Clive James (Australian, Londoner, critic, memoirist, essayist, novelist, and TV personality) is, unbeknownst to many Americans, also a poet. He has published his hilarious, meticulous verse here only sporadically. And so Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 1958-2008 not only marks his official intro to the U.S. poetry world, but also reminds—delicately—that we’ve been largely deprived of him for a full 50 years.
James’s artistry lies in his ability to seem both casual and careful: He observes an imperfect world with acerbic off-handedness, often setting his informal voice within formal verse. His ambling iambics snap into regularity right when they should, just when they become, as James writes, “Scared into neatness by the wild sublime.” Whether he seeks to mesmerize or to surprise, form almost always fits purpose: “Today in Castlereagh Street I/Felt short of breath, and here is why,” pants the opening of “In Town for the March.” His style and tone recall British poet Philip Larkin, who managed to champion old-fashioned form while writing lines like “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”
Such deceptive lightness may help explain James’s former reputation in Britain as, he writes, “a kind of court jester who was occasionally allowed to perch in a window niche and sing a lament over the ruins of the night’s revelry.” James niche-hops in Opal Sunset, from political commentary to amorous ode to meditation on loss and losing, where he’s at his searing best. The expatriate lament “Go Back to the Opal Sunset”—inspired by his native Sydney—is by turns pithy and anguished, its images haiku-honed. Inventive metrical constraints seem, characteristically, to harness emotions that might otherwise overwhelm.
For all the piercing confession that marks these pages, James’s is a roving sympathy, landing on the handicapped child, the inspired vagabond, the fellow poet. And, being James, he’s occasionally less than sympathetic. Of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, he writes, “The established master and his erstwhile mentor/Were still somehow one creature, like a centaur,” making one of them (my money’s on Pound) a “well-connected horse’s arse.” James’s poems are centaurs in their own right—unlikely, graceful combinations of scholarship and sarcasm, reminiscence and lust, pathos and silliness. Of his most surprising efforts, one might remark—as he does of Larkin’s work—”They didn’t sound like poetry one bit,/Except for being absolutely it.”