poetry


Richard Wilbur is a poet who does not press his company on anyone. He does not prod you in the chest with a forefinger and insist on your undivided attention. Almost as modest as Elizabeth Bishop, his poems wait in the brain, outside the spotlight of conscious attention, until you see their sense–and hear it, as Wilbur’s St Teresa hears, pierced by ‘the spear which drew/ a bridal outcry from her lips.’ There is reading and there is this: the direct seduction by the speaking and singing voice of the poet. One is civilised: looking to like, if looking liking move. The other is not civilised–indeed nothing can tame it– a ‘did my heart love till now?’ moment. The first kind of reaction is of a Juliet who is offering a cautious assessment of how she might feel once she has met Paris. It is a rational reaction, an acknowledgement that feelings might grow over time. The second, a Romeo-seeing-Juliet response, is the kind of staggered gasp, the astonished inbreath that comes with a love that seems to obliterate everything else that came before it. Today has been that kind of day, a day in which Richard Wilbur has cast so many other poets that I love into the shadows. He, in my newly reconfigured mind, is teaching the torches to burn.

What has made the difference is hearing the poems. I have been reading them and liking them for years, but recently I acquired the Academy of American Poets’ 1989 recording of Wilbur’s poems, introduced by James Merrill, and as soon as Wilbur began to read his work, the  full-throated ease of the poems split me apart like a sharp thumbnail cuts a ripe fig. As I listened, I happened to be driving through a treacherous winter landscape: the car skidded and lost traction at times, but the poems never wandered from the path. Ecstasy escaped like odour from each poem, but the formal shape, the pattern of the metrical dance, was so exact that the ecstasy was never less than rational. Wilbur’s ‘Teresa’ again: ‘And lock the O of ecstasy within/ The tempered consonants of discipline.’

My Teresa moment in the car reminded me that metre, any poet’s metre, comes from the living organism that is the poet’s speaking voice. All rhythms that he or she is able to use spring from the musical rhythms of speech. And yet the great poets’ speaking voices are more than speaking voices. The rhythms used by the poet eventually come to use him: they order and shape his mind so that he is incapable of functioning without them. Indeed, he is those rhythms: falling and trochaic, rising and iambic, his mind moves as a poem moves. Many poets have this quality: when they give interviews and talk, their talk is spilt poetry. A sure test of a poet’s worth? The wash of rhythm rippling through apparently casual conversation, sufficient to make you imagine that rhythm undulating even through his dreams. 

Poets such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Kathleen Jamie, for example, seem to take topographical rhythms into their speech. Heaney’s peat-sharp consonants kick alongside bubbling lightness; Longley’s conversation is like the wind coming in off the sea at his beloved Carrigskeewaun in Co. Mayo, a wind that picks up the otter’s water-pulse as it swims offshore, a wind that seems capable of counting the starry sand grains on the beach. Jamie, on the other hand, talks like an Alder in thaw, with a ticking passion and impatience, as if willing the sap to rise again.

Yet some poets, such as John Berryman, do not seem to have any metrical smoothness in their conversation. Berryman’s speech is an odd mixture of explosions and quiet despairing gurgles. Listen to him read at the Guggenheim in 63 and you notice he can make the word ‘but’ bang like sniper fire, and the word ‘elaborate’ drift off upstairs, downstairs, somewheres… His poems have the same kind of nitroglycerine unpredictability. Metre is there but it is volatile, as the Berryman personae swim in and out of focus: Henry’s quiet conscience-voice, the voice who tells Mr Bones that there is indeed a ‘law’ against him, contends against the noisier ‘impenitent’ and ‘seedy’  Henry. Still, even in the case of Berryman, speaking voice and metre are connected: the poems have all the irresponsible anarchy of dreams, and all the loopy order of a fine and fractured mind. Berryman’s speech is that broken mirror too.

Robert Lowell’s poems always sound like the Atlantic battling Melville’s whale. Lowell is the big sea, the ‘brackish reach of shoal’ he evokes in ‘A Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket’–even when he is writing about ducks. Hear him reading  ‘The Public Garden’ at the Guggenheim in ’63 along with Berryman and he delivers the lines

the shedding park-bound mallards, how they keep
circling and diving in the lantern light,
searching for something hidden in the muck.

with a voice which seems to thunder like Jehovah. He has no offswitch for that Miltonic grandeur, a quality which gives even his weakest poems a kind of sonic weight, and in interviews, he seems always to drift towards a magisterial iambic: ‘their kind of protest and queerness has hardly been repeated’ he says of Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams in his Paris Review interview, in ruptured hexameter.

