certainty abounds
    To be Australian is more than dire
    It is an insult to the fire
    that was England.

    Clive James must be reaching for a gong to write about England in those dreamy terms. Sure sign of a constipated mentality.

  4. deccles

    He’s a bit of Tom Wolfe? For crying out loud. I read Tom Wolfe’s recent article on the Apollo mission and I’ve yet to read anything Guy Rundle’s written to begin to match it.

    Clive James loves poetry but is crap at it. He trades on his reputation. James certainly isn’t the first and will not be the last. One thing Clive does better than Guy is the art of criticism. The Observer collection of Television reviews alone are a case in point.

    Benjamin Britton was supposed to be Benjamin Britten? That’s unforgiveable. Why does Crikey bother with editors if they don’t use them? (Jonathon?)

  5. Jonathan Maddox

    If Guy needs to retrain for a second career I can recommend a sojourn at Cambridge where Guy will be able to gain a proper appreciation for Benjamin Britten’s music (he may have lived and loved in Aldeburgh but his present-day fans all seem to live 80 miles inland).

    If he’s really lucky, Guy might scrape an honours degree in computer science from the University of East Anglia.

    And Deccles, that’s Jonathan with two A’s, to you 😉

  6. yeahrightasif

    You think the poetry is bad, try the song lyrics.

  7. Joseph Duvernay

    Man! You guys are hard!
    Yes, when something we are spreading ourselves on
    like a coat over a ditch for a fairer one
    seems to be taken as joke one is the butt of,
    wrath and anger even Achilles or Agamemnon knew not
    wraps itself, mantle all, over us
    and seeing out takes tremendous effort.

    So, wanted to throw in the ring, as non-pedantic as possible,
    (at least that is wish and feel) a rhetoric quest again, of –
    isn’t there, in art, room for every conceivable,
    any form an eye or hand can make; is not every creature made
    of this fine mud, our dust alive on, capable, able to lift its try to air,
    and claim, “Look what I’ve done!”?

    Or is that fat-mouth bully intolerance, shut out of town, by pop vote,
    come back in by a back route, to crash the gate and upset carts?

    Don’t get ahead of yourself Joe! You are still merely working on
    your empathetic face, your loose train of guts in the race – once –
    man against man, now of sister-necessity, us against us if we don’t
    come to sense.

    Well now that I’ve made you seriously dislike me…
    talk about big mouths.

    – Comments are better than bird-fling, I mean Twitting!

  8. james mcdonald

    Good question Joe and nicely expressed. Answer: yes, in moderation. But social realist wrist-slashers are not some voice crying out in the wilderness. Wallowing in depression and ennui is entitled to a place at the table of literature, not to hog it all night long and drown out every every other voice in the joint. Repeat a lie often enough – that if you don’t live a meaningless life of quiet desperation you’re shallow and worthy only of syrupy jingos not serious literature – and it becomes the truth. Is that what Clive wants?

  9. Sean

    Next week: the poetry of John Laws.

  10. Philip Harvey

    The poet hatches, the editor self-attaches, the reader dispatches. When young, Clive James read Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’; he’s been emulating the master’s poem ever since, with mixed results. Poetry being written in Australia today is rich and strange, it should be out there where its readers can see it for the first time. I think that’s what Guy Rundle is implying. ABR has come a long way though in this respect. When Peter Rose introduced poems into ABR there was an outcry of disapproval; now the disapproval is about what sort of poem should get the special treatment. Meawhile, I do enjoy the ABC repeats of the Porter-James show every summer. The contrast is apparent throughout: Clive makes a general observation about Marvell, Pope, or Browning, then Peter contradicts Clive every time saying that’s not right, then giving an opinion that is plainly original and based on regular reading of the poets under discussion. Clive is the foil to the main act, and why not? Another question is this: the ABC has a great formula here, why doesn’t it invite other poets to perform a similar show this summer?