Jan Dalley

Interview: Clive James

On the day, Other Passports, Poems 1958-1985 was published, Clive James was up early doing his stuff on TV-am. ‘Well, Clive James,’ purred Anne Diamond. ‘You’ve written a book of poetry!’ Embarrassed, she said it in a mock-posh accent: peh-tray. The professional funny man seems to have a problem with the more serious side of himself.

‘I’m used to that reaction, I’m even pleased by it,’ was Clive James’s comment when I met him later that day. ‘I have no poetic reputation, I’m out of that circuit, so I might as well have the courage of my convictions and go for a more popular market. And if I can advertise the book by going on the Gloria Hunniford Show and juggling three oranges, then I will.’ He added, hastily, ‘But that doesn’t mean I’m not serious about my poetry – I’m as deadly serious as anyone else writing it.’

Throughout Other Passports, the comic and the serious moods can switch within a single poem, a stanza, even a line. He sees the comic and the not-comic as one, and so-called light verse (‘It looks light until you pick it up’) as some of the strongest in the language. Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ and MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’ have always been powerful influences, epitomising the kind of sustained light verse that James thinks is the hardest to do well, because it combines ease of access to public themes with five-star entertainment. James’s own extended poems are represented in the collection by two verse diaries: ‘An Address to the Nation’ and ‘Poem of the Year (1982)’, which runs to an exhausting 55 pages. He was in luck that year: the Falklands war broke out while he was writing it, and provided ideal subject matter for the urbane and entertaining verse of current affairs that interest him most.

In theory, at least, James’s poetic can reach beyond the usual narrow audience for poetry. ‘The poetry circuit has been taking in its own washing for some time now, although some of it is very good washing’ and has become, he feels, a specialist art for a specialist group. ‘A stranger should be able to wander in and understand right away: modern music started to die at the point where the outsider felt excluded.’ James wants to write not just for poets (‘although I want to be appreciated by other poets, of course’). And the most important feature of public poetry is that it should be capable of being read aloud: ‘When a poem is so knotted on the page that it can’t be appreciated when read aloud, it doesn’t interest or impress me – that’s the crisis point in modern writing.’

Clive James delivers these carefully thought out, coherent views with fluency, but asking him about the more private side of his writing triggers a different reaction: the self-deprecating patter that has become his hall-mark as an entertainer. ‘I turn outwards because when I turn inwards there’s not much there. I haven’t got much of a soul. In fact, I have the personality of the average shark – it’s forceful, it has to keep moving forward or else it drowns. It doesn’t do much – only kills and cats – and doesn’t think much about what it’s up to.’ Presumably nobody is meant to believe a word of this, although something makes one suspect a double-bluff. More likely, it is just one in the series of masks that he uses for all his poetry other than the strictly ‘public’. Extended play of personae, identities and defences characterises Other Passports; the real Clive James can not stand up, perhaps, in one body, since he seems to exist behind so many faces.

This shows most clearly in the section called ‘Parodies, Imitations and Lampoons’, whose 13 targets include Eliot, Lowell, Adrian Henri, R S Thomas, John Wain, Kingsley Amis, Larkin, Godfrey Smith, Hugo Williams and others, all treated to a mixture of homage and send up. It is a truth universally acknowledged that parody is a sincere form of flattery, but in James’s case the precise intentions can be difficult to judge. A note of ridicule seems to creep in, without giving many signs that it is meant to be there. One can hear it, too, in ‘Thoughts on Feeling Carbon-Dated’ in the Recent Verse section:

‘Were Empson starting now, no doubt
exists
That now no doubt exists about space-time’s
Impetuosity his pithy gists
Would still stun, but no more than his rhymes.’

The parodies, like all his poems, contain a litany of names, or rather Names, which obviously constitute a passionate interest. A quick scan of ‘Adrian Henri Wants to Write Poems’ reveals Leopardi, Heath Stubbs, Moby Dick, Roger McGough, Mallarmé, Cape (Jonathan), Cream; in the verse letter to Peter Porter we find Juvenal, Johnson, Bertorelli’s, James Mason, Goya, Claire Tomalin, and many more. They are passed before our eyes like a series of carnival masks, each briefly adopted and discarded.

