Clive James on Death, Poetry, and His Brand New Bookshelves
Paul Holdengraber in Conversation with the Legendary Poet and Critic
In this episode of A Phone Call From Paul, Clive James discusses the difference between British and American poetry (and poets!), his new bookshelves, writing while sick, and, luckily for all of us, he reads aloud his poem, “Japanese Maple.”
Clive James on being a sometime philistine…
One tends to lapse into it when one gets tired. I’m very conscious now that I might be getting past the point of discovering things. And yet, the other day, my friend and editor here John Patterson recommended to me the poetry of Gertrude Schnakenberg and she’s wonderful. She can write in a long line and keep it rhythmic which is very hard to do. So here I am being enthusiastic about a new discovery. And there will still be discoveries to be made but logic tells me that time is running out.
Clive James on the books in his new bookshelves…
Today I was putting up my Anthony Powell collection on the bookshelves because they’d all been on the kitchen counter in stacks. Lovely books like The Letters of Burckhardt. I’m a big admirer of Burckhardt. I have the original booklets that were put out in the 1920s and 30s, even during the Nazi era—the books that somehow, unaccountably, failed to burn. I’ve found them all around the world. I’ve got an almost complete Burckhardt collection. My house is full of this stuff, and of course I’m adding to it by writing my own.
Clive James on maintaining the “gusto” necessary to read and write…
If I wasn’t sick, it wouldn’t matter so much. But it does, it deprives you of energy and there’s only so much you can do. So, I have to plan very carefully what I’m going to write next and even what I’m going to read next. And I always have to find time for a poem, if it starts arriving in my head.
Clive James on poetry in the US vs. Britain…
Poetry is more marginal in the US then it is in Britain. In Britain it is central to the culture. In the US, I think one is always—especially if you are a visitor like me—you’re very conscious of working at the edge of the publishing spectrum. And it’s quite tricky—it’s quite a privilege to be there at all.
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that.That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
NEXT WEEK: CLIVE JAMES, PART TWO