In his day Gilbert Harding was one of the most famous people in the United Kingdom. He died suddenly in 1960 and was widely mourned. ‘A Johnson without a Boswell’ was one celebrity’s valediction, intended as a compliment. But Harding left very little behind. There was a remarkable filmed interview a few weeks before his death. In the interview he revealed a rounded [and vulnerable] personality rather than the irascible public image. He also spoke of his hopes to write. He was only 53, not too late to leave a literary mark. All he became was a fading memory.
Certainly we remember Dr Johnson through Boswell, but there was work of substance, including the Dictionary and his Lives of the Poets. Opinionated, reactionary and combative, Samuel Johnson also had a large heart, a zest for life and a sharply critical eye that was expressed with a sustained flourish of wise words on literary matters. Reading him you can feel his presence. Although he became a great public intellectual, greater ambitions eluded him. ‘Taunt me not, sir, with what might have be
A successful careers need not lead to a successful personal life. Each of us has our private doubts and regrets, our unspoken sense of failing. We expected more of life. That is surely as true of great achievers as it is of the perpetually hopeful. Some very successful achievers are said to be haunted by the thought that failure may yet be possible. It could collapse, seeing an irreversible slide into obscurity.
The secret surely is not to take the world’s evaluation at face value. The cheers can turn so easily into jeers. Within the crowd’s admiration is a latent envy.
I was looking at a photograph of the Bob Dylan Isle of Wight concert in 1969.
Out of the mass of fans one face leapt out. It was of someone looking not at the stage but at the camera. It was a sour and angry face that seemed to be asking why all the attention was on Dylan rather than on him. The answer was that Dylan was a star and he wasn’t. But in the Seventies that angry face acknowledged the crowd when he too became a star.
The watchword is not to be envious because one day your turn will come, perhaps in a way you can’t anticipate. Success and failure are relative terms. Catching the public eye is not the only path to achievement. Clive James has spoken of excellent books that have never enjoyed high sales. He is surely right. We may be deeply influenced by books we have yet to open. Most books are not best-sellers, and do not seek to be as their primary goal. Influence is often a slow, subtle seepage into the fabric of culture.
The career of Clive James is something of a lodestone in this respect. His media stardom was high and sustained for many years. He abandoned academic promise for a popular platform, and then eventually to forsake intellectual celebrity status for a more a creative and substantial literary career.
It was not the inevitable choice. It was not necessarily the best choice. There are reasons for wanting to run a talk show, and there are reasons for wanting to be an essayist. The point is that a choice has to be made sooner or later between media stardom and cultural substance. You ride both horses at your peril. It can be done but rarely. Clive James’s ultimate choice was to write the poetry and creative commentary that seek to outlast ephemeral but lucrative publicity.
Fame in its true sense means substantial and enduring achievement. That may come through popular culture but not through publicity alone. There are those whose spontaneous conversation is better than their written work. Some are capable of both. Lasting achievement of any kind is a gift the gods rarely give. The best mortals can do is to believe in what they do, and to hope others share that belief.
It helps to have a Boswell. Clive James has been his own Boswell. Some of his most formally satisfactory works are his autobiographies, those ‘unreliable memoirs’ that tell a serious truth about their author even when he re-arranges the facts. The truth of a narrative is within the narrative’s interpretation of the truth.
Telling the truth is what a writer must do to write well. The truth is not an amalgam of witnessed facts but an appraisal that considers the wider context of experience and the nuances of moral value. As every honest writer [and honest reporter] knows, the truth is liable to conflict with the myths woven by the media of popular discourse. Crowd-pleasing is not a cultural virtue.
An earlier Clive James gathered a loyal following of those who sought deeper engagement in the general conversation. For a long time he was identified in that rare species of media star who seeks not only to entertain but to advance the general culture. Regular appearances on television and regular appearance in print disseminated reasoned and avowedly liberal thinking in a milieu of cheap reaction and selfish materialism. The poetry in those years did not take centre stage. Cracker barrel reflections held public attention. The Australian background was seen to define Clive James. Publicity requires an identifying characteristic. In this case it was the clever Aussie who wound up in Cambridge before finding metropolitan success.
