Robert Wood: 4: Deadly Conscious: The Boys in Cambridge: Clive James

  Robert Wood

  The Boys in Cambridge:
  Clive James’ Injury Time

  JPR 08

Links: Intro: [»»] 0. Introducing Poetics for ‘Australia’

[»»] 1. Closer to Home: Omar Sakr’s These Wild Houses and the new suburbanism

[»»] 2. The Avant Garde in ‘Australia’: Eddie Paterson, Philip Mead and Caitlin Maling

[»»] 4. The Boys in Cambridge: Clive James’ Injury Time

[»»] 5. The Boys in Cambridge: John Kinsella’s Graphology

This file contains Endnotes. In the Endnote, if you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

Paragraph One follows: 1:

Martin Duwell ends his essay on Clive James’ Poetry Notebook with the following:


I think the wider the perspective, the better the critic: we should be able to match observable practices in our own poetic culture with things as disparate as Zulu praise poetry, the oriental lyric, the Arabic tradition etc etc. Of course, much in poetry — like English poetry’s hits — requires a profound immersion in the language and so our perspectives are, naturally, limited. But professional linguists suffer similar problems (though they are probably even better language learners than literary people) and yet they aren’t inhibited from making statements about language in general (the study of linguistic typology) and they certainly don’t think that English is a base point from which one will be able to say anything at all useful about language as a whole. I’d rather, in other words, that poetry critics behaved more like typologists when they wanted to speak generally about the nature of poetry and less like sophisticated grammarians of English. James is never limited to English poetry and is more polyglot and more widely-read than I am, but there is still a European perspective on poetry in his approach.


Speaking generally, I would suggest that rather than having the critic as typologist we need to find the theoretical basis underneath language, that we need linguistic philosophers, the task being that of the translator who becomes a shaman intent on knowing the spirit of language rather than merely putting dirt from one place to another. I do agree though that James’ represents an anachronistic idea of ‘European’, and also ‘Australian’, poetry, one that has held onto high universals in its pre-identity politics iteration.


It is fundamentally conservative and undialectical if not ahistoricising to boot. This is the British Museum’s idea of poetry for the [white, male] people with no forthcoming repatriation, solidarity or hope.


James is considered in Poetics for ‘Australia’ not necessarily because he is ‘Australian’, which is surely a debatable label for him nowadays, but because he has an interest in Australia, meant here as a collective of poets in the immediate post-war era who he frequently cites (Douglas Stewart, A. D. Hope, James McAuley, Gwen Harwood and Judith Wright). James references remind me of stories of migrants who are locked into the language of their home country from the moment they left, forgetting along the way that home changes too.


As Justin Clemens stated in The Monthly:


From the evidence of the writing here [Sentenced to Life], James doesn’t seem to have taken in any new technique or idea since 1950. One of the things that made him such a great media personality was that, like his compatriots Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, he parlayed colonial antsiness into a satirical doubling of the master’s discourse. Too firmly ensconced in the metropole, though, one succumbs to arriviste fantasies. James was always more timid than his famous comrades, and more middlebrow, too. I can’t help but see this as correlated with his favoured medium: English TV as light suburban home therapy… Once upon a time, James would happily lap at the weirdest secretions of popular culture with gusto, but something in him just said “no” to the real developments in poetry.


As slapdash journalism that adds wry insinuation and comic flair, Clemens’ statement makes sense but read symptomatically it seems dismissive. It drips with anti-suburban elitism failing to distinguish what might be possible in tv, England, therapy, lightness, home and indeed the suburbs themselves. Putting those component parts together does not inter alia lead us to negate James with ostensibly more ‘difficult’ contemporary verse but allow us to look further inward to cultural conditions that continue to matter, regardless of what wannabe metropoles on the periphery would have us believe.