Elizabeth Bishop, too, follows the same law of metrical overspill from her poems to her talk. Hear ‘The Armadillo’ on the website of  The Academy of American Poets (1) and all her conversational, epistolary modesty seems folded into every line. Her speaking voice crosses current with counter-current. Above is modesty and dignity, an elegant uninsistence; underneath is a struggle, almost with breath itself. What she says is beautiful, but her breathing hints that she can hardly bear to voice it: what poor things the lovely words are, she seems to say–words, as lovely and robust as those ‘frail, illegal fireballoons’ she describes.  Bishop’s speech also floats with a hidden, fragile fire. Below is a comment she makes in a 1977 interview with George Starbuck where she discusses the blue snails that appear in her poem ‘Crusoe in England.’

Perhaps — but the ones I’ve seen were in the Ten Thousand islands in Florida. Years ago I went on a canoe trip there and saw the blue snails. They were tree snails, and I still may have some. They were very frail and broke easily and they were all over everything. Fantastic. (2)

Now this is nowhere near as lovely as the description in ‘Crusoe’ where the snails are ‘a bright violet-blue with a thin shell’ and the shells of the dead snails ‘look like a bed of irises’ but the spill of enthusiasm and the joy of seeing is evident. Her rhythm comes from her eye, pulsing and receptive to the energy and fragility of the snails and everything else she encounters. Describing the snails in the poem hasn’t dimmed her enthusiasm for the snails she saw in Florida: that ‘and..and…and…’ gives a sense of the endlessly rocking eye within.

A final instruction: click on the link given below and sample some of the clips of an interview given by Richard Wilbur on The People’s Archive. In them, you will hear his exquisite poetic cadence in so many phrases of explanation, whether he is talking about the ‘excitingly exact concrete perceptions’ of Marianne Moore or the ‘rhythmic jags’ of Hopkins.  Interviews like this are valuable because they give the reader a kind of faith in poems as self-generating, self-seeding. To hear a poet talk is to sense poems rising from speech.

But there is a further benefit to be had from listening to poets in conversation. Their talk, whether it be Longley’s, Bishop’s or Wilbur’s, also helps us to think about the question ‘What is a poet?’ After listening to Wilbur being interviewed, a few images come to mind: a poet is a split casing, a discarded pod, content to be left behind by the disciplined ecstasy of the growing flower. Ego needs to cede to voice.

Richard Wilbur on The People’s Archive: http://www.peoplesarchive.com/browse/mpeg4_150k/5786/en/off/

(1) Link to Academy of American Poets and an audio recording of Bishop’s ‘The Armadillo’ http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15214

(2)http://www.pshares.org/issues/article.cfm?prmarticleid=420

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It’s the Pink Panther, the rinky-dink Panther,

 and it’s as plain as your nose,

that he’s the one and only truly original

Panther Pink from head to toes.

 

I can give you those lyrics so easily, straight from memory: the words aren’t even buried treasure, so close are they to the surface. Oh yes, I’ve got those Rinkydink-Batfink-Top-Cat-Tip-Top-Hit-Me-With-Your-Rhythm-Stick blues. Some days, it happens: an old beating-on-a-trashcan sound gets up some speed. ‘Starts again always in Henry’s ears/the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.’ Yes. It’s something to do with that compulsion John Berryman describes in Dream Song 29. Somewhere, in a mysterious corner of the cerebellum, two or more sounds connect like a little circuit and you are thrown backwards into a cartoon moment, a movie, a catchy number-one from Top of the Pops: cartoons such as The Pink Panther, Top Cat, or Batfink; that Ian Dury tune that your parents recorded onto the very first tape you had and played to death, the one containing an unholy amalgam of The Beatles, ‘Chanson D’Amour,’ Showaddywaddy and Boney M. But plenty of people reach for this kind of nostalgia. TV is full of this po-mo recent-past binge-thinking, and full of people moaning about how boring it is to focus on all this easily available Pot-Noodle memory. I quite agree.

