Clive James: Poetry and Unreliable Memoirs

Unreliable memoirsOn Sunday mornings, my Israeli friend Pnina emails me the “Bookmarks” newsletter from the Guardian. It’s a lively roundup of new books and literary essays. Sometimes I just need to skim it and sometimes I find real treasure.

The treasure I found on Sunday was a piece by Clive James, who died in 2019. James was a well-loved (Australian-born) British literary and cultural critic. I discovered him for myself about fifteen years ago when I was putting together my book on memoirs. I found his first memoir, called Unreliable Memoirs and I loved it from the first page. Here’s what I wrote about it:

James pens a hilarious account of growing up in Sydney, Australia, in the 1940s and 1950s, son of a widowed mother who despaired of ever seeing her son make something of himself. His childhood was filled with mischief and over-the-top exploits at school and in the neighborhood, all of which hid his frantic adolescent need for acceptance and sexual conquest. A laugh out loud coming-of-age story with a strong sense of place and time.

 James went on to disprove his mother’s bleak view of his future by becoming a prolific author of literary criticism, poetry, memoir, and novels. He was a popular TV reviewer on the BBC, where his deadpan humor endeared him to listeners. It’s still in print to purchase but maybe your library has a copy of Unreliable Memoirs tucked away on a dusty autobiography shelf or you can find a secondhand copy; I highly recommend it. 

The Guardian article is an excerpt from James’s last book, Fire of Joy, about his lifelong love of poetry, which began with compulsory memorization of poems in elementary school. James didn’t find it difficult or unpleasant to memorize poems; he comments that “it was a fantastic combination of Parnassus and a maximum-security prison.” He goes on to write about the nature of poetry’s appeal and includes some of his favorite poems. His frank opinions, leavened with humor, make the excerpt a joy to read.

About poetry he writes, “With a poem the most important thing is the way it sounds when you say it. At that rate even the most elementary nursery rhyme has it all over the kind of overstuffed epic that needs 10 pages of notes for every page of text, and reduces all who read it to paralysed slumber–or even worse, to a bogus admiration.” (Is that why I’m such a fan of the “Jabberwocky?”) 

There are links at the bottom of the Guardian article to other articles about James, all of which sound wonderful. 

As best I can tell, Fire of Joy has not yet been published in the U.S., so the excerpt in the Guardian will have to suffice for now. I’ll keep an eye out for publication here. 


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