Clive James on turning his ‘last time on earth’ into a writing wellspring

Though many Americans know him through his columns for The Atlantic and the New York Review of Books, Clive James inhabits a much larger, diverse role in British culture. This man of letters is a journalist, a cultural critic, a TV personality and an author of poems and novels.

An Australian by birth, James has lived in England since 1961. He has written five books of “unreliable” memoirs, and has several volumes of essays, including his most recently published, “Cultural Amnesia.” His translation of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” was also published this year.

Reports circulated last year that the writer was “getting near the end.” James, at 74 years old, has serious, life-threatening health concerns. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010 and then with Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or onset emphysema. He can no longer fly and he is restricted by his physical limitations. But he keeps writing, with his sickness a source for new subject matter.

James’ latest collection of poems, “Nefertiti in the Flak Tower,” was published in the U.S. in October 2013.

Clive James recently talked to Art Beat by phone. This excerpt has been lightly edited for length.

ART BEAT: From where are you speaking?

CLIVE JAMES: I’m speaking to you from my house in Cambridge, England. And it’s a cold day. This is a house full of my books and probably this is as far as I will get, since I have been quite, quite sick lately.

But if I make it through this winter, I plan to get some more writing done. I don’t think I’ve got a big poem like Dante to translate, but I might pull out a few surprises yet. ART BEAT: Surprises for us? or Surprises for you?

CLIVE JAMES: Surprises for me. Yeah. I like best to be surprised. I like it when the idea suddenly comes to me. As the idea came to me for a poem about Walt Whitman whom I admire so much. I was sick at the time.

Walt Whitman posed for photographer Samuel Murray in 1891, staring out the window of his Camden, N.J., home. Click to enlarge the image. Photo by Samuel Murray/Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution

I think it was in 2010. I had just died a couple of times that year. And in New York, which I was visiting, I got sick again and I had to spend 10 days on my back in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

And my friend, Adam Gopnik, did the wonderful thing of bringing me books. And one of the books he brought was a Van Wyck Brooks, his book about Melville and Whitman. Van Wyck Brooks was a formidable character, not as well remembered now as he might be. He was a great, great critic.

And when he was talking about Whitman, he said this wonderful thing, that Whitman had spent his last few weeks on Earth, his last time as it were, sitting beside a pond wearing nothing but his hat.

The idea struck me so much that I wrote a poem about it right there in the hospital called “Whitman and the Moth.”

Listen to Clive James read “Whitman and the Moth,” a poem from his collection, “Nefertiti in the Flak Tower,” or read the complete poem.

ART BEAT: In the introduction of your new book, you write “the short poem is the form that lies at the heart of everything.” Does that mean you consider yourself a poet, above all other titles that you have held?

CLIVE JAMES: It’s a big thing to call yourself a poet. All I can say is that I have always written poems. I don’t think I’m interested in any discussion about whether I’m a good poet, a bad poet or a great poet. But I am sure, I want to write great poems. I think every poet should want that.

I want to write something that you won’t forget. And that usually comes in short forms I think.

“Ban poetry. And make sure that anyone caught reading it is expelled from school. Then it will acquire the glamour.”

ART BEAT: Your poems from “Nefertiti in the Flak Tower,” there are many poems with phrases that express both desire and regret. What is the connection between these two sentiments?

CLIVE JAMES: Yeah. I think nowadays there is more regret than desire. One of the things I regret, perhaps there was too much desire.

I am looking back on the passions and mistakes.

The great thing about living until you get a bit older if you are a writer, and especially a poet, is that you have more life to reflect on. And I think that if I am better now — and I think that I am probably better than I was — is because that I simply have more to think about, more to get under control, more to understand. Try to understand myself, for example.

ART BEAT: Would it be wrong to think then that in your poems you express wishes to be young again, maybe with the wisdom that you have now?

CLIVE JAMES: I don’t think the desire to be young again ever goes. Not until the last minute. Being young is wonderful. But one of the secrets of being a human individual — a mature human individual shall we put it rather grandly — is that you can see this desire in perspective.

You can’t be young always. The day will come when everything will fall apart.

The secret for an artist is to make that a subject and not bang your head against the wall and give up. But to turn it into and treat the new subject matter, which is one’s own vanishing.