The Pink Panther is hardly Rilke’s Panther in the Jardin des Plantes. Top Cat’s adventures don’t travel the same magical distance as Fred Astaire’s footsteps in Top Hat. Top Cat and The Pink Panther please like sweeties please, like lemon sherbets: a sweet quick fizz. Who can remember their plotlines? How did Hugo A Go Go try to trap Batfink and Karate in ‘The Short-Circuit Case’ ? Why didn’t Top Cat and Officer Dibbles try to make a go of it? We don’t much care. The reason these little toons had bite wasn’t their story, it was their sound.

Soundbites, as politicians know, work because their sounds bite. A little phrase locks its jaws into a lobe of the brain and a permanent link is forged. So, although the plot of Batfink is lost, the sounds of the names are not. Pun-punchdrunk genius went into those Batfink character names: Hugo A Go Go, Judy Jitsu, Goldyunlocks, Brother Goose. An assonating, alliterating badass thought of catchphrases like ‘My wings are like a shield of steel’ and ‘my supersonic sonar radar will save me.’  Never mind the story; have the pleasure of tasting tongue-twisters like that week on week and the kids will be hooked. But why?

It’s a deep-brainer. We learn language by making neural connections, and as researchers such as Hulme and Snowling have found, if ‘children lack “phonological awareness” […] they are destined to find learning to read and write difficult.’ (1) In other words, if they cannot hear rhymes and alliteration, and therefore cannot link or group the sounds of speech, they are likely to be poor readers and writers: reading and writing build upon ‘the child’s intuitive knowledge of the structure of speech.’ (2) This phonological awareness develops before we begin to read and write, so if such connections are not made, literacy is impaired. And if literacy is impaired, memory is impaired: memories are words that name images, smells, tastes, sounds and textures. From my experience as a teacher, a child with poor literacy has no memory. She cannot say what she remembers, because words strung into syntax are what call up the world, and her grasp of syntax is like a torn fishing net. She will not be able to describe her first memory. She will not be able to tell you about her house, her family, her dreams. She has no dreams–because she has no words.

Now I know how memory is stifled at birth (it happens when a child isn’t spoken to and listened to,  from the beginning) I know how precious the tongue-twisters are. Penelope Pitstop, Dastardly and Mutley and Hong Kong Phooey are little giggles, chimes that set off bigger, greater poems later. But they only delight me today because of early conversations I had with my parents, at a time when I couldn’t yet reply but nonetheless heard the pretty chime of things that set the darkness echoing.

1) from David Wood, How Children Think and Learn, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999),  215

2) Wood, 215.

 

Batfink usually has some alliterative delights, puns and rhymes, and this is no exception: Hugo A Go Go is the ‘copycat bat’ and poor Karate, thrown off a cliff, moves the voiceover narrator to comment: ‘It looks like Karate’s courageous career is kaputt.’ Karate also dusts down City Hall for the copycat bat’s ‘wingerprints.’ Bliss, even if the 4 minutes of cartoon does feel rather laboured.

Auden: the most accessible of voices, the most forbidding of minds. Even when he dodges and evades, his voice hits from far, like love. Aloof, he touches, even, especially with his plainest phrases. Want a love poet? He’s your man. But don’t expect to love in the same way after you read him. Want a compass? He directs, but only into solitude. Gentle, inconsolable, terrifying, his words have such reach that he can change you without you realising that he’s at work. Look on this place you’re living in and you will not know it. Look on yourself and the mirror will not say your name.

Or so I realise, now I see how he’s been at work in me all these years, ever since that time in my adolescence when I didn’t know poetry even mattered. Perhaps he was the one who started to make poetry matter to me. Let me tell you how.

1987, and I bought an LP by The Communards. Buying it was rebellious, listening to it and loving it even more so. Those were the days leading up to the introduction of Clause 28. Busy with grief, the gay community fought two enemies: the Thatcher government’s increasingly homophobic stance and the terror of HIV. In the midst of this, Jimmi Sommerville and Richard Coles released Red, The Communards’ second album. Part of the ‘Red Wedge’ movement that drew together artists such as Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, The Communards seemed to my fourteen-year-old mind even more radical. Anger, sadness and sexual freedom characterised their music, and they promised a liberated sexual identity that, as a straight, straight-laced private school teenage girl, I could never have imagined without their help. But when I bought their record that year, I hardly knew that this precious sexual liberty that they had written about owed so much to the man who wrote the lyrics to the standout track on the album, a man who had a beautiful name, beautiful even in the small print of the liner notes: W.H. Auden.

