Review by Rob Spence
In one important respect, this book was outdated at the moment it was published: its subject, Clive James, having endured a terminal illness for ten years, finally succumbed just as the volume appeared. For this reader, like the author Ian Shircore a long-term fan of James, reading became a bittersweet process, as I mentally converted the present tense into the past.
It’s surprising that this book is the first lengthy critical work on James’s poetry. Or maybe not so surprising. Shircore points out that James, although a practising and accomplished poet for well over half a century, had to overcome the fact that his career in TV as a wisecracking talk show host overshadowed his literary achievements, which were, and are, considerable: four novels, numerous volumes of critical essays, about 200 song lyrics from his partnership with Pete Atkin, four volumes of autobiography, a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, books of cultural criticism, and so on. In addition, the published poetry now amounts to fifteen or so collections, and it is this work that is the focus of So Brightly At The Last. That title, a phrase from one of James’s late poems, is achingly appropriate, since it encapsulates the astonishing surge of creativity that was triggered by the poet’s terminal diagnosis in 2009. Shircore’s book, naturally, has much to say about this remarkable burst of poetic energy, which led to the production of three new collections, as well as a verse commentary on Proust and the Dante translation. Shircore reports that he was working on a sixth volume of memoirs as well. But this book offers a survey of James’s whole career, so the earlier verse is scrutinised too, including the mock-epic satires of the seventies as well as the formal and occasional verse that he published throughout his six-decade-long writing life.
Ian Shircore’s previous book (reviewed here) examined the songwriting partnership of Clive James and Pete Atkin, so this volume is a kind of companion. It follows a similar format, being organised into chapters that examine an aspect of James’s work, and then home in on a particular poem. Handily, that example is printed at the end of each chapter, providing a useful reference and also a reminder of the wonderful verbal dexterity that is the hallmark of all of James’s work.
As in the previous book, the approach is not academic, though that doesn’t mean that the critique isn’t thorough. Shircore’s style is chatty, informal and personal, but he is also able to produce very intelligent and thoughtful accounts of James’s poetic technique. Nor is he afraid of drawing attention to those elements that don’t work: this is no hagiography. In a way, this amounts to a kind of poetic biography – the subtitle is “Clive James and the Passion for Poetry”) – and that makes it an ideal primer for anyone who is interested in the work but hasn’t encountered much of it before.
It’s likely that newcomers to Clive James’s poetry would have first encountered him through the poem from which Shircore derives his title, ‘Japanese Maple.’ This poem, inspired by a daughter’s gift, appeared in the New Yorker in 2014, and quickly became a viral sensation. In the poem, the poet contemplates his imminent death, and aligns it with the forthcoming autumn, in which the tree’s “leaves will turn to flame” flaring, like the poet’s life, “so brightly at the last.” Shircore carefully guides us through the poem, allowing the poignant, deliberate confrontation with mortality to speak for itself. His approach to poetic exegesis is refreshingly straightforward. He admits, disarmingly, that despite his Eng Lit degree, he felt less than confident about the project, and credits the poet and editor Don Paterson, who worked with James for over 20 years, with guiding him in the right direction.
The result is a fresh and accessible account of an oeuvre that demands proper attention. Shircore’s observations are sharp, offering some real insight into the way these poems work, while never losing sight of their status as standalone works of, often, quite considerable art. There’s no truck with fashionable theory here: this is unapologetic close reading aimed at teasing out the patterns and intricacies at play in each poem. This does not mean that each poem is praised unreservedly. Indeed, sometimes the judgement seems harsh: ‘Dream Me Some Happiness’, a poem tangentially related to the work of John Donne, is “seriously flawed”, “self-indulgent” and “unsatisfyingly vague” with “distractingly leaden” images. This kind of robust criticism is refreshing, and is backed up, as all his judgements are, by careful reference to the text. No generalisations here. Nor is Shircore shy of admitting defeat: when he finds a phrase puzzling, he will say so- not everything is easily explicable. The book is also, and this is important, fun to read. Shircore’s informality matches the irrepressible humour of his subject, bubbling up unexpectedly in places. I caught a few embedded popular song quotations in his analysis, for instance.
For anyone who knows the work of Clive James, this book will act as a welcome wide-ranging overview. For those new to his poetry, this is definitely the place to start. The short chapters, each with the key poem highlighted, offer a compact version of the career, from the exuberant satires in heroic couplets via the comic slyness of poems like ‘The Book of My Enemy has been Remaindered’ to the final explosion of concentrated intensity that gave us the brilliantly affecting reflections on impending death.
In one revealing passage, Shircore reveals that his method was to work in discrete chapters, and sometimes this seems to work to his disadvantage, as repetitions creep in. We are introduced to Pete Atkin several times, for example, and have Don Paterson’s editorial role explained at various different points. These are very minor quibbles, however. The book works as a serious work of literary criticism and as a much-needed introduction to the poetic career of a man who aspired, as he said, to be “a fairly major minor poet.”
Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro
Ian Shircore, So Brightly At The Last: Clive James and the Passion for Poetry (Red Door, 2019). 978-1-913062-07-1, 261pp, hardbackBUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)