The Fire Of Joy
The Fire of Joy is an autobiographical anthology, written in the last year of Clive James's life. "A combination of critical anthology, teaching aid, hymnal and breviary," it will be published on October 1 2020 by Picador.
"The French expression feu de joie refers to a military celebration when all the riflemen of a regiment fire one shot after another, in close succession: ideally the sound should be continuous, like a drumroll. I first saw a feu de joie performed at an Australian army tattoo, in the main arena at the Sydney Showground, while I was still in short trousers. Later on, when I was doing national service in longer trousers, I saw the ceremony performed again, on the parade ground in Ingleburn, New South Wales, in 1958. Symbolically, the fire of joy is a reminder that the regiment’s collective power relies on the individual, and vice versa.
Imprinted on my mind, the succession of explosions became an evocation of the heritage of English poets and poetry, from Chaucer onwards. It still strikes me as a handy metaphor for the poetic succession, especially because, in the feu de joie, nobody got hurt. It was all noise: and noise, I believe, is the first and last thing that poetry is. If a poem doesn’t sound compelling, it won’t continue to exist. This is an especially important thing to say in the present era, when the pseudo-modernist idea still persists that there might be something sufficiently fascinating about the way that words are arranged on the page.
With a poem the most important thing is the way it sounds when you say it. At that rate even the most elementary nursery rhyme has it all over the kind of overstuffed epic that needs 10 pages of notes for every page of text, and reduces all who read it to paralysed slumber – or even worse, to a bogus admiration.
My understanding of what a poem is has been formed over a lifetime by the memory of the poems I love; the poems, or fragments of poems, that got into my head seemingly of their own volition, despite all the contriving powers of my natural idleness to keep them out. I discovered early on that a scrap of language can be like a tune in that respect: it gets into your head no matter what. In fact, I believe, that is the true mark of poetry: you remember it despite yourself.
The Italians have a word for the store of poems you have in your head: a gazofilacio. To the English ear it might sound like an inadvisable amatory practice involving gasoline, but in its original language it actually means a treasure chamber of the mind. The poems I remember are the milestones marking the journey of my life. And unlike paintings, sculptures or passages of great music, they do not outstrip the scope of memory, but are the actual thing, incarnate."