Sentenced to Life by Clive James

One of the few books I’ve bought recently is this lovely collection of poetry by Clive James – “Sentenced to Life”. I wrote about his book “Latest Readings” back in 2015, and as I said at the time, James is someone whose been around most of my life, broadcasting and writing, and I’ve always enjoyed his work. However it was only recently that I became aware that he wrote poetry, when I watched a documentary about James, and I liked what I heard him read in the programme – so I was pleased to come across this book in the local Oxfam and I picked it up surprisingly quickly bearing in mind the state of the TBR… And after the intensity of all the 1951 reading and posting, it was lovely to dip into some verse in a relaxed way – the ideal companion to a bigger, non-fiction book I was reading.

Poetry is a tricky thing, and I’ve struggled with reading it in the past. There’s a danger of trying to read too much, too quickly, or of encountering verse that really goes over your head. With this book, however, I had no problems at all; it was one of most memorable poetry collections I’ve read in some time, and pretty much every poem spoke to me in one way or another.

James has, of course, been terminally ill for some time, and this knowledge of his condition is reflected in all the poems and also informs each one. It would be tempting therefore to expect a book of depressing verses, but that isn’t the case; yes, the poems are suffused with a kind of melancholy and resignation in places, but they’re also very life affirming and surprisingly positive in places. As James reflects on his life and the good times he had, he’s grateful for what he has left, taking pleasures in the simple things around him.

And what appears on the surface to be simple, easy to read poetry is, I suspect, more complex in structure than you might imagine. I’m remarkably ignorant of the technicalities of poetic structure, but these verses seemed to me to be very cleverly put together; I imagine making a poem easy to read without seeming facile is perhaps a lot harder than might often be acknowledged.

Author photo from slate.com

There are some really lovely poems here, and I was left with admiration for James’ many talents and sadness that he should be taking his leave of us some time in the not so distant future (although I believe he is having something of a charmed life at the moment, owing to new treatment, and is still writing a regular newspaper column – which is great news). One of the poems in the collection, “Japanese Maple”, has become justly famous and it is a very powerful piece. However, I thought I would share some lines from another one which took my fancy – “Event Horizon”. I can’t recommend this collection highly enough and very pleasingly I read that he continues to write poetry and a new book will be out soon –  more power to his pen!

But once inside, you will have no regrets.
You go where no one will remember you.
You go below the sun when the sun sets,
And there is nobody you ever knew
Still visible, nor even the most rare
Hint of a face to humanise nowhere.

Are you welcome to this? It welcomes you.
The only blessing of the void to come
Is that you can relax. Nothing to do,
No cruel dreams of subtracting from your sum
Of follies. About those, at last, you care:
But soon you need not, as you go nowhere.

Advertisements