The song in question was a setting of Auden’s villanelle ‘If I Could Tell You.’ Long after I had ceased to think of the other songs on Red, the words to this song continued to blossom in my mind. ‘If I could tell you I would let you know.’ How much dumb pain lies here in this simplicity? ‘There must be reasons why the leaves decay.’ A wall you didn’t see coming lies in that word ‘must.’ No answer, no answer. ‘The vision seriously intends to stay.’ No one wants an ending to that sweetness; not even the glory of it wants to go. ‘Because I love you more than I can say.’ How often has that sentence been on our lips, and when has it ever meant more than here, when Auden says it for us? And again the villanelle turns round: ‘If I could tell you I would let you know.’ Every time it returns, we are in a little deeper.  Every time the words face us, we yearn to see our own face.

See? This is Auden, doing what he does best, going on ahead. On Red, Auden’s words lead the way. They lead Somerville and Coles into courageous truth-telling about what was then happening to their ‘lovers and friends.’ And I wish sometimes that I could take Auden by the hand and tell him how those words led me into thinking and feeling. Not immediately, I hasten to add: it is not easy to hear Auden. It is harder still to follow on behind. But once heard, the words themselves lead, and Auden does nothing.  No-one else I know has quite this ability to stand up for language and to stand so cleanly outside it. But in doing so, he gives us the best of ideals: to love words so that we leave ourselves behind.

‘Hallelujah’ is an infinite song. That’s the conclusion I came to last night as I sat down to Guy Garvey’s excellent hour-long documentary on the subject. Half asleep as I write this, I know it’s infinite because I have a feeling I could continue talking about it forever. Perhaps, in some recess of my mind, I will. Talking ‘Hallelujah’ will serve me well when I’m down in hell; all I’ll need as my get out of Sheol card will be a couple of blogs on ‘Hallelujah’ and the Prince of Darkness will be powerless to resist me. I’ll breeze past St Peter with a snappy rendition of ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’  and before you can say ‘space-time continuum’ Beatrice and Dante will have put the kettle on, I’ll be talking about generous pronouns and Jeff Buckley will be tuning his guitar.

Garvey’s programme was gentle, intelligent and he himself was wonderful when talking about Buckley’s rendition of ‘I Know It’s Over’ in the midst of a live recording of ‘Hallelujah,’ and about the guitar intro Buckley wrote for his version of the song. He was even better than wonderful when he told us that the song is powerful because it uses ‘mantra’ (the word ‘Hallelujah’) and that, writing for Elbow, he uses the mantra idea a lot: listen to ‘One Day Like This’ and you will understand what he’s talking about; by the end of the song, not only will you be singing too, but Dante will have fished out another mug with your name on it, in anticipation of your arrival.

Although Garvey’s show was a real treat (great not to have a presenter who speaks like they’ve been to Presenter Academy) I did feel there were one or two things I wished I’d been there to add. Some talk of pronouns for one thing. Last night, no one mentioned those little functional words and how they deliver the experience of the song to the listener and the singer; how they also allow the song to take on an almost infinite variety of political meaning. The pronouns are powerful, man. Look what happens when I alter them:

She tied me to the kitchen chair,

she broke my throne and she cut my hair,

and from my lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Well, ‘she’ is still OMG sexy, but suddenly the song seems firmly personal. Garvey showed how Cohen’s song really ceased to belong to Cohen the moment it had been released as a record. But if he’d written it like this it would simply have been a lovely conversation you overhear on a bus, say, or in a restaurant, and it would still belong to Cohen. But switch back those pronouns and feel the difference:

She tied you to the kitchen chair,

she broke your throne and she cut your hair,

and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Suddenly someone has broken into your memory, bypassed all the security and has reached the vault where all the precious things are, the ‘Casket of Dreams’ if you like. No guards or weapons can help you and you are utterly defenceless. The speaker can really hurt you now, and he does. But, and this is the amazing thing, he hurts you in a way that makes you thank him and sing back ‘Hallelujah,’ purely or brokenly, depending on how the song finds you at the time.

