Magazine article The Spectator

The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958-2003

Magazine article The Spectator

The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958-2003

Article excerpt

Hunting the killer rhyme THE BOOK OF MY ENEMY: COLLECTED VERSE 1958-2003 by Clive James Picador, £15.99, pp. 437, ISBN 0330420046

Twenty years ago Clive James's poetry represented all that I most disliked about contemporary Englit. For a start it was practically ubiquitous. Barely had one laid down the Christmas number of the London Review of Books containing a lengthy Jamesian summary of the bygone year, it seemed, than one walked into a bookshop to find a remaindered copy of Charles Charming's Challenges winking at one from the bargain bin. Then again, an air of metropolitan cliquishness rose off its shiny surface like sweat. It appeared to consist mostly of tinkling tributes to well-placed chums ('Among the foremost ranks of your adherents/I'm vocal to the point of incoherence,' our man addressed his fast friend Martin Amis) of the kind who clustered around the editorial desk of the late Ian Hamilton's New Review. It was in addition both self-advertisingly brainy (lots of foreign quotations) and tremendously pleased with itself.

All that, I hasten to add, was two decades back and time has softened many, if not all, of these asperities. Above all, time has allowed this particular reader to gain some kind of grip on the historical context in which James the versifier flourishes. At bottom he derives from that fine old English tradition of 'light verse' (a definition which doesn't at all exclude seriousness) going back as far as Praed, Frederick Locker-Lampson's vers de societe and, a bit later, Ronald Knox (The latter, desperate once for a rhyme for 'hollyhock', came up with the Latin injunction 'tolle hoc!'.) His best stuff, particularly the verse obituaries, achieves an altogether moving simplicity. The worst is highbrow doggerel (thus to Craig Raine from Biarritz: 'The beach girls run/With naked bosoms on my low horizon/And yet yours are the lines I've got my eye on'). The whole, perhaps inevitably, displays the pros and cons of light versifying in more or less equal parts.

Chief among the latter is the constriction imparted by form, all those tight little metrical straitjackets which can occasionally seem to stifle the sentiments they enclose. Wide awake kind of guy that he is, James readily acknowledges this drawback, as in the letter to Prue Shaw from Cambridge which runs, 'I'm striving to condense/within the terza rima my ideas/Concerning us, the arts and world events. …

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