A quirky, personal, and charming collection.
In 2019 Australian writer and raconteur Clive James knew that he was dying. As he contemplated his life, he collated one last book, a collection of just over 80 poems. These were not poems he had written, although he was a fine poet in his own right. Instead, they were works which had spoken to him throughout his life.
Rather than just select well-known or critically acclaimed pieces, James curated on the basis of their “read-out-loudability”. Hence the book’s subtitle: Nearly 80 poems to get by heart and say aloud.
Arranged in basically chronological order, the poems range from Sir Thomas Wyatt’s They Flee From Me in 1535, to Stephen Edgar’s The Red Sea from 2008. Each of the choices is accompanied by James’s commentary, which eschews any expected literary criticism, tending instead towards a discussion of the rhythm and sound, and the place the poem held in his life. Herein are poems he first read at university; works by poets he met through his career; verses he was made to learn at school. Consequently, many of the choices are unusual or at least, unexpected. There are works by little known writers such as U A Fanthorpe, Fulke Greville, and Donald Davie. There are also lesser known works by well-known poets. But there is certainly a good share of famous pieces such as The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell, In My Craft or Sullen Art by Dylan Thomas, and Ode on Melancholy by John Keats. Most of the works are English, American, or Australian.
True to James’s usual form there is humour, often self-directed, sprinkled throughout. And certainly there is pathos as he shares, with disarming honesty, his thoughts on dying and on his colourful life.
The Fire of Joy contains a short guide to reading aloud (and many of these will defy you NOT to read them out loud!). It finishes with a postscript, Growing up in poetical Australia.
This is a delightful book for the poetry lover, the poetry ‘newbie’ and the lover of Clive James in all his wit and wisdom.
In James’s own words “Poets know what they’re talking about, even though they might be so dippy in real life that they can scarcely order lunch”.
Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Distributed by: Pan Macmillan Australia
Released: September 2020