But the pronouns’ power doesn’t end there. They gift the listener many other things; great sex for one. If you’re lucky enough to have had sex like that, it makes the memory suddenly, overwhelmingly present (‘so that’s what happened, was it? Jesus!’); if you haven’t, it gives you such a powerful sense of being there that for a few glorious seconds you can imagine what that feeling is like. Either way, you experience a kind of ecstasy of imagining. You experience the pain and glory of ‘The Vision of Eros.’ You are more than half a poet.

However, if you’re the right kind of singer or listener, ‘Hallelujah’ can make you more than half a revolutionary too. I’ve already hinted at the political drive in k.d. lang’s interpretation. What happens to me, feminist me, when I listen to the song? One female contributor to Garvey’s programme described how she felt it was a man’s song, because of its use of that pronoun ‘she.’ I found that strange: I have never felt it was a man’s song, as though women were somehow excluded from its ‘Hallelujah.’ Rather, I feel the song is an opportunity to change gender. I become a man when I listen. I am Samson. I am David. I am the strong man tied to the kitchen chair, I am the poet-king. And nobody, the song gives me courage to say, can gainsay my claim–  watch those impish, insurgent pronouns go.

But women, too, can see their own strength reflected in the ‘she’ of the lyrics. How many times, in poems and songs, are women hated and scorned for their beauty or sexual power? Not here. ‘Hallelujah’ is revolutionary in its understanding of female sexual power, just as it also, simultaneously, teaches us about acceptance of sorrow, humiliation and loss. OK, so she cut your hair, Samson, but, you know what? you still got that broken hallelujah, and that’s worth just about everything. Her beauty overthrew you? Christ that hurt but bring it on– give me more– don’t stop–please. You are nothing now, but what a glorious nothing, an infinity of nothing. Submit, let go, be thankful.

‘Hallelujah,’ though, isn’t a political manifesto (no ‘victory marches’ here, no banners, no slogans). But it is poetry. Yet, there’s a paradox. It is only poetry when sung. The lyrics on their own are very fine indeed:

The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

I’ve highlighted the stresses in this line in bold to point out to the poetry anoraks amongst you that this is a deft iambic pentameter line that uses a feminine unstressed syllable at its close in a lovely, breathy way. The line drifts off ‘upstairs, downstairs, somewheres’ at the end, wherever you want it to go. And ‘baffled’ is so just. Overwhelmed by the song, not even understanding what he’s doing or what love is doing to him, the poet-king keeps going, in a state of negative capability.

But the song doesn’t stand up as poetry on its own because the words ache for the melody; dammit, the chord sequence is even described in the lyrics, they’re on such intimate terms. The words, beautiful as they are, need the music to keen properly. More than that, they demand the right interpreter.

‘Hallelujah’ does not render its cover artists magically equal, as Garvey’s programme demonstrated. In fact, the contrary is true–it renders them glaringly unequal. Garvey included many interpreters of the song, but, even he, democrat that he is, still couldn’t help suggesting that there was one supreme singer of ‘Hallelujah:’ Jeff Buckley. All ‘Hallelujahs’ to date lead to him. And the mystery deepens. Cohen’s masterpiece appears to be a bit like the Sword in the Stone: it demands a King Arthur to pull the prize from the rock. Not that Buckley is the only King (Katherine Williams emerges from the programme as a contender) but it does demand a supreme sensitivity in the artist to get ‘Hallelujah’ to fully yield. But to get the song to yield, the artist must first fully yield themselves to it. It’s that thing about risk again, that thing about duende.

So Garvey, here’s a gauntlet. I know you said you’re scared to take on ‘Hallelujah’ (who, after all, wants to end up in the seventh circle of the abyss where Bon Jovi will be doing their tight-trousered ‘Hallelujah’ till kingdom come?) But I know you can take on this song of songs and win. You won’t be able to help it, you little sod. You’re too intelligent, too sensual for that. Go on, give it a go. I dare you.

Buckley does a ‘Hallelujah’ on a fine Smiths song and utterly transforms it. Imagine this inserted into a live version of ‘Hallelujah.’ Or, better still, find Garvey on Listen Again (Radio 2) if you still can.

A link to Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’:  http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=hooPU2mdsH4

I can tell you a few things about Theodore Roethke, but you’ll need to wake up. After all, that is what his most anthologised poem, ‘The Waking,’ demands of its narrator and, by extension, its readers:

I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.