Don’t worry, I am not going to die during your (interview). But I have been quite unwell and I must face the fact that I won’t last long. But I am making a subject of that. And I am rather enjoying that.

The fact is that one’s last time on earth can be quite interesting.

ART BEAT: Before your illness, you wrote you were afraid that you would run out of things to say. But now, being confronted with your own mortality, you say that you have a new subject matter to explore in your writing and poetry.

Are you afraid that you will not get to write everything you want?

CLIVE JAMES: There are two factors here that we need to separate. One is aging. The other is the question of being sick. I don’t think I am in any way afraid of aging or even of death.

But being sick is a different matter, it alters the future. It alters the amount of time you’ve got left. You might had not had much left at all and it concentrates the mind.

It helped to concentrate my mind on the way I lived and whether I had lived worthily and whether I had written worthily. And I make (being sick) the subject.

I can’t emphasize enough that I am very, very glad to have got this far and even to be in this state of taking eight different pills in the morning and six different pills at night. It’s because I’ve got the whole of modern technology helping me stay alive

I’ve got life for a subject because as life starts to drain away, you start seeing very clearly what life is, for the first time.

“I don’t think I’m interested in any discussion about whether I’m a good poet, a bad poet or a great poet. But I am sure, I want to write great poems.I want to write something that you won’t forget. And that usually comes in short forms I think”

Young men especially — I don’t know if young women feel much the same — but young men think they are immortal, automatically. They have no idea of time because they have so much energy and I was like that.

I had so much energy, I was a fireball. I had to lose some of it in order to see that life was a process and things had done at a certain rate in certain time and order. And now that is my subject. And I am very grateful for it.

I think that in this collection is the strongest concentration that viewpoint that I have yet shown in my work.

ART BEAT: When you write a poem, do you ever prescribe an intended lesson for readers?

CLIVE JAMES: No, I think the poem does that. What I do is seize a moment. Suddenly, a subject comes and hits you.

Nefertiti’s bust was rediscovered in Akhenaten’s capital Amarna in Egypt in 1912. The statue now resides in the Neues Museum in Berlin. Click to enlarge the image. Photo by Philip Pikart/Wikimedia Commons

When I learned about a beautiful bust of Nefertiti, which is right now in a museum in Berlin, in one of the museums. She’s there. You know, the bust with the hat? She look like a 1920s film star. She spent the whole of World War II locked up for safety in a giant, concrete bunker, called a flak tower, right there in Berlin. And I thought, now there’s a subject.

Here, you’ve got this eternal beauty being protected against the accidents of time so that she’ll survive longer. It raises all kinds of subjects: why is a statue more valuable than a living human being, for example. Because there were a lot of human beings who would have liked to have been in the flak tower. It was quite safe there. Yet it was reserved for this statue.

I found myself writing it, but I didn’t feel a sort of history lesson or a civics lesson. These were the living moments, the permanently living moments. I try to communicate the moment.

I try to be specific. One thought at a time. Clear. Articulate.

And above all, memorable, if you can be. You’d like to write phrases that people can’t forget as soon as they read them.

ART BEAT: And that is certainly a way to capture the attention of the everyman as well?

CLIVE JAMES: Well, I hope so. Whether there is an audience for poetry is a big question, because mainly the people who are dealing with poetry are writing it. There are more poets alive now than there ever have been in history. I don’t think that many of them know how to write a poem, but that is a separate question.

ART BEAT: How do you think young people should be introduced to poetry?

CLIVE JAMES: Ban poetry.

And make sure that anyone caught reading it is expelled from school. Then it will acquire the glamour. But I am only joking.

No, I think children should be taught to recite poetry, under pain of death.

At my school in Australia, a long time ago now, back in the 1940s, we had to stand beside our desk and recite a few lines from a poem or we weren’t allowed to go home. And it worked wonderfully. But I know the whole idea of compulsory teaching of anything has now vanished from the world.

It’s a kind of pity because really there are things about poetry you will never appreciate unless you actually see how it works internally — the way it rhymes the way the meter works — all these things can be taught, but it takes inspired teaching.

ART BEAT: In the digital age, if you have a computer and you have the ability to put something online, then you can call yourself a writer. But that doesn’t mean you will be good at it. How do you discover what poems are worthy of notice?