The success almost destroyed him. At first he tried too hard, then won through with an acquired air of ease. There remained the familiar danger of a talent whose fruits were scattered and squandered. Mistaking publicity for prestige is the curse of broadcasting. In a culture of trivia intelligent conversation acquires an air of sagacity that promises more than it delivers.
A genuine wisdom saved Clive James for his first love, his primary ambition, of writing words that linger beyond the passing occasion. Once he hunted with the hounds, only to see that the quarry was a betrayal of his younger, eager and aspiring self. He had found himself among those who cast no shadow. Long ago they did something interesting. The promise was dissipated in clichÃ©s where everything is iconic or toxic in a land of contrasts.
The rich vocabulary of a creative imagination is the spectre at the feast of received opinions. It is possible to enliven the general conversation through media, but the obstacles are formidable. Clive James had sought to speak beyond the confines of coterie and class. Not everyone who heard and saw him read him, but by listening they gained something of what he had to offer by way of intelligent reflection. Then the time came to seek out the spring from which his heroes drank. It lay sequestered in that dreaded area of privacy and quietude, those sensitive faculties the shrieking voices instinctively hate and fear. Poetry is not the new rock ‘n’ roll because it’s not the new anything. It is age-old, and yet it is a fresh as the air in a spring dawn. Cheap fame soon burns itself out. Imagination’s fire is a constant in the sensitive and thoughtful mind.
The question is whether Clive James can do the thing he loves. As he notes, poetry is something very few can write. He does not place himself, even by implication, among those who can, although he has published several volumes. It is easier to place others than it is to assess one’s own abilities. A writer may need to be the harshest of all critics. To know what you are writing has some merit is an essential faculty. How much merit is less certain. To say whether you have reached the slopes of Parnassus or the arid wastes of Ozymandias is for others far distant to say for sure.
There was a risk in forsaking media stardom that was so hard won for a creative commitment that is even harder. It was a brave, bold move that ought to be applauded. The performing self became the reflective self. The resident alien acknowledged the integral nature of his writing. Whatever the passport says creativity transcends borders.
But an aesthetic discovers its bounds. The speculative ethic of his youth was a response to the counter-culture of the Sixties. Clive James was tolerant toward the challenging social critiques of Richard Neville and Germaine Greer. Clive James in himself was more cautious. His aesthetic was from the beginning traditionalist beneath the pop culture style. Robert Frost and Philip Larkin were more central to the James aesthetic than the iconoclastic and experimental forms that emerged from modernism. As critic, commentator and creative writer James has maintained a consistent line as ‘the dreaming swimmer’ at the margins of the mainstream. He has never ventured too far. His judgement on the revolutionary romantic Pablo Neruda lacks balance as well as grace. On the other hand, there is his dismissal of the self-deluded ravings of Ezra Pound. Pound had an eye for talent without possessing talent himself except for an egotism that destroyed whatever promise he once possessed.
Ezra Pound’s life [which included treatment for clinical insanity] is a cautionary tale. In the contrast between publicity and poetry lies the dilemma for creative writers in an age of ever-advancing media. Promise is easily devoured by a meretricious allure. Pound gave vent to his rage in broadcasts from Fascist Italy. What came out was the rawness of random thoughts that have no coherence, no substance. It may be said they were at one with Pound’s poetry.
It was a career of self-parodying artifice masquerading as complex artistry. He believed his own publicity.
A poet believes in poetry, not only his work but the genre itself and all that is contained within the word poetry, the making of words that mean more than words can say. Clive James may not make great claims for his poetry. He does make the greatest claim for poetry. It is for the energy with which he pursues that claim that he is worth a second glance as a close and engaging reader of poetry.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall