Japanese Maple
September 16, 2014 6:52 AM   Subscribe

Australian television raconteur and polymath critic (and tango enthusiast) Clive James, part of a small wave of intellectual exiles in the 1960s, and now lingeringly dying of leukemia and emphysema, has published a poem titled "Japanese Maple" by way of leave-taking.
posted by Doktor Zed (24 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
He was a lynch-pin of TV here during the 1980s, and his autobiographies are among the best I have ever read. These recent poems are heart-rending. Will be sad to see him passing. The guy used to fill a hub-cap ashtray with butts every day - not good.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 7:05 AM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Don't miss these, either.
posted by rory at 7:49 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

His television criticism in the 1980s was absolutely spectacular.

It was a tiny agony every single weekend when you bought the Sunday papers: did you turn straight to the Clive James column in The Observer - or did you prolong the inevitable treat & save him until last?

I wish I loved his poem. It appears - sadly - to lack all the precision & wild originality of his journalism and essays. As in this vintage Clive James one liner about the indefatigably OTT romance novelist Barbara Cartland:

"Twin miracles of mascara, Barbara Cartland's eyes look like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff".
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:50 AM on September 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Dammit. He did a brilliant series that ran on the BBC, and on PBS here in the USA called Fame in the 20th Century. I remember very clearly one episode in which he contrasted the threat to European culture posed by Hitler with that posed by Shirley Temple, and how too many intellectuals were worried about the latter to be sufficiently concerned about the former.
posted by adamrice at 7:57 AM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

My favourite Clive James poem is The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.
posted by atrazine at 8:11 AM on September 16, 2014 [12 favorites]

A lovely poem.

I only know James through "Cultural Amnesia," which is a terrific collection of free-associative biographies that I dip in and out of frequently.

Plus, how can you not love a guy who describes Arnold Schwarzenegger as a "brown condom full of walnuts".
posted by hadlexishere at 8:14 AM on September 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Clive James was interviewed by CBC Radio's Michael Enright earlier this month. It's an uplifting conversation.
posted by Nevin at 8:22 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I want to raise a probably controversial question here, why do we think (if we do) that this is a good poem? Or perhaps what makes it a successful poem for you? How important are biographical facts in your reading of a poem?
posted by gem tactics at 8:32 AM on September 16, 2014

James was very big in UK culture in the eighties; the man always seemed to be on TV or writing pieces in various newspapers and magazines. I remember greatly enjoying "Unreliable Memoirs". this is a wistful, gentle poem. Very much not raging against the dying of the light. Still makes me sad.
posted by Decani at 8:37 AM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know much about James personally. I don't think knowing that James is dying is necessary to being moved by this poem. The poem's speaker is dying and is expressing both thanks to the world for being beautiful and deep regret for having to say goodbye to it. That's a simple, universal sentiment.
posted by hadlexishere at 8:41 AM on September 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

The lines, "what I must do / is live to see that" is the pivot for me. It turns what would otherwise be a poem of conventional sentiments (no matter how dire) into something personal and specific.

So I'll punt on the question of whether it's a good poem, but I would call it an effective poem.
posted by ardgedee at 9:06 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know nothing of the poem's author. I am no critic, and often like things others disparage. Poems, like all language, do not sound the same to all ears and that which is acclaimed by all is not necessarily the "best." The poem moved me. I felt the poem. It felt sincere. It is, therefore, a "good" poem by my reckoning.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:11 AM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think it's a very fine poem, and while the name is vaguely familiar to me I know nothing really of Clive James. On an overarching level I think it accomplishes what many good poems do, which is to transmit the author's deeper perception (aesthetic, emotional, philosophical) triggered by a superficially ordinary scene. (This is not the only way for a poem to be good, but it is the way in which many of the plain-speech poets of a slightly post-confessional, more realist bent are good: James Wright, for example, or Maxine Kumin).

Some of the things it transmits to me--things I found "good to think with"--are (a) the idea that on a physical level, approaching death (at least in his case) is not necessarily a horribly painful ordeal. Just...uncomfortable. I think on a technical level that stanza is the most awkward to read (the meter is choppy, the line breaks abrupt) and I think that is an intentional choice (b) that in physical decline, thought and vision (which is what poets do!) may become sharper even as the body weakens--who knew?; (c) then comes the microscopic observation of the rain-damp tree which narrows in to a fine focus then suddenly shifts that focus back to the "big picture"--the tree, the rain, the beauty of it all will go on and be repeated long after the author is gone. But the final point is not just "hey, I'm gonna die but that maple tree will still be there." Rather, I think the point is that there is something valuable but transient about the poet's work--the "flood of colors will live on" but his "vision of a world that shone so brightly at the last"--the poet making art out of the external world--will be gone.

Good to think with.
posted by drlith at 9:26 AM on September 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

I quite like it. I like it because it makes me feel my mortality and the luckiness to still be alive; I like it because it makes me feel sad as the poem also reminds me of my ill father and grandfather. I thank you for posting it.
posted by Kitteh at 9:31 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was aware of Clive James, but not familiar with his poetry. I'm a long time reader/subscriber to The New Yorker, but have never felt particularly engaged by the poems they choose to print. I was moved most by the central stanza :

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.

I hope his ending is as peaceful as he predicts.

posted by OHenryPacey at 10:55 AM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't remember the last time a poem made me cry a little, but these last few vivid lines:
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
with the image of the scarlet leaves filling his view as he approaches death. Sniff. Oh, Clive.
posted by thylacinthine at 4:12 PM on September 16, 2014

Lovely poem, thanks for posting.

I saw him recently in a two-part documentary called 'Rebels of Oz: Germaine, Clive, Barry and Bob' about the Australian iconoclasts (Greer, James, Humphreys and Hughes in case you were wondering) who all ditched Australia and moved to England in the 60s. He looks really old and frail now, I wish him an easy path. He was a staple of new years eve entertainment when I was a kid in the 80s and I have always loved his writing - so dry.

Great documentary too, I highly recommend it.
posted by goo at 4:42 PM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Beautiful poem. Thank you Mr. James. Thank you.
posted by kaymac at 6:17 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read the poem early this morning & have been feeling melancholy ever since. I love his writing & TV Shows, especially The Clive James Show. What am wonderful wit. I hope his transition is as pain free as possible.
The world owes him thanks for introducing us to Margarita Pracatan. I was just thinking back about my favourite things Clive James, and she popped into my head & then I imagined her pumping out Hello at his funeral and have been giggling to myself ever since.
posted by goshling at 8:48 PM on September 16, 2014

I've never studied poetry, but I find that paying attention to the line breaks, pausing at them as I read, often affects my experience of a poem for the better. Poetry seems to need to be read slowly, usually, to get its full experience. Better, read a poem at a few different speeds and see how that affects things.
posted by Lexica at 9:50 PM on September 16, 2014

I love Clive James, but his greatest work was his TV criticism; I doubt there is a day on which that truth has not gnawed at him like an insect.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:44 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I hope his ending is as peaceful as he predicts.


He's not dead yet! And neither are any of us. That's the point, dammit.
posted by Nevin at 11:14 AM on September 17, 2014

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