Poem written by Clive James
Clive James has opinions, well-considered opinions written entertainingly. Cultural Amnesia is a fascinating review of the movers and shakers of the twentieth century. He calls the villains on their crimes and surfaces brilliance in places that beg further research. In the UK, he is memoirist, poet, novelist, and television personality (I will have more to say about Peter Cook some other time, but enjoy the sight of Dame Edna Everage sans drag in the person of Barry Humphries enjoying the story). Most of James’ activities have not translated across the pond, so we make do with limited offerings.
Here however, I want to talk about his poetry, which is an art that James has practiced at a high level for a long time, though it took most of his life to get a collection published here. Of all the literary forms, poetry seems very heavily influenced by the personal taste of the reader/listener. Shakespeare and the Book of Psalms have had significant staying power with wide appeal. After that, Chaucer, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Merwin, Longfellow, and so very many more are names honored more in the high school classroom than elsewhere. Every poet is an acquired taste, which is probably the dirty little secret. Ask anyone who has run screaming from the room when their uncle starts quoting Ogden Nash.
On the other hand, who does not love a good rivalry, a biting comment? Jack Benny and Fred Allen did it for laughs. Every single radio talk host seems to have multiple arch-enemies. We all enjoy that negative pithy review; unless it is directed our way (although time may heal even those wounds).
Through meter, page arrangement, and word choice, The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered raises the pithy comment to the level of great art. Something in James’ braggadaccio feels modern. That schadenfreude he describes is universal and, once acknowledged, we feel almost as clever as the poem. When I say that the poem accomplishes much, I mean that it operates at another level beyond the surface condemnation of the enemy, but rather it touches on the reasons why that person is the enemy. They are our competitor for scarce resources- in this case, readers. Like comics backstage at the comedy club, they share much in common, but still fight for the perfect time slot.
How do we make our peace with the enemy?
We write about them with pithy remarks. If we are blessed and the writing goes well, then we might consider a world in which we continue to live with them. Perhaps we see ourselves looking back through their eyes. Maybe they are a risible jackass. Maybe we have a bit of the jackass in us which is where understanding comes. Shakespeare, Keats, Browning, Angelou, and all the rest transcend meter and word choice to illuminate the human condition. Clive James, for a few lines, holds up a mirror to our insecurities, gives us a laugh, and a nod of recognition.
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 295 more to go.
New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out are released regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry are posted irregularly. Notifications are posted on Facebook which you can receive by friending or following Craig.