Theodore Roethke, the American poet– the manic, alcoholic, unflinching, tendril-sensitive, blunderbuss of a man who died in a swimming pool in 1963–tells us so much about sadness and boredom and mundane hurts in this one line that we have to take notice of him. More than that, with lines like this, so insidiously beautiful, we have to take him in and know him. It’s imperative.

Here in this one line we have that sensation of the daily pain that we repress every time we get out of bed and face whatever it is we have to face. Shut off from ourselves we sleep our way through it all. Here, as elsewhere in his poems, Roethke makes us think of Caliban in his slavery: ‘I cried to dream again.’ He warns us to be hesitant: caution, he tells us, see all as if you were dreaming. But that isn’t all he is telling us. That line also implies a great deal about our existence: the dream life alone is real, he seems to assert, suggesting a need to reject what we would normally call ‘waking’. So the line is both descriptive and instructive; it describes what we are and what we could or should be. As always, with Roethke, it leaves us seeing double: dream and day-to-day are held up to the light like two overlaid photographic negatives.

So we wonder, then, is it artistic virtue that makes him slow to wake, or necessity? Sensibility or affliction? We can’t tell. But this is Roethke. He keeps us on a blade of consciousness, and he cuts. He’s especially good at doing this when he writes about nature:

When I stand, I’m almost a tree.

Leaves, do you like me any?

A swan needs a pond.

The worm and the rose

Both love

Rain.

(from ‘I Need’)

Why so sharp? Because in the adult the child is always talking, and the child that was in Roethke burns him with a darting velvet flame. It’s as if he hasn’t heard the grown-ups say ‘you can’t know the rose; you can’t be the trees themselves.’ He disdains the mature self in favour of the vulnerable, ecstatic seed-self. Seed is alpha and omega; seed is minute, mostly. Seed is also dream and blueprint and memory of all cycles and seasons since the first beat of time. Roethke’s poems are minute like seeds–in their focus but not necessarily their length–and the words are plain (rose, worm, sea, mouth, birds, world, afraid) but every word feels vast and cyclic: a vanishing dream, a blueprint of experience, a quintessence of memory.  Dizzy molecular lightness courses through his lines; they are forever slipping away. Everything, every object is personified and his compassion is relentless, insatiable. No experience sleeps for Roethke. All’s alive.

And yet, everything’s impersonal– despite the fact that the emotion is so intimate and autobiographical (see ‘My Papa’s Waltz’) –the detail is given away like a gift to the reader, almost carelessly (‘of those so close beside me, which are you?’ he asks in ‘The Waking’) and so he always gives the impression that his personal experience isn’t his. All transubstantiates into the universal with Roethke; the universal– tended.

(Apologies for the rather unsettling animation…but at least you have the sound of the poem.)

 If Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso’ sees you without eyes, then the life and death masks of Keats touch you without ‘living hands.’ The mouth, so wide and fleshy, seems capable of kissing you, or of whispering in your ear. The eyelashes, so shockingly visible, pierce you (all Keats’s glances and depth-charge stares are contained beneath the bulbous lids like poems; these eyes are still, somehow, palpating life). The cupped philtrum, the wispy, fine hairline look tantalisingly warm, like a live body is warm and like Keats once said the stubble fields at Winchester looked warm. (1) How to distinguish between these life and death masks? The life mask is an arrow: the face propels itself, Hyperion-like, into Odes and Epics. The death mask’s sunken features are the ripples a stone makes when dropped into deep water (think of the letters here; ‘negative capability’ enacted, ‘uncertainties, mysteries and doubts’ deepening into an agony of the unsayable ). A voyage out and a journey back, the masks show us a Keats the ground of whose being was death and the apprehension of death.

