Poems by Clive James
Too Many Poets
Sentenced to Life
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Articles on Poetry
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 last night from where it always
Behaves as if it had never been to Europe
And burns your cheeks. This version chills them stiff.
The light is thin, even the wind is thin –
The strain of love as sung by Peter Pears –
And on the roofs of cars that shone before
Under the lamps but now are lit from space,
Those tears are not the dew of the Pacific,
Just drops of rain.
Three quarters of the poets
Here at the Festival speak double Dutch
From where I stand, still stuck with rhyme and rhythm.
This isn’t Edinburgh or Cheltenham:
It’s more like, well, a modest out-of-town
Gig with the smell of fish thrown in. You read,
Take questions, sign your books and hit the sack.
In charge, the fine young lady with the eyes –
Toast Catalogue meets
Will spark a poem from the chap who looks
Like the top half of Ted Hughes, but that’s the lot,
Unless you clock the haddock they bring in
On toy boats with no names but only numbers,
To fill the crunchy gold beer-batter sleeves
In the restaurant your hotel is famous for.
But look, you must have done well. On the second
Pale morning when the same dawn walks again,
Poseidon, with his Maserati logo
Wrapped to the barbs in kelp and bladderwrack,
Comes bubbling up and shouts to you: “Good choice!
I make this scene at least one day a year.
You have to keep it real sometimes, and I
Get tired of Acapulco and the Hamptons.
Too many big yachts I can’t tower over.
Too many Russian girls. Too much Ralph Lauren.
Bling eats the soul.”
His beard, indeed, I note,
As well as all the standard shells and pearls,
Has plastic bags in it. What better warrant
For throttling back on pretty talk? And if
I can’t do that, what am I doing here,
Watching the nun-like progress of Aurora?
She bends to touch the ever-shifting shingle,
Her grey-on-grey cloak pink just at the edges,
And breathes cold light on salt-cured wildflowers –
Small, pinched, set wide apart. Lives of the poets.
The sun is up, the low clouds drained away
From the horizon, and beside the shell
Rigged on the beach as if for selling petrol
To veteran Ducks that got lost after D-day,
I scan the flat sea and the pale blue vault
Streaked at the far edge with the vapour trails
Of the morning’s first jets racing into Holland.
This fan of metal Maggi Hambling built,
Apparently from concentrated rust,
Is hard edged, two men high, and takes the sun
No better than a half-track opened up
By a Typhoon’s rocket in the Falaise Gap,
But the rubric at its rim shines clear and bright:
“I hear those voices that will not be drowned.”
Words meant to make us think of
But I think of the
and the festivals
That Hopkins never went to. Pagan gods
Are all I see where he saw Christ in glory:
A matching shell, but this time luminous,
Awash with lustre, rises from the water,
And Venus speaks.
“I’m stunned that you can face me.
When have you ever suffered for your art?
Men who weren’t mad for glamour gave their lives
To work here. You should try it for ten minutes.”
The men she meant, of course, were Britten’s crew:
Abbots of music I enjoy so little
I long for an old world put back together
So Erich Wolfgang Korngold might have written
A lot more operas. I made that much clear,
Yet still she lay down on the rug I’d brought,
Saying she didn’t feel the cold. I did:
I kept my clothes on and just looked at her,
Trying to tell myself it was enough
To see her, since the memory would serve,
And she need not appear to me again –
Not her nor any of the other gods
I stole from Bullfinch back in the year dot.
One last kiss, then. Roll up the empty rug,
And back to the hotel across the pebbles,
So far from the hot sand that formed my habit
Of softening reality with dreams.
High time, I thought, for putting paid to that:
If I see revenants, then they should come
From the latest burned-out girls’ school in the Valley
Of Swat, be cursed with sense enough to see
That this place – silent, bleak, so short of action
You can hear the lichen grow – is next to heaven.
The second and last night, my main event:
On stage with Alan Jenkins as we talk
About each other’s clutch of favourite poems.
Lunge with your Yeats, I parry with my Hope:
A pissing contest with electric foils –
Snap, crackle and occasional blue flash –
Yet still, of all the ways to boost the guild,
Nothing is catchier than talking shop.
The audience has copies. I point out
Frost’s “Silken Tent” is put together like
Its subject – all the tensions are resolved,
Simply by balance, into relaxation –
While A.J. takes the best approach to Larkin,
Whose cadences might well be new to some.
Scanning the crowded hall, I duly note
That the top half of Ted Hughes is moving in
On the ash blonde with the Tea Leoni profile:
A legend now throughout the festival
For never having heard of Andrew Marvell
And for her breasts, twin kittens trapped in cashmere.
There was a day – like, yesterday – when I
Would have cast her as Helen’s sister Phoebe,
The thoughtful one with the career-girl glasses
And a killing line in loose La Perla smalls,
But now my gaze is drawn to a young woman
Distinguished only by her concentration
As she takes notes. Later, I ask her why.
A schoolteacher. So some of what we said
Might have a further life beyond our time:
One quoted phrase, one line, one anecdote –
The only immortality that lasts.
No god for that save Mercury, the messenger.
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 Rostropovitch,
Once happy to make music here. But no,
They’re real. “We liked that one about the tent.”
Feeling my age, I go back to my room,
Make tea, and catch a re-run of