Clive James' poetry of memento mori



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.

Television presenter and writer Clive James during a 1976 television appearance. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)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 immense productions, many of them unique in scope. James went to Cambridge, Murray stayed around out the back of Bulahdelah.

In a TV interview with Murray, James muttered under his breath after one Murray expansive effusion, 'I'm out of my depth' — a rare admission. When James asked Murray where poetry comes from, Murray answered matter-of-factly, 'poetry comes from the wound'.


"James' life work is not an argument for watching more television, but reading more poetry."


The Auden influence is everywhere in James' collected poetry: the desire to test many forms; the epistolary inclination where he opens conversation with confreres, only to hold the lion's share of the talk; the perfect grasp of aphorism and end line; the sparkling knowledge of the world and that which we owe to Caesar.

Unlike Auden, he was less concerned about what we owe to God, though I for one still doubt if he was altogether an atheist. James was always going to leave the options open. His poems of praise are rich with thanksgiving and in the last year he was talking of how we understand Christianity, or rather how he understands it. Perhaps more of that anon.

Murray left us some of the most remarkable poetic arguments about faith imaginable. In a country where the last census offered the population the choice of a statistical nonsense (No Religion) its leading poet dedicated all of his books 'To the Greater Glory of God'.

Murray grew up Presbyterian, then converted to Catholicism. In both mind and body his work is solid with this move, when it isn't fluid. When Murray visited the Carmelite Library (where I work) in Middle Park, Vic., a few years ago he shared a story about his father. Murray was talking to a friend about how his father never talked to him about his conversion or his religion, to which his friend replied that Murray's father talked to him about nothing else.

James' life work is not an argument for watching more television, but reading more poetry. In a world where the screen has bumped conversation into the corner, his millions of well-chosen words testify to why real appreciation of our daily graphic overload deepens with knowledge of how language operates. Delivery is only the final finesse of all that work making words click.

Murray directs us into the beauty and wonder of English, a language free of academic restraint, the sort of freedom inherited from the aforementioned 18th century Augustans, Samuel Johnson supreme among them, giving English license to say what it likes and borrow as it sees fit for everyone's better understanding and enjoyment. Both poets' work will survive the criticism.



Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot.

Main image: Clive James during a 1976 television appearance. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, Les Murray, Clive James, poetry



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Existing comments

Thanks Philip, a brilliant analysis of two poets. It was telling that Clive felt "out of his depth" with Les - I can't imagine anybody who wouldn't feel that way when confronted with genius. For that is Les Murray. Clive had great appeal, in his writing, in his humour (I'm still smiling after rereading some of his poems today) and in his refusal to be anyone but himself. He was a brilliant mix of down to earth and heavenly. At the conclusion of his peerless "An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow" Les wrote: Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street. I can see Clive James doing that.
Pam | 29 November 2019

Interesting to see replayed an interview with Clive James after he was diagnosed with incurable cancer. In speculating on what the future might hold he said that there was one thing he was sure of, viz, that he "wouldn't be heading to a clinic in Switzerland to be put down". And look at what the world might have missed out on had he had a different outlook from that 5 years ago.
john frawley | 29 November 2019

Les Murray's most recent poetry is full of hope. Clive's is beautifully sensitive but there is no sense of hope. I suspect a pleasant surprise may await him. R.I.P.
Grebo | 30 November 2019

Interesting comment on the lack of hope in James' poetry, Grebo. The lack of hope might suggest that he had no faith in life after death and that his only hope was in the here and now - perhaps the thing that determined his refusal to give up his life through euthanasia.
john frawley | 02 December 2019