1) See Keats’s letter to J.H. Reynolds of Autumn 1819

‘The term [dude] is used mainly in situations in which a speaker takes a stance of solidarity or camaraderie, but crucially in a nonchalant […] manner. Dude indexes a stance of effortlessness.’ Scott F. Kiesling  (1)

‘Meestah Cliiiiiiive Yaaaaames.’ With those feather boa tones, Margarita Pracatan used to introduce Clive James on his television show some years back. Like a good many of my friends in sixth form, my first introduction to James was watching Clive James on Television. My friends and I tuned in, not so much for the international TV clips, but for what he used to say about them. Later, after his defection to the BBC, I used to make a point of watching Margarita, Vitaly Vitalyev, P. J. O’ Rourke and others being coaxed into giving up the very best of their wit to a T.V. audience by the outrageously twinkly Australian. James wasn’t so much a TV presenter as a cultivator of personalities. He nurtured his guests like an expert gardener might lovingly provide the right conditions in which some rare, delicate orchid could flower. Back in the sixth-form common room, during ‘frees’ when when we should have been writing essays on Hamlet, we would discuss the previous week’s guests and TV clips, laugh over the best jokes and feel a little bit more intelligent as we retold them, even though we couldn’t hope to imitate the composure of Mr James’s delivery. Clive James, my friends and I thought, was a dude.

‘Dude’ is, at first sight, a grossly inappropriate word to apply to someone who, as long as I can remember, has been cuddly and decidedly avuncular. ‘Dude’ is a word that seems to belong in Bill and Ted  or The Big Lebowski. It is a word that acts as punctuation in the speech of Bart Simpson. It doesn’t, at first glance, fit the meta-articulate James at all. But I mean the word in two very particular senses. Firstly, it’s a ‘street’ way of expressing admiration for a person, and in particular, their masculinity. The kids I teach often use the word in this way, boys sometimes greeting each other with ‘Yo! Dude!’ It’s a way for boys to say ‘I love you’ to their male friends without the other kids questioning their sexuality. The kind of masculinity these kids admire, however, is ‘gangsta.’ James’s masculinity couldn’t be more different. His wit is powerful but never violent, affectionate and yet unsentimental and undeceived. He’s a ‘dude’ not because of his swagger (he couldn’t swagger if he tried) but because of his genius for camaraderie and the seemingly effortless grace with which he writes and speaks. He is also a ‘dude’ because he is able to speak of everything from ‘the street’ up to the Sistine Chapel ceiling and beyond. Recently, his unmissable Radio 4 ‘A Point of View’ show encompassed Amy Winehouse and Snoop Dogg, but he can write just as movingly on Auden or Roland Barthes.

Above: ‘Dude’ Lebowski being…a dude.

James’s Protean intellect makes him a dude in a much more archaic sense too. A dude was originally a New York aesthete, possessed of certain fastidious and refined sensibilities, a lover of beauty and truth. James’s whole career has been a defense of this old-fashioned worldview, but with one critical difference from the aesthetes of old: they were fond of championing art for art’s sake. James loves art for life’s sake. For him, to borrow from Blake, ‘everything that lives is holy.’

But Keatsian? Like ‘dude’ this is an honorary title, but perhaps even more of an apparently unlikely appellation. Or so it seems, unless you’ve had the chance to make more than a superficial acquaintance with the life and works of the early-nineteenth century poet. Keats had a reputation until relatively recently for being a rather fey, dreamy, wistful type. In the popular imagination he was rather feminine. (3) But as recent scholarship (most notably Nicholas Roe’s) has shown, Keats is tougher and far more politically engaged than was previously thought. Keats’s problem was his image. His was what he termed a ‘poetical character,’ delighting in whatever persona he created. He himself felt he was a thing of nothing. His friends (among them, Shelley) and enemies alike couldn’t bear this slipperiness and nothingness of spirit and tried to cast him as ‘piss-a-bed’ poet (Byron) or the wan and wounded Adonais (Shelley). Anything but that ‘poetical character’ Keats felt himself to be.

Clive James hasn’t had the extremes of critical response endured by Keats; he’s not consumptive; and has proven himself magnificently capable of avoiding early death.  However, I’d like to suggest a couple of gentle affinities. James is a little marginalised these days, the default Keatsian position (why isn’t he on BBC4 and ITV simultaneously,  being at once erudite and populist as is his gift?). In addition, his writing has a ‘poetical character’ to it: his TV criticism, his essays, his poems, his comic ‘to camera’ pieces, reveal a delight in Iagos and Imogens alike– all of that work fed by the Keatsian wellspring of permanent, discreet melancholy, beating in every measured word. ‘Where but to think is to be full of sorrow’: surely James’s whole poetical identity (if he has an identity) feeds on the marrow of this axiom.(4)

 Benjamin Haydon’s sketch of Keats for Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.

 

 

1) American Speech, Vol. 79, No. 3, Fall 2004, pp. 