Yet, I do not want to argue what the ‘real developments in poetry’ are or have been since 1950, but rather to suggest that we can find something in the possibility of ‘light suburban home therapy’. After all, one can get therapy from any source one so chooses (even from Lacan). What is the therapy the suburbs need then and is that the therapy that James provides?


I think the suburbs are a style of life and because of that are a kind of tabula rasa in so far as one can find almost anything one so desires there. But in thinking through the suburbanite’s soul of despair we might suggest the suburbs need not only a bit of city and a bit of country but also a method through which they can synthesise these oppositional poles in such a way that mitigates the ever present (un)consciousness of death.


In poetry this might be a way to bring together Romanticism|Modernism if one was working in a European lineage, or Dravidian / Mughal in an Indian iteration, or saltwater / freshwater here in ‘Australia’. This is about directed balance, of elevating retrospectively and predictively to enable a life that offers solace, pleasure and contentment in the unfolding present. That might be what the suburbanite needs most of all.


TV as light suburban therapy seems anachronistic now in light of how people consume media on demand on a variety of devices. It is as if one were nostalgic for a public intellectual from a time not only when intellectuals mattered but when there was a public as opposed to fake news subcultures, market segmentation and user generated content. There is after all some very good TV, but is James’ poetry able to match it?


I began reading Injury Time in bed while an episode of Parks and Recreation played in the background (the death of Little Sebastian if you must know). James’ book is an easy read and says what it needs to say in a plain journalistic style — no defamiliarisation here, no estrangement, just good old say it like you mean it. Hence, the preference for actual similes as opposed to metaphoric thinking. For example:


It’s like a party but nobody came. [4][4]

Trailing his seaside fingertips
Like a stylus through the wave’s green face [17][5]

Reading Laforgue, I love the way he crowds
The world of things into his racing frame
Yet makes them fit, like lightning in the clouds. [31][6]

Of bones. Perhaps the ants are in there
Like vagrants in the ruins of New York. [36][7]

Your keep. That you are frail like other men [39][8]

I used to know the back of my hand
Like the back of my hand [40][9]

Of veins making tracks like the river system
Of a whole new nation [40][10]

Of books that I forgot I wrote. I’ll sign
Each tempting title-page with my by-line
Like a machine for hours on end.[11]


Please see the Endnotes (below) to see why this is poor phrase making. And, just so you get the idea of the inattentiveness to words as words consider:


Eventually the spinning coin will shiver,
The rumble as it falls end with a sigh. [74]

Spatter my eyes with salt tears as I write. [75]


A shiver and then a rumble, not a rumble and then a shiver? I personally would love to know if James can indeed cry freshwater tears, for that would be something to write about.


If metaphor is the substance of poetry, then structurally James is not metaphoric, which is to say, not poetic at all. As the above examples suggest, it tells you what death is by saying ‘death is like a box of chocolates’ and, on rare occasion, by saying ‘winter is coming’, ‘a chapter closes’, ‘the birds have flown’. This is the kind of poetry one reads in workshops aimed at emerging writers whose verse reaches for profundity and fails precisely because it has only made the first step towards showing what poetry is not saying exactly what it is like.


Even if James claims that ‘I knew I would write poetry for life’ I would argue that there is very little poetic thought here and his best work comes in the post-script where he writes a letter to the young poet. It offers some salutary advice on criticism and is shorn of the cliché his verse is full of. He states:


There is no reason to shoot critics as long as they quote you. Even the most hostile critic is working for you if he quotes you; and the chances are, he being his tin-eared self, that the line he picks out as self-evidently absurd or clumsy is one of your best, and will induce his readers to buy the very book on which he is ineptly pouring his brain-dead scorn.


First things first, dear reader — don’t buy this book. Secondly, it is not only the assumed gender of the critic that one is drawn to in this passage, but also the focus on ‘the line’ — surely the poem turns on particular words, or if one wanted to be more precise, on sounds within words and how they might indeed play together. James might like to yoke poetry to music and write against the practitioners and critics who have a ‘tin ear’. But he himself often forces rhymes simply to squeeze a poem into a scheme he has made and also proffers some imprecise imagery as was discussed earlier. At the level of the line, his work is bad, but at the level of the word, it fails abysmally.


