August 2007

Arts & Letters

The velvet shackles of a reputation

By Clive James

In Dr Johnson's little novel Rasselas, the Poet tells the Prince about the psychological requirements of a poetic career. The poet, says the Poet, must "content himself with the slow progress of his name". On the other hand, he should learn to "contemn the applause of his own time". We would have liked to hear more, but the Prince has more boring things to do and cuts the Poet short.

My own view is that the second requirement sounds a bit hard: I would like to have a lot more of the applause of my own time before I contemn it. I don't think that the whole idea of a reputation for poets has done much for poetry in modern times, but while reputations are thought to matter it would be nice to have one. Leaving that second requirement aside, however, the first requirement is one I recognise by necessity. Speaking as one whose name, for a long time, was all too recognisable from every activity except the one that mattered to me most, I can only wonder, looking back, if my name as a poet might not have made quicker progress had I been less notorious for the other things.

Even today, when I have been absent from the screen for more than five years, interviewers take it as self-evident that I have a question to answer: Didn't television fame rule out any possible reputation as a serious writer? A variation on this, if the interviewer is ready to concede that I might be some kind of serious writer after all, goes thus: Didn't my reputation as a prose writer rule out any possible reputation as a poet? These questions are really based on two different levels of the same assumption: that poetry should be pursued as a single, dedicated vocation. Proper poets really don't do anything else. If any of them ever do, it can only be as a way of making the poetry possible.

Well, of course there's a lot to that argument. If poetry is a dedicated activity like brain surgery, we don't want the poet dreaming of being a TV presenter any more than we want the brain surgeon dreaming of being Eric Clapton. Just as the brain surgeon might start playing air guitar at the critical moment, the poet might imagine himself jumping into the hot tub at Playboy Mansion West with three gatefold girls, thus inevitably coarsening the texture of his latest tender love lyric. (Yes, that's what I did. There were reasons, which I don't have time to explain now.) But the argument is based on a conception of poetry that I don't happen to share. I have always admired the priesthood of the profession, but was cut out by nature for the limelight, not the pulpit, and what really screwed my reputation was when I took my poetry into show business in the 1970s. Some of the details of how I did it are in my latest volume of memoirs, North Face of Soho, and I won't repeat them here. But I can summarise them by saying that after my first mock epic, Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage, made its scurrilous mark, I became typecast in the literary world as a kind of performance poet, like all those American visitors who turned up at the Albert Hall in their overalls. I was an Australian visitor (cue artwork of man in bush hat with corks around the brim) making the same sort of flagrant assault on local reticence.

From then on, my fate was sealed, and anything I wrote in verse form was regarded as a would-be entertainment. The literary-gossip-column coverage that accrued to such poems as ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered' and ‘Bring Me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini' confirmed that view. It became a given. What made it hard for me to fight this invisible but all too palpable straitjacket was that I actually did believe a poem ought to be something that could be recited and performed: something entertaining in the first instance. I wrote lyric poems that were meant to be as deep and intricate as anybody else's, but I still wanted them to be able to pass that first test in front of a live audience. For all poets, critics and literary journalists wedded to the belief that poetry was a private matter meant only to be overheard, this attitude was anathema.

I was ready to live with that assessment, but it undoubtedly had some uncomfortable consequences, and continues to do so. A few years ago one of my poems about my dead parents - a particularly serious theme in my recent work, I would have thought - was up for consideration by a British literary tribunal known as the Forward Prize committee. I heard privately that one of the judges threatened to resign from the panel if my poem was even mentioned. If I had ever depended on prizes I would have been dead by then, but the news was still disturbing.

My volume of collected poems, The Book of My Enemy (2003), was a Poetry Book Society choice, ran through five printings in its first year and was widely, and often favourably, reviewed. Some of the most generously thoughtful notices, I'm glad to say, were in Australian publications: I think particularly of those in the Adelaide Advertiser and Australian Book Review. But the two serious British literary papers in which most of the book's constituent poems first appeared still haven't reviewed it, four years later. Neither periodical is known for being quick off the mark, and one of them is famous for delaying a review until the author can be proved to have entered the nursing home, but you would have thought that having been actually published so often in their pages would have been a qualification for the acknowledgment of one's existence.

It could be said, even by me, that my existence as a poet gets acknowledged quite enough. I suppose that being blessed, or cursed, with a showbiz name did something to save me from the usual crepuscular stretch in the specialist magazines. But it gave me no automatic entry to such outlets as the Spectator, the Guardian, the TLS, the LRB, the Australian, Australian Book Review, Meanjin, the New Yorker and Poetry (Chicago). Almost all of those publications, in my case, continue, as they should, to do at least as much rejecting as accepting. I have no reason to believe that the interior editorial voice saying, "He's a well-known media name, let's print his poem," does much to quell the other interior editorial voice saying, "He's playing at poetry, let's leave his poem out." All too often, indeed, I am the victim of the strange medical condition which its victims call Death By Acceptance, whereby a poem is accepted and then not printed for months that stretch into years. The only way I can explain this is that the editor, having temporarily convinced himself that my reputation for frivolity can be ignored for once, starts realising that he might run the risk of acquiring the same reputation for himself. So he just parks the thing. Or she does: one of my London editors proved incapable of responding in any way during the two full years that I intermittently quizzed her on the fate of one of my poems that she had accepted. She smiled at me very nicely at parties, but the smile got broader after I finally let somebody else print it.

Luckily I don't have to hold my breath. I get enough attention to be going on with it, and most of it is the best kind. I wrote a poem called ‘When We Were Kids' about my memories of childhood in Australia. Now I can't sit down to read and write at Rossini's on Circular Quay without people coming up to me and telling me what I left out of it. My website is a vanity press the size of a space station. So far, on the web, I have published only those poems which have already found a first home in print, but if the site got famous enough I could easily contemplate forgetting about print publication altogether, and just send the stuff in through the Earth's atmosphere from cyberspace, like cosmic rays. If I went on the road with a show based on reading out nothing except my verse - with, of course, a suitably subversive commentary damning all editors to hell - I would probably even make a living, in the way that Robert Frost pioneered. He got paid thousands of dollars a pop, not just because he was correctly perceived to be a great man but because he could put on a show.

Most poets can't do that, because they are steeped in the private ways of being merely overheard. Good luck to them, but I prefer to take stage centre. I'm used to it, and nobody has asked for their money back yet. Also it's the sort of applause I care about most. But there's no denying that I could use a bit more of the other kind of applause as well. Still hankering for that, I would be hypocritical to contemn it, not to say unwise. A good reason for being at least sceptical about the approval of the poetic establishment of the day is that it has never been very good at separating the poet from his publicity. Unfortunately any poet who complains about his publicity is likely to be reminded, by fellow poets who don't get enough of it, that he sounds like Jennifer Lopez complaining about the size of her trailer.

Clive James

Clive James was an author, critic, broadcaster and poet. He wrote more than 20 books, including his memoir, The Blaze of Obscurity, and a collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum.

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