Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Remorseful Rhymes from an Old Rogue

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Remorseful Rhymes from an Old Rogue

Article excerpt

Byline: david sexton Critic of the Year

SENTENCED TO LIFE: POEMS 2011-2014 by Clive James (Picador, PS14.99) CLIVE James is a sorry shagger now. Back in 2012 he made the news when he announced that, suffering from leukaemia, kidney failure and lung disease, he was nearing the end. "I'm a man who is approaching his terminus," he told the BBC. In response, there was an outpouring of laudatory but as it turned out premature obituaries.

Happily, three years later, Clive James, is still with us, 75 now, telling an interviewer a couple of weeks ago "the end is nigh, but not that nigh" and joking: "I've got a lot done since my death." He has indeed including writing this new volume of poems in which he has adapted his light verse style to the serious subject of approaching death. You have to admire the tenacity, the sheer commitment to literature.

These poems, in which his braggadocio and salaciousness have been subdued by his plight, are in many ways the most sympathetic he has written. If they do not have a singing line or a purified diction, they make clear, tough sense: "What is it worth, then, this insane last phase/ When everything about you goes downhill?/ This much: you get to see the cosmos blaze/ And feel its grandeur even against your will,/ As it reminds you, just by being there,/ That it is here we live or else nowhere."

"Insane" is a bit broad and "reminds" not quite the word but it's nonetheless a strong statement.

James himself thinks he's writing better now than he ever did, having been prompted to lyricism by death's proximity. Or as he puts it in one of these poems, in a metaphor that doesn't quite work: "Think of the hawk, / Nailed to its perch by lack of strength, that learns/ To sing the lark's song."

He has never been much of a naturalist, despite insisting that he has become one now ("Now I catch the tone/ Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees/ Without my seeing them. I count the bees"). …

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