Where the poetry really breaks down however is in their political implication. If the form is conservative, there is also content that seems wilfully irresponsible if not downright nefarious. Consider ‘Imminent Catastrophe’, which states in full:


The imminent catastrophe goes on
Not showing many signs of happening.
The ice at the North Pole that should be gone
By now, is awkwardly still lingering,
And though sometimes the weather is extreme
It seems no more so than when we were young
Who soon will hear no more of this grim theme
Reiterated in the special tongue
Of manufactured fright. Sea Level Rise
Will be here soon and could do such-and-such,
Say tenured pundits with unblinking eyes.
Continuing to not go up by much,
The sea supports the sceptics, but they, too
Lapse into oratory when they predict
The sure collapse of the alarmist view
Like a house of cards, for they could not have picked
A metaphor less suited to their wish.
A house of cards subsides with just a sigh [Ed: no it doesn’t, maybe a whoosh]
And all the cards are still there. Feverish
Talk of apocalypse might, by and by,
Die down, but the deep anguish will persist:
His own death, not the Earth’s, is the true fear
That motivates the doomsday fantasist:
There can be no world if he is not here.


What a display of righteous, fatuous, conservative nonsense. From this poem one can only realise that he’s a nutjob, or, given his situation, simply senile (though that does a disservice to the people who actually are). One might be tempted to be sceptical of the burghers and experts, the boffins and eggheads, especially if one ascribes power to the tv host. But, if one opens one’s eyes to the birds and the weeds, the crayfish and the herring, then one will note that the natural world is under attack on an unprecedented scale.


You don’t need a professor to show you this as any amateur fisherman will attest. One need only think of supertrawlers in waters off the coast of England, or the absence of prawns in the Swan River. Even an English garden where James sits and writes is part of an ecosystem under threat in such a way that we need to take seriously the implications of poet’s role in ecology.


The implications of this can be as profound as we make them. After all, and to return us to Clemens, the normalising of far right racism through the cultural industry of reality television is a real possibility — Pauline Hanson and Dancing With the Stars or Donald Trump and The Apprentice. This enables a type of neo-fascist politics through its aestheticisation, revelling in a society of the spectacle that mocks the life of ordinary people willing to subject themselves to culture industry mincers beyond their control.


I do not need to make a claim that poetry is a rebuttal of this for there are haters aplenty in every field, but rather I would suggest that one can find allies using all the tools that are available in order to cultivate a utopian possibility in the face of the real.


James is not part of creating the paradise of tomorrow, or even today’s resistance, but as he prepares to depart from this mortal coil, his example of sad production and his hobbyist’s naïve attentiveness might allow poets to measure themselves next to a more expansive idea of who writes and what that means for us all.

This file contains Endnotes. In the Endnote, if you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

[4] So it really isn’t like a party at all unless it is like a party where nobody came.

[5] His fingers as a stiff, inanimate, regular, mechanical needle? That doesn’t seem to be consistent with ‘grace’ and ‘glide’ later in the stanza.

[6] But doesn’t lightning come out of clouds? Isn’t it remarkable because it doesn’t fit in them?

[7] How do we know there will be vagrants in the ruins? Or will there be any people in ruins anywhere, ruins are usually abandoned, rather than full of vagrants, and besides ants are quite organized with their elaborate housing systems, their systematic workloads and ordered hierarchies.

[8] But if you were frail like other men why do you undergo chemo?

[9] Quite a funny one.

[10] I think rivers predate nations, they are geological time not historical. New nations, as a general rule, do not go about creating new rivers, maybe damns or aquifers, but not rivers.

[11] But when do machines sign? Why not robot, cyborg, automaton?


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