Thanks Philip. Clive was noted for his wry deadpan sense of humour. His last poem "Japanese Maple" describes the beauty of fine rain falling on a maple tree whilst simultaneously recording the sensations of shortening breath, lack of pain and a mind flaming like a meteor as he passes. Its very much in the present and no mention of the hereafter. No wonder Clive said he was out of his depth with Les Murray. In contrast his poetry is laden with references to Yaweh and some question the basis why humans kill creatures: eg the dry cow with no more milk. "‘Me shivers and falls down / with the terrible, the blood of me, coming out behind an ear’. At first the mob, the ‘me’ come running too see what has happened; then, abruptly, they are fleeing. ‘and all me run away, over smells, toward the sky’. and describing the nuremburg trials: "Anna who rocked her head, and Paul who grew big yet giggled small, Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans who knew his world as a fox knows a field." It’s a tribute to the murdered souls and an indictment of the thick headed Nazi murderers insensitivity. Both very different.
francis Armstrong | 02 December 2019

My third form English teacher in 1950 was a minor poet. He instilled in me a love of English poetry, that is poems written English, and that includes English translations of poems written in foreign (and sometimes dead) languages. It was in the middle of second term when one boy asked him: "Sir, what is poetry?" He paused for a moment, peered over his reading glasses at the questioner as if assessing his sincerity, then said in a tone that I imagined would have been worthy of Samuel Johnson: "Poetry, young fellow, is what poets write." What a furore that released! That scene came back to me when I heard the Australian High Commission declare Clive James Australia's greatest poet. My first thought was - the HC hasn't read enough poetry! But my second thought was - Time will tell. I'm hoping my grandchildren will be reading more Murray than James in twenty years times. No wait. I'll be happy if they are reading any poems written by any Australian poets in the 2030s.
Uncle Pat | 02 December 2019

Interesting essay. Murray's occasional ventures into political commentary felt a bit reactionary. Perchance that was a response to his part-Aboriginality, and which may well explain his disposition, if that's the word, to be a poet. James was apolitical and, generous though he was with tragedy of the kind that consumed Diana Spencer, his focus, in my observation, was firmly Anglocentric. This logically seems to augur well for an as yet developing Australian poesy. Thank you for a generous overview.
Michael Furtado | 02 December 2019

At a time when one of the most prolific and vibrant publishers of poetry in this country faces a bleak and at best a truncated future (I refer to UWAP), it is timely to be reminded of these two beacons of the art in our place and times, whose faith in the value and values of poetry, while it differed in substance and form, remained unshaken and unshakable to the end.
Jena Woodhouse | 02 December 2019

Thank you for positive feedback about this tribute. Some replies. Pam, it is much easier to see Clive’s Cambridge University influences in his poetry than it is to explain where half of Les is actually coming from. Clive’s literary criticism is brilliant and deadly; we can see that critic watching over his own shoulder at his poetry. Les is far less constrained. John Frawley, a persistent main theme in Clive’s work is fame, others and his own. A literary biography of him would want to spend extended time on fame, the great hope of the ego. It was a kind of belief system for him. It provided the on-going content for his prolific wit. Michael Furtado, in my view both men were politically conservative. Les just made more statements that were provocative and yes, reactionary. He justified a lot of this on being a man on the land, i.e. never trust politicians, they’ll all let you down. Apparently city people think differently about politicians. Clive’s fixation on fame meant not asking too many questions about the status quo that creates a legend like Princess Diana. Clive was an insider by the time he made his show called ‘The Late Clive James’; late night TV, that is. His appreciation of class and politics comes through in his translation of Dante’s Commedia, proof of how he would adopt an objective position. Though Clive, of course, never had to live in exile in Ravenna.
Philip Harvey | 02 December 2019

Philip H. It never occurred to me that fame is heaven for some. But I believe it!
john frawley | 05 December 2019

Thanks Philip, an insight into two minds that adds much to the conversation.
Les Wicks | 07 December 2019

I don’t know if he was the originator of the idea but Clive James certainly was the first person I ever heard suggest that, because of Hollywood, the twentieth century was the first time in human history that anyone could be “famous for being famous”. Brilliant!
Gerard Hore | 07 December 2019


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