The Fire of Joy: Roughly Eighty Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud

Clive James

Picador, £20

Review by Hugh MacDonald

CLIVE James had a big brain. It would have cascaded from his skull during any autopsy like one of those huge pull-down beds in a cupboard marketed as a London studio flat.

The image may be grisly but it matches the style and dark humour of the Australian polymath. The Fire of Joy has room for reverence but a wonderful extension for both the funny and the macabre. In an appreciation of GK Chesterton, James writes: “He really did have a gift as big as his famous tummy, which entered the room before he did.”

This capacity for teasing, gentle humour, however, does not shy away from the grim. He quotes from Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner: “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

This collection of poetry and commentary purports to be a selection of work that can be memorised and read aloud. It may be just that but it is, bluntly and brilliantly, a book about death. It is therefore full of fun and foreboding. James, after all, was a man of humour and he was not ready to eschew that trait for the mundane and inevitable matter of death.

This book was compiled and completed under a death sentence. It is full of boisterous life. James died last year after a long struggle with leukaemia. The Fire of Joy is his parting gift, his last word on an art that sustained and enhanced his life.

He speaks near the end – of this book and of life itself – of what may happen after his death, including a return to his homeland: “When I come back it will be in a box of ashes, but I chose the right spot to be born, just as I chose the right profession – poetry – and followed it to the end.”

There is a desperate poignancy in this but it is also a last tilt at self-definition. The truth is that James will not be remembered primarily for his poetry. He was a revolutionary, brilliant reviewer of television, a charismatic presence on the screen, and an entertaining memoirist. He was also a critic of genuine probity and powerful insight. If he did not produce great poetry – and this seems a reasonable if ungenerous assessment – he did write three outstanding books: The Crystal Bucket (a compilation of his Observer television columns), Cultural Amnesia (a personal critical encyclopaedia) and Unreliable Memoirs (the clue is in the title).

The Fire of Joy is not in the first rank of his work. But it has its considerable charms and provokes regular joy. One may want to memorise and recite the poems but it is invigorating just to read them, chortle at and be informed by James’s commentary and place the book in a spot where it is never too far from hand.

There is one tedious temptation that some cannot avoid when appraising a collection such as this. It involves citing great poems that were not included and denigrating some of those that are. This misses the point with all the dullness and puerile bravado of a Donald Trump press conference.

One can argue with James (his commentary on WH Auden and America, for example, contains at least one observation that is plain wrong) but it is daft to cavil at his selections. First, they contain the greats from Burns to Browning, from Longfellow though Masefield to Yeats and Heaney. Second, they contain the more obscure, to this reviewer at least, such as Chidiock Tichborne, Fulke Greville and Charlotte Mew. Third, these are individual selections that come from a learned, insightful source, not an attempt to render all other criticism invalid.

The personal dimension is crucial. James was introduced to poetry at a young age and it accompanied him through an eventful life as the boy from Kogarah laid siege to Cambridge and then infiltrated the very smart set of the wry, the personally reckless and professionally successful in London and beyond. It seems an everyday story of Oz lad made good but sadness and a persistent reflection were not just prompted by a diagnosis of terminal illness.

James’s propensity for irony and his gentle obsession with death may be traced to the loss of his father. Albert Arthur James survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp only to die when the plane carrying him home crashed during a typhoon. His son was 10 years old.

It is tempting then to suggest that mortality lies like a shroud over The Fire of Joy. But it doesn’t. Death is certainly there, almost omnipresent. But it is met with gentle acceptance or a fierce, defiant acknowledgement.

There are flamboyant flourishes. On Kipling, he states: “It was so thrilling I didn’t even realise it was literature.” On that Jarrell scene of the dying airman, he remarks: “Try to get that image out of your head and you would break a chisel.” On Wordsworth’s lengthy The Prelude: “It should be measured by the acre.”

But The Fire of Joy is at its substantial best when dealing with matters of life and death, particularly the latter.

He remarks that Wordsworth “thought he was immortal” as “most writers do”. This, one tentatively suggests, is nonsense but a forgivable aside from a writer staring at the impending darkness and wondering if there is a light switch somewhere, anywhere.

Writers want their art to be immortal. Poetry seems an obvious statement of this theory. It is designed to be recited, remembered. It is fated to lodge itself in the minds of subsequent generations. Words never die, asserts James. This may be trite but it is true. It is reinforced by the wit of James and the genius of his cast in The Fire of Joy.

When appraising the extraordinary Louis MacNeice, James says: “Like most poets, he was better at saying goodbye than saying hello.”

In this aspect, James, the consummate critic and the reliably brilliant unreliable memoirist, is a poet. His farewell is funny, intellectually sharp and a faithful companion for this age of turmoil and uncertainty. It is a long goodbye that rings and rhymes with passion and learning from a big brain who found room in his soul for poetry and in his heart for the contentment it can bring in good times and the solace it carries in bad times.