began his literary career as a poet and in Sentenced to Life he makes a promise to end it as one.
Regardless of his success as a novelist, travel writer or TV critic, poetry
is the art form James most wants to be remembered for, so here with the
grandeur of a fallen general James makes one last attempt at poetic
Immortal or not Clive James has already achieved a very rare feat for a poet,
sending the internet into a spin with his lush, lightly contemplative
'Japanese Maple', a poem destined to enter the funeral friendly favourites
bag beside Auden, Rossetti, Tennyson and others. The poem displays a
synthesis between the life of a tree and the life of its author. The opening
line 'Your death, near now, is of an easy sort' could refer to either,
however we know that the tree is young and the poet is old:
My daughter's choice, the
maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its
leaves will turn to flames.
What I must do
Is live it to see that.
That will end the game
For me, though life
continues all the same
The beauty of the poem lies in its simplicity, the neatness recalls Louis
Macneice, with perfectly metered lines (count the syllables) but there are
imperfections in the craft, in particular the clumsy repetition of that,
“live to see that. That will” and the unimaginative rhymes.
'Japanese Maple' in a vague way recalls 'Tychborne's Elegy', a poem also
written under a death sentence but of a very different sort, this one for
My tale was heard, and
yet it was not told,
My fruite is falne, &
yet my leaves are greene:
My youth is spent, and
yet I am not old,
Tychboune also relies on rhyming with the first word that comes to mind, some
of the other pairs in his poem are: 'cares/tares' 'paine/gaine' 'sunne/done'
'greene/seen' etc, a few more of the rhyme clusters James uses in Japanese
Maple are 'falls/walls/halls', 'air/there/share', 'game/same flame' and at his
most ambitious 'on/shone/gone'. Sentenced to Life is littered with further examples of
uninspiring rhymes, this casualness demeans the poetry and produces jarring
effect that interrupts the flow instead of aiding it.
The main subject of in Sentenced to Life is the author's mortality. Clive James suffers from
leukaemia, emphysema and kidney failure. In 2013 he was told by doctors that
he would not live much longer. In the title poem, which opens the collection,
the reader is offered an image of the terminally ill author lying in a cold
Sentenced to life, I
sleep face up as though
Ice bound, lest I should
cough the night away
Though the illness is different, the image is not unlike AIDS victim in Thom
Gunn's 'The Man with Night Sweats':
I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams
Wake to their residue,
Sweat and a clinging
But whereas Thom Gunn's poem goes on to explore the physical effects of the
illness, Clive James' poem is concerned with the impact the illness has on
his mind. With the knowledge that his life may soon be over James is able to
'see things with a whole new emphasis'. The poem contains some brilliant
imagery, including the pacific sunset 'painting the white clouds when the day
is spent', it end with James'
mind basking in the light it 'never left behind'. This fresh perspective is
probably the most interesting shade in Sentenced to Life, the collection is a work of great
reflective depth, the poetry has a poignancy brought by the circumstances,
but never lapses into self pity.
One of the highlights of the collection is 'Asma Unpacks Her Pretty Clothes',
a poem which deals with the false promise of the new regime in Syria conjured
by the glamour of Asma al-Assad and her 'uncovered hair that promised progress'.
The poem benefits from not having a rhyme scheme:
It takes forever: so much
silk and cashmere
To be unpeeled from
clinging leaves of tissue
By her ladies. With her
perfect hands, she helps.
The image of Asma unpacking is contrasted with young men being beaten by iron
bars, praying that death will come soon, at the hands of her husband Bashar
al-Assad. It is a powerful contrast of elegance and violence, there is a
disconnect between the life of the first lady of Syria and the reality of
Syria, a disconnect that Asma cannot really comprehend though 'she must have
thought such things could never happen'. Perhaps the emotion that draws James
to Asma is guilt, although their guilt is of a very different kind, Sentenced
to Life contains numerous
confessions and apologies for James' past infidelities:
My heart had spiritual
And failed at all of
them. Worse than a waste
Was how I hurt myself
through hurting you.
These guilty moments are James at his worst, as is is clear he has only been
made to feel sorry by being ill. If he was in full health his concerns for
his wife's feelings would presumably evaporate as he encountered more 'sirens
from the signing queue'.
Sentenced to Life
is quite likely going to be Clive James' last collection, so there is a
certain pressure on the last poem to round things off memorably. Fortunately,
for posterity, James bookmarks Sentenced to Life with one of the strongest poems in the
collection. It is called 'Sunset Hails a Rising' and is a reflection on the
words of poets when contemplating death. It takes two great lines, one from
Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (“O lente, lente currite noctis equi!”) and one from
Valéry (“La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée”) and puts them side by side in
Run slowly, slowly horses
of the night.
The sea, the sea, always
The image of horses and the sea brings to mind the Guinness advert where a
surfer conquers the giant waves as they become galloping horses. 'Good things
come to those who wait' runs the slogan, it is good advice and it seems to be
a lesson Clive James has learnt; be patient, the right words will come in the
© Charlie Baylis 2015