April 2015

Arts & Letters

Late styles

By Justin Clemens
Clive James’ ‘Sentenced to Life’ and Les Murray’s ‘Waiting for the Past’

We are entering the old age of humanity. As Franco Berardi puts it in The Uprising (subtitled, of all things, On poetry and finance), “Energy is fading because of the demographic trend: mankind is growing old, as a whole, because of the prolongation of life expectancy, and because of the decreasing birth rate.” Gerontology, in short, is one of the great growth areas of our times.

For the artist, ageing brings about not only the usual decay of capacities and fear of sickness and death, but also the problem of what’s often called “late style”. Sir Kenneth Clark noted that “Old artists are solitary; like all old people they are bored and irritated by the company of their fellow bipeds and yet find their isolation depressing. They are also suspicious of interference.” This is not just a remark about the sense of ebbing life, or a melancholy flatness regarding the value and import of the work, but about the legacy of one’s earlier accomplishments – the work of the younger, more energetic, more hopeful and ambitious self – catching up with the artist in an exercise in inadvertent aesthetic self-murder.

Yet late style may also announce itself as a provocation: in the shadow of the end, can I still write something new? How does the late work illuminate the earlier? Am I lesser, the same or greater than I was? These are some of the questions raised by new books of poetry from two famous old Australian men, Clive James and Les Murray, in which they reflect – James incessantly, Murray more circumspectly – on the vagaries of art and flesh.

The similarities, however, end there. Where James sinks into an often-bathetic sincerity, Murray never ceases to shock. A brief snatch will give some of the flavour of each poet. Here’s James’ ‘Landfall’:

Hard to believe, now, that I once was free
From pills in heaps, blood tests, X-rays and scans.
No pipes or tubes. At perfect liberty
I stained my diary with travel plans.

And here’s Murray, from ‘The Care’:

Carers have learned the bad-smelling
jobs, and soak them as they chat.
Brown pivot stains shame a veteran –
Old age is eventually a cat

which starts on the brain of its prey
so the words come with a delay
and finally hardly at all.

The books’ titles themselves betray what the writers share, and what divides them from each other, in vision, tone and power. Sentenced to Life is a dad joke, rendered all the more groan-worthy by its sentimentality and self-pity. Waiting for the Past, by contrast, shimmers with redemption in a universe of death. James is pretentious and platitudinous; Murray is a dragon of inflammatory contradictions.

As Oscar Wilde put it in The Critic as Artist, “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling”. There’s no question about James’ feelings: the poems are nothing else. Moreover, his moral sense is narrow, and his politics almost infantile. Take ‘Tempe Dump’, effusive with self-regard:

I always thought the showdown would be sudden,
Convulsive as a bushfire triple-jumping
A roadway where some idiot Green council
Had forbidden the felling of gum trees …

The images are arbitrary, the modifiers those of an opinion piece in a regional newspaper. Poetry doesn’t care what your politics is – it can harbour radicals as readily as reactionaries. But it is crucial that the politics is subordinated to and transfigured by the poem. Worse still, James seems incapable of writing a line without trying to purple it up: “On the rafting ice / The afterbirth of seals / Leaves stains like pink blancmange.” Sorry, Clive, but in the immortal words of Destiny’s Child, I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly.

This volume forces the question: what happened to the brilliant TV critic, host and raconteur? From the evidence of the writing here, 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. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – it’s just not contemporary poetry. Nor do you have to like contemporary poetry to be a part of it. But you do have to keep attending to that which you do not understand or favour. If not, you’re lost. This is perhaps why you could find Hughes admitting, despite himself, that an otherwise-loathed contemporary artist had indeed made some decent work; or Greer moving between an academic account of the life and work of the Earl of Rochester – the syphilitic aristocrat hammed up by Johnny Depp in The Libertine – and defending on page and screen her allegedly paedophiliac paean to The Boy. 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.

Was he desperate to nestle into the armpit of a decaying English literary hierarchy? Samuel Beckett’s hobo Molloy, explaining his winter dress, advises that “The Times Literary Supplement was admirably adapted to this purpose, of a neverfailing toughness and impermeability. Even farts made no impression on it.” Although Molloy’s farts couldn’t make a dent in the TLS, James’ words busted right on through. If one scans the unending laudatory reviews of James’ poetry, the cronyism is palpable. The only respectable dissenter I could find was Guy Rundle. “Another Clive James poem,” he sighs in Crikey, “its very existence subtracting from the sum worth of poetry as a mode of expression.”

When James writes

                                 I would lie
As if I could be true to everyone
At once, and all the damage that was done
Was in the name of love, or so I thought.

it’s mystifying that he names his ressentiment love. In the end, James doesn’t have the courage of his hate.

Murray, by contrast, is anything but a colonial pander. His brilliance is such that fear and loathing don’t stop him from snuffling out the hidden goodness in what Brecht called “the bad new things”. I once read an interview with Murray’s wife, in which she said of his taste in food that “Les likes lard with his lard.” I take this as an allegory of Murray’s literary appetites: he feasts enormously, on friends and enemies alike. Where James’ poems, in their narratives and images and forms, betray a fearful rejection of our amnesiac culture, Murray’s proclaim the ongoing incorporation of his enemies’ powers. From one line to the next, it is impossible to know which way his tropes will twist: the continuous almost-surreal shifts in register, the often-bizarre surprise rhymes, and the unbalancing irregularity of the rhythms drive the reader from pillar to post.

Let me quote a poem, ‘I Wrote a Little Haiku’, which fuses an astonishing range of techniques. The singsong menace of the title refers to one of Murray’s own haikus, ‘The Springfields’ (from the collection Taller When Prone), which has been embedded within the new poem. The poem is a critical take on those who rejected the haiku for its obscurity. From there, it moves to an extended single-sentence explication:

The title was the rifle
both American sides bore,
lead was its heavy bullet
the Minié, which tore

often wet with blood and sera
into the farmyard timbers
and forests of that era,
wood that, burnt even now,

might still re-melt and pour
out runs of silvery ichor
the size of wasted semen
it had annulled before.

When you ponder this for even a moment, the compacted allusions blossom into mind-bending paradox. The image of wasted semen – the sin of Onan – is here articulated with an image of internecine warfare, in which the slaughter of brothers constitutes the obligatory form of intercourse. The old bullets spend upon the earth in an orgiastic parody of thwarted reproduction. Murray has forged a new image for what the Bible names among the most ancient crimes: the wages of sin is death.

The business of art – like any real business – is violent and pitiless. It’s not an old man’s game. Yet old age can come as the Revealer, separating the sheep from the goats. Even if this is not perhaps his greatest book, Murray appears ever greater as a poet.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

Cover image

April 2015

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