CLIVE JAMES: That is where criticism comes in. It’s judging. It’s not taking a scornful viewpoint on something. It’s judging it. You have to be able to judge what has weight and what hasn’t; what is actually profound and what is mere noise.

This quality becomes important at a time when almost everyone is a poet. And as I have said, before, we live in an age where almost everybody is a poet, but scarcely anyone can write a poem.

They’re pouring the stuff out, especially from the creative writing classes, and unless you can take one look at a poem and decide whether it’s alive or not, you will spend the rest of your life sorting through the output.

“People should be stopped from writing poetry. There’s far too much of it.”

The fact is that you can tell if someone can write, within a second or two. The minute you look at the first couple of lines, you can tell if they are alive or not. To do that, you have to burnish your critical ability.

You can’t read everything. And you wouldn’t want to. But you can be guided towards what is alive and what is important, usually by people who already love poetry, often by your crusty old teacher, the old man who is shambling up the block, mumbling to himself; he has known about poetry all his life. He’ll tell you.

ART BEAT: What books of poetry should young people start off with?

CLIVE JAMES: I try always to think how I got started. Because that’s more by luck than judgment. Some of my early passions among the poets were right. I was right about T.S. Eliot. I was right about Auden, right about MacNeice, right about Yeats, about Hopkins.

But I would recommend any young poet to get started on the later poems of Yeats, not the early ones. Read the book from the back. That would be my first choice, because there is the ideal, an instance of natural language made poetic by the way words are chosen and balanced. And the lines are poised in relation to another line and built into a stanza and the stanza is built into a poem. Nothing beats it.

Read James’ essay “Interior Music” on William Butler Yeats, originally published in the September 2013 issue of Prose magazine

So start at the back (of a book). It’s pretty good advice. If an artist is any good at all, then he or she will have a later phase that’s more interesting than the early one. A great American poet like Elizabeth Bishop, for example, she is like that. Elizabeth Bishop’s last (poems) are just beyond wonderful.

ART BEAT: For aspiring poets, what can they do to improve their craft so that they one day can truly call themselves a poet vs. just claiming the title?

CLIVE JAMES: I don’t think anyone should claim the title. The wise ones never do. The important thing to do is to concentrate on the poem and get the attention off of yourself.

“William Butler Yeats said, ‘Always, I encourage. Always.’ Well, I hope that I would have the guts to say, ‘Always, I discourage. Always.'” Click to enlarge the image. Photo by George Charles Beresford/National Portrait Gallery

It’s the great thing about the arts; generally, it’s a holiday from yourself. I know that a poem is going to be worth finishing, when I forget everything else as I am writing it out.

I just finished a poem today and I am already missing that feeling of being in the poem, where nothing else counts except making the choices, shifting the words around and it’s a great, great feeling.

Unfortunately, I think that bad poets feel the same way. In fact, that’s what’s wrong with them; they feel that way all the time. They are too impressed with what they’re doing.

Some poets need discouragement. Yeats used to say “Always, I encourage. Always.” He was pestered by young people who showed him poems. Somebody asked him how he reacted. He said, “Always, I encourage. Always.” Well, I hope that I would have the guts to say, “Always, I discourage. Always.”

People should be stopped from writing poetry. There’s far too much of it. And if they’re any good, they’ll go ahead anyways.

ART BEAT: What are your hopes for the next generation of poets and poetry critics?

CLIVE JAMES: They will surprise us. We can be sure of that. We’re not going to be able to predict what they’re going to do. They going to have stacks of information; they’ll be able to find anything they want on the net.

The question will be, will they know what to look for.

But I think the number of connoisseurs of poetry will go up. If you roam around the websites, you will find there are all kind of sites that print poems, and reprint poems and steal them. They are occasions of piracy. And always they’re choosing something alive and vivid. And so there is a new kind of education going on.

Sometimes I feel if I was young again, I would wrap a bandana around my head like Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and I would become a pirate of the Web. And I would go around stealing poems and assembling into one spot like a treasure cave.

ART BEAT: And you can, with your website.

CLIVE JAMES: I can do anything with my website that my health and time allows. What I can’t be sure of is that I’ll have the time. It’s so quite finicky and exhausting and I have to avoid exhaustion.

But I have plans to get on with it. I’ve got more to do.

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