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Clive James on poetry, family and illness: “I’m a bit terrified, this really is the mark of the end”

The 74-year-old poet and broadcaster, who is terminally ill, reads a new poem “Driftwood Houses” and reflects on his career, family and the power of “simple, ordinary things”.

Clive James is, by some miracle, 74 years old. He was diagnosed with terminal leukemia and emphysema in 2010, and has come close to death a number of times. I'm in no doubt that everything depends on modern technology, he said, when we visited him recently in Cambridge, and the availability of cheap electricity”.

Everybody has a favourite Clive James. He is a poet, broadcaster, critic, author and translator, whose most recent work – his “crowning achievement” – is a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Since arriving from Australia in 1962, he has forged a reputation unlike any other in British public life. Even now he is brimming with ideas. He plans to abandon journalism over the coming months in order to start work on a new book – or two. There’s already one in the bag, however, a book of poetry criticism which will be published this autumn, “even if I drop off the twig, as we say in Australia”.

While we spoke, James’s sentences were punctuated by a violent, rattling cough. “This has exhausted me,” he said as we drew to a close. “But I’ve loved every minute of it.”

As we left and loaded our cameras into the car, he came out and stood by the gate. He thanked me for my questions, for taking care of the poem published in this week’s New Statesman, and for coming up to visit. “Oh to be starting out,” he said. “What I wouldn’t give to be starting out again.”

In the video above, James reads his new poem, “Driftwood Houses”; below he talks about poetry, family, illness and his plans for the future.

Driftwood Houses
by Clive James

The ne plus ultra of our lying down,
Sled-riders face-down see the earth unpeeled
Into their helmets by a knife of light.
Just so, I stare into the racing field
Of ice as I lie on my side and fight
To cough up muck. This bumpy slide downhill
Leads from my bed to where I’m bound to drown
At this rate. I get up and take a walk,
Lean on the balustrade and breathe my fill
At last. The wooden stairs down to the hall
Stop shaking. Enough said. To hear me talk
You’d think I found my fate sad. Hardly that:
All that has happened is I’ve hit the wall.
Disintegration is appropriate,

As once, on our French beach, I built, each year,
Among the rocks below the esplanade,
Houses from driftwood for our girls to roof
With towels so they could hide there in the shade
With ice creams that would melt more slowly. Proof
That nothing built can be for ever here
Lay in the way those frail and crooked frames
Were undone by a storm-enhanced high tide
And vanished. It was time, and anyhow
Our daughters were not short of other games
Which were all theirs, and not geared to my pride.
And here they come. They’re gathering shells again.
And you in your straw hat, I see you now,
As I lie restless yet most blessed of men.

More by Clive James in the NS:

“Procedure for Disposal”

“Nature Programme”

“The Emperor’s Last Waltz”

“My Latest Fever”

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Why the class of '94 still rules British poetry

The message of the 1990s generation - that seeing clearly is not as simple as we think - comes across powerfully in four new collections.

In 1994, the “New Generation” of poets was intent on bringing about one of those shifts that periodically redefine a culture. Twenty-odd years later, we can see that, imperfect though the project may have been, the baby boomers did change the face of British poetry. The class of ’94 still dominates the field, as this quartet of fine books demonstrates.

Of the four poets under review – one each from the remaining big trade poetry publishers – it is Kathleen Jamie who has arguably shifted ground the most over the decades. She is now equally well known for her insightful, evocative prose about the Scottish environment, in Findings and Sightlines. Like her prize-winning previous collection, The Overhaul, The Bonniest Companie is alive to every detail of plant and creature. Though they also capture skies, stones and animals, its (mostly short) poems work a little like a herbarium, storing these details for us to examine “a rock-pipit’s seed-small notes”, or “every fairmer’s fenceposts/splashed with gold”.

But the excitement of The Bonniest Companie comes in the concentration of its language and the way that concentration reveals its author’s fierce focus. The inclusion by anglophone Scots of entirely Scots poems in English-language books is a contemporary cliché and can be rebarbative. By contrast, Jamie reinvigorates poetic language, using dialect and loanwords alongside standard English to create vivid, springy textures. Colloquial compressions add to the bouncing, tight rhythms. Stepped lines compress the springs yet further.

