Clive James gets all poetical

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Lytal teaches at the Pratt Institute and writes fiction.

Clive James has been a fish out of water, a television personality and a poet, a memoirist who befriended Princess Diana . . . and an erudite critic, a regular in England’s most important literary journals. Yet his own fame, as what the English call a TV presenter, ruined his reputation: “As a show business name, I was crossed off the list of the serious.”

But American audiences have hardly heard of him. Presented now with “Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958-2008,” we should be able to read his poetry on its own merits, free from visions of “Saturday Night Clive.”

Yet the poetry, more than James’ criticism, reminds us of the TV presenter. In “Sack Artist,” Don Juan rubs shoulders with James Bond. What united the two profiles -- talk show host and omnivorous literary critic -- is an ease with name-dropping, a tendency to talk shop. His most famous poem, indeed, plays to other authors. Titled “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered,” it imagines that a rival’s badly selling book has been permanently discounted:


Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized

And sits in piles in a police warehouse,

My enemy’s much-praised effort sits in piles

In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.

There is nothing wrong, to be sure, with being an insider or with giving life to the wicked tongue of jealousy. But James resents the idea that he is only “a kind of court jester” and in his introduction cites early influences like Thom Gunn, Robert Lowell and Robert Graves. The earliest poem included here duly achieves a startling lyricism, “As I touch you / Tables turn / Towers lean / Witches burn,” only to end on a note of apologetic show-biz bathos: “As I leave you / Lenses shiver / Flags fall / Show’s over.”

When it comes to sensibility, James is wistful but seldom melancholy -- he’s too easily distracted for that. His unflagging eye for flesh often veers from beauty, caught by the titillations of a memorable line: “Bottoms bisected by a piece of string / Will wobble through the heat-haze like a dream,” he says in the title poem, an ode to his native Australia.

His best poems about women bring us full circle. They celebrate celebrities, many who now need footnotes. “Bring Me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini,” a piece of plaintive braggadocio that recalls Ronsard, refers to a tennis player in the late 1980s. Others, like “Yusra,” take a name out of the headlines in order to saddle current events with James’ metered chivalry. Pursued by the “Public Morals Unit of Hamas,” Yusra suffers a ghastly fate -- “Her young man drove. Beside him as they fled, / Yusra died quickly in a hail of lead” -- but becomes the subject of a stirring lament: “Yusra, your name too lovely to forget / Shines like a sunrise joined to a sunset. / The day between went with you.”

Being the critic that he is, James turns the book’s introduction into a critical broadside. He attacks “modern formless poetry” on the strange ground that it lacks inspiration, which James associates with catchy, sayable lines. He claims that his poems are “the genuine result of a bolt from the blue.” That may be true of “Bottoms bisected by a piece of string,” but spontaneity isn’t everything. “Opal Sunset” is thin where last year’s “Cultural Amnesia” was thin. James’ much-reviewed critical opus was often a scarf of shoptalk and anecdotes, in which critical challenges (how to track the white stag of literary experience?) were abandoned in favor of flashy historical questions (did this or that writer get totalitarianism right?).

“Opal Sunset” contains poems of compact grace and steady, modest emotion. James’ lines, anchored by memorable phrases and obviously the production of a serious verbal talent, more than fulfill James’ meager definition of poetry, that it be sayable. But most readers of poetry want more. Looking, perhaps guiltily, for that je ne sais quoi they expect from poetry, they will find instead a wealth of cultural history and critical observation set to rhyme.