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Clive James' poetry of memento mori

  • 29 November 2019


Obituarists sharpened their quills in 2014 when word had it the death of Clive James was imminent. Since then we have witnessed a late flowering of poetry, reviews and articles tinged with mortality that revealed to the last his Twainian flair for journalistic self-promotion, albeit in the internet age. Now the quills are out in earnest.

Les Murray's death this year was also anticipated in advance, though Murray showed himself much more accepting of his temporal departure. The deaths of these two poets draw attention to their contrasts in style, outlook, and temperament. James and Murray demonstrated two very different modes of existence that modern Australians readily recognise and appreciate. Both poets, ambitious for success, kept a close eye and ear on Australia and how it talks. We are the beneficiaries.

James became the celebrated expatriate, Sydney a beacon in the mental map of a Londoner. He was an Antipodean Augustan, the Boswell of the BBC, an Alexander Pope of the caressing or crushing quatrain, the Rochester of bruising rationalism. He reminded us of how much London has been an Australian city for the past century.

Murray stayed at home, in fact stayed on the farm. He represents that generation who remained on the land rather than leave for the Big Smoke. He was the Buddha from Bunyah. While Kogarah was, for James, a childhood reference, a postcode of his cosmopolitan performance, Bunyah was literal paradise or purgatory for Murray, depending on the day of the week.

Both poets went to the University of Sydney, but that is not why they wrote poetry. They went to the University of Sydney because they were already writing poetry. Their self-confidence was big as Sydney. James can be described as the more conventional in terms of form. Like others of his generation, he was inspired and haunted by W. H. Auden, the great promoter of knowing every poetic form. James' profusion of satire was entrée to the society he made light of, much as he did in his TV shows. But, as the poetry of memento mori since the diagnosis shows, he was also fascinated by Elizabethan high style, copying it to perfect effect.

Murray possessed a prodigious gift, a near-miraculous ability to conjoin the senses in words and make you feel it. His knowledge of English poetry was widespread, while his acclimatisation to Australian poetry, and Indigenous song form in particular, grew with time, delivering unforeseen and