None of this is drily technical: this joyous book re-creates the livingness it observes. A poem such as “Migratory III” feels tossed and slung between the line ends:

Those swans out there at the centre

of the loch

a dozen or thirteen

moored close together, none adrift –

they’ve only just arrived

an arrow-true, close-flocked,

ocean-crossing skein . . .

If Jamie has broken through to a new and distinct form of northern lyric, her compatriot Don Paterson deepens a long-term project in his 40 Sonnets. In recent books, he has variously translated, written about and anthologised the form. He is a master of strict formal verse, and his virtuoso touch has always embraced both humour and moving metaphysical reflection, as it does again here. The collection includes comic monologue, an onomatopoeic record of white noise, homage, love poetry and elegy.

Most of the 40 poems are in iambic pentameter. This is no longer the automatic choice for the sonnet form, as Paterson knows better than most. Elsewhere, beyond the sonnet, pentameter seems a natural fit for the diction of certain contemporary poets (such as Tony Harrison or Sean O’Brien) who have a particular kind of lapidary authority. For Paterson’s quicksilver intelligence, iambic pentameter provides a less “natural”, more audible music: the form adds to and changes the poem, not only as it is being written but for the reader. We hear and rehear its effects and the well-known sonnets of history echo in Paterson’s poems:

The body is at home in time and space

and loves things, how they come and go,

and such

distances as it might cross or place

between the things it loves and its

own touch.

Characteristically criss-crossed with a metaphysical thought that is also a spatial metaphor, this is an extract from “Souls”, one of several sonnets here that will surely soon enter the anthologies.

Sarah Maguire’s Almost the Equinox is itself an anthology. This generous volume, at almost 150 pages long, interleaves work from her four collections, eschewing the conventional chronological treatment. In its new and satisfying whole, we trace recurring themes. Each of three consecutive poems called “Psoriasis” is taken from a different collection. Connections are often tonal and emotional: a Tunisian migrant’s story juxtaposed with a Warsaw childhood juxtaposed with Ramallah create what Maguire calls “the soft cry of crossed songs”.

She observes the physical world and the definitive failure of human choices with equal clarity. Her tone can be wry: “Your abandoned bottle of Russkaya vodka lies in my icebox,/Cold as a gun . . .” After a while, though, it becomes apparent that wryness is a veil. These are love poems to the world. The “you” that they repeatedly address is not necessarily a lover but the poet’s self; even, perhaps, us. Maguire’s world knits together even when it seems not to: the Middle East and London, the lost birth mother with the adoptive one, absent lover and speaker. As she writes in her title poem, “The tide has turned, the Thames comes inching back,/drowning everything it will reveal again.”

If Maguire’s poetic world is densely furnished, Neil Rollinson’s seems to have had everything unnecessary removed. ­Talking Dead, his fourth collection, is as lucid and direct as anything being written today. Partly that is because he has moved beyond contrivance. Every word is subordinated to its purpose: not the display but a mastery of the writing self.

Rollinson was not part of the “New Generation” promotion but made his debut two years later. Though his poems read with the ease of apparent artlessness, they are absolutely wrought. This book’s title sequence turns the “little death” convention about orgasm inside out: the recently dead speak of the rapture of violent demise. That could be appalling in both taste and tone. But these lyrics are perfectly judged, as when “Talking Dead – The Bed” turns drowning into a dream sequence:

I opened my mouth to breathe,

like I do in dreams,

and the water flowed into me.

The point is not reportage but the resolving logic of a beauty that is found in unexpected places: death, the smell of urine, a child kicking a toadstool.

Rollinson has an impeccable ear. His eye is impeccable, too. And possibly that is the lesson of the 1990s generation: seeing clearly is not so simple as we once thought. 

Fiona Sampson’s collection “The Catch” is newly published by Chatto & Windus

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie is published by Picador (62pp, £9.99)

Almost the Equinox: Selected Poems by Sarah Maguire is published by Chatto & Windus (149pp, £15.99)

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson is published by Faber & Faber (44pp, £14.99)

Talking Dead by Neil Rollinson is published by Jonathan Cape (51pp, £10)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war