The Fire of Joy by Clive James

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

The world which marvelled at the prodigious talent of Clive James last year mourned his death. He was eighty.  He was a brilliant author, poet, essayist, critic and television presenter.  His final gift to the world is his selection of eighty poems, one for each of the years he lived.

Many of them are familiar to those who were schooled as ‘boomers’, post war. They are memorised as once children were taught to do.  Others are special to Clive James for myriad reasons but all, for him, were unforgettable.

The poems are followed by his comments. He was famous for his wit, wry humour and awe-inspiring command of language. I’ll never forget his reference to the champion tennis player, Vitas Gerulaitis playing at Wimbledon. According to James, Gerulaitis had the body of an Apollo and the name sounding like some dreadful disease!

Clive James was blessed with a wondrous memory as well. Robert Hughes, another brilliant Australian, could recite from memory the entirety of T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. James could almost do it. If a line was begun, he could complete it… This ability enhances his commentary; but, one suspects, is also a chance to display his wit and knowledge.

Tennyson’s ‘The Kraken’, to be fully appreciated, needs his explanation of some words and phrases.

Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ echoes through the years with its daunting message of the transience of power, of life.

Robert Herrick’s ‘Delight in Disorder’ is a sweet and charming poem which pricks the memories of his Cambridge days and the Footlights Revue.  In moving contrast, Chidiock Tichborne’s ‘Elegy’ is the only work of this poet’s that survives. It was written in the Tower as he awaited his execution by the axe:

‘And now I live, and now my life is done.’

Poetry adds light, even fire as in the title, and joy. Joy abounds in reading Stephen Edgar’s ‘The Red Sea’. This poet, like James, is a product of Sydney Technical High. James, whose standing is considerable, is in awe of Edgar’s command of language. The poem evokes the beauty of a sea in Tasmania which glides into sunset. Breathtaking.

Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Cut’ connects a minor kitchen injury with World War. James is full of praise for her ability, that ‘she could make her verse swing beautifully, like the swish of a well-cut skirt.’ How inspired he was – to construct such imagery.

Deceptively simple, except for the title – ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island Minnesota’ consists of a dozen lines conjuring up an idyllic scene. It finishes with ‘I have wasted my life.’ As Clive James points out, it is what is omitted that makes it such a jewel of a poem.

There are the famous WW1 poems of Owen and Brooke, the much loved Brownings, Elizabeth and Robert, much of the poetry we absorbed as students.  Slipped in amongst these are many new delights. ‘Wild Peaches’ by Elinor Wyllie (1920) is perfection in technique, with its pace, music and, of course, vocabulary. James is envious of her skill. ‘God, I wish I’d written that’.

Having translated The Divine Comedy and written many admired works, Clive James is highly qualified to respond to the poems in this anthology. He is sometimes critical, but his comments are tempered by insight and grace.

The works mentioned here are merely a handful of the eighty poems he selected. This collection is exclusively English, invariably distilled in powerful, often surprising, and memorable ways.

The Fire of Joy is a book that deserves to rest permanently bedside where it can be sourced for inspiration, awareness, and sudden fragments that can bring fire or joy. Fire to enlighten and joy in celebrating our complex existence.

The Fire of Joy

[2020]

by Clive James

Picador

ISBN 978 1529 05936 6

307 pages.  $34.99

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