One mask is thrown aside with particular relish. Many of the parodies were originally published under the pseudonym ‘Edward Pygge’. In his introduction, he explains his decision to drop the pseudonym: ‘It occurred to me that the poems I had written under (Pygge’s) name were the first that had been entirely mine… A strange characteristic of parody is that by tightening your grip on someone else’s throat you can loosen your own tongue.

Finding your own voice when using someone else’s links back to his work as a song-writer and in the theatre. ‘Yes, I am a performer at heart. I used to be hurt when people said “He’s not really that, he’s just a performer” but I realised I shouldn’t be hurt – I am really that, and I am a performer.’ The poems too are performances: any poem, he feels, aims to present an image of the poet, and the created persona, the created self, is part of the subject matter. Surface is all.

The ten verse letters in Other Passports are addressed to the most droppablc of names – Martin Amis, Craig Raine, Russell Davie, Gore Vidal… Their tone is pally, forgivably cliquey, less forgivably prone to self-congratulation and sychophancy: (to Russell Davies) ‘ I fear our purist friends find nothing seedier/Than the way we spread ourselves around the Media.’ As usual, he preempts the charge of sychophancy, by calling an earlier collection of the letter Fan-Mail.

The letters also bring to the fore another of the performer’s guises: Travelling Man. Crossing borders, being apart, commenting from outside are integral to James’s stance. At Heathrow his Australian passport lands him in the queue signposted ‘Other Passports’; only after registering this as a possible title, he admits, did he recognise the ‘loosely buried claim’ it makes for his poems.

Only in the shortest of the book’s five sections, called ‘Earlier Verse’, and in a few of the ‘Recent Verse’ poems, do we find ‘straight’ lyrics. The everyday one he uses for speaking. The prosaic is a quality he greatly admires in poet – hence part of his respect for MacNeice. The everyday Jamesian voice, however, is one that can’t resist qualifying, contradicting, camouflaging. After a publication-day round of broadcasting appointment, the rapid-fire TV patter (‘my marketable skill’) takes some time to settle down to a more normal pace, but remains remarkably fluent. James in serious conversational mode is as impressive as James in full comic flight, but he has clearly found the former less marketable and so builds in his defence: ‘For deep thoughts and grave words I have no touch/Qu’allais-je faire daus certe galère? Not much.’ Such diffidence, from a man who proclaims himself utterly serious about his work, and confident in what he does, must be another part of the performance.

One thing that Clive James does care about, unambiguously, is poetry. Larkin’s work, for example, he describes as ‘not just an influence – more like a total blood transfusion.’ He pays a sincere tribute in ‘Valediction for Philip Larkin’, but even though the emotion is heartfelt the tone is sadly goofy: ‘They didn’t sound like poetry one bit/Except for being absolutely it.’

Poetic form fascinates James, and he revels in ingenious formal games such as writing ‘To Michael Frayn: a letter from Leningrad’ in Pushkin’s Onegin stanza. ‘To Pete Atkin: a letter from Paris’, like many others, announces its intentions: ‘I’m writing you this missive in ottava/ A form I like like Fields liked Mocha-Java’ Rhyme, too, is something that ‘comes naturally’, and a random look at any page provides examples of the dexterity he enjoys: Nomenklatura/Führer/bravura, or tournée/day/CIA, for instance. It seems that the temptation of a juicy rhyme sometimes leads him to commit the metrical infelicities for which critics have already given him a hard time: ‘Take Henry Kissinger as an example/The man personifies megalomania’ is not excused by the following rhymes of ‘Ruritania’ and ‘zanier.’ Typically, he is forearmed: ‘…critics in terms drastic/Inform the world my feet are half trochaic/ It seems my scansion’s absolutely spastic./Even my best iambics are spondaic.’

Despite this defensiveness, Clive James declares himself undaunted. ‘If you live by the press, you’ll die by the press. I can’t afford to be sensitive about my reputation, it wouldn’t fit with my public stance. I’ve spent too much time cocking a snook… But I think I’m on to something.’ He points to a stanza from the poem that is his personal favourite, ‘Funnelweb’, about the rococo architect Cuvillies. He says, ‘The bravura of rococo interests me. People like dazzle, and the dazzle makes a shape.’ The image he gives to encapsulate his work is the Amalienburg pavilion in the Nymphenburg Gardens in Munich, small and ornate, ‘all angled mirrors, gold curlicurs and tacky fretwork.’

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