“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting” so the saying goes (the sayer being Robert Frost) and that phrase bounded around my little brain last night as I read the introduction to Opal Sunset, the new collection of selected poems that was released to introduce American readers to Clive James.

But I didn’t apply Frost’s phrase to the creation of the poem but to a poet’s reputation. James, in his  introduction (ostensibly written for American readers since he is a popular figure in Great Britian) has a couple of themes he awkwardly retreads. 

The first is that James seems to be concerned about his reputation as a poet, that we take him seriously. This anxiety stems from two likely sources. James is a television personality in his adopted country and for years he made a good living as a critic of television and popular culture (it appears his show “Clive James on Television” regularly belittled the dross flickering fare American ingested night after night). And of course we like our poets to be poets and only poets (just like we like our actors to be actors) and when someone crosses over into the realm of poetry from another artistic medium we’re naturally skeptical and James understands this:

“I got poems into the serious periodicals even while I was functioning as a TV critic and literary journalist.”

Defensive phrases like this are sprinkled throughout the introduction. Speaking on his reputation as a poet, James has “sometimes fretted from the neglect” and, most telling:

“Nearing old age now, I have put in enough unpaid time at this activity to prove that the title of poet is one I might claim, if it is permissible to do other things and still claim it.”

Does a person who has published numerous volumes of poetry through respected publishing houses (including collected poems and an earlier compilation of selected poems) have to claim the title of poet? How very bizarre. Is he concerned that Americans, many of whom likely don’t know him as a television personality, will lump him with other celebrity poets like Jewel and Jimmy Stewart and Leonard Nimoy? Does he still need to claw and scratch to earn a reputation as a “serious poet?” Apparently.

This brings us to the second theme bandied about in James’s introduction: reputation and the professional poet. James remarks that because he earned his bread in another field, he was free of the responsibility apparently felt by “career poets” and this freedom allowed James to write what he wanted to write when inspiration moved him brightly, or as he puts it, to “wait to be struck by lightning.”

James argues that professional poets don’t have the luxury to wait for the inspiration, that they have to continually produce, that they cease thinking about the individual poem as the necessary unit of measure and begin to think about their body of work, which leads to substandard poems. James writes:

“A poet courts such extended flatness when he starts to believe in his own career: an acreage of the self-similar, the architecture of a car-park.”

This is an interesting attitude (and one that was likely arrived at for the wrong reasons) and he goes on to cite Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore and Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn as examples of this slow decline in potent verse.  I don’t wholly believe that careerism is the root of a poet’s decline but rather the poets (like those above) were so ingenious early in their career amd made such a huge splash that they couldn’t help but slide on their own melting.

Okay. I did what I wanted not to do. I’m critiquing the introduction to a book I’ve barely read instead of speaking to James’ poem in the December 1, 2008, issue of the New Yorker. Maybe if my children allow me to sleep for an extra hour, I may give Opal Sunset a proper review and explore this idea of careerism and the decline of a poet’s work, and post it somewhere on this site but until then….

“Signing Ceremony” is a typical James poem: formal and a little bit funny. The poem has a measured voice that sounds a little bit like Richard Wilbur or Anthony Hecht or Joe Harrison, though, somehow, not as sure of itself.

I like parts of this poem, it’s sure of itself and sweet and ultimately a testament to a couple’s love. But like much of James’s poetry, there is an unchecked exuberance that tends to work to unravel the whole. The deployment of meter and rhyme is, as usual, skilled but there are places where it feels like he’s padding the meter and really working to hit the rhymes and turns in image and tone, particularly the third and fifth stanza, that detract from the whole too.  James wants to be both sweet, light, and profound, but for some reason it’s not working here. Is it because we begrudge him for musing about the passage of time from such a wonderful setting or is t because the logic of the poem doesn’t hold?

My attention can no longer hold and if you’ve made it this far I’m sure yours can’t either so I’m begging off.  Perhaps I’ll extend this post (the horror!) at a later date.

Further Reading

A brief review of Opal Sunset.

A longer review from the New York Times.

…and one from the Village Voice.

Slate’s “Clive James Show”

…and a Slate interview.

His website.

…and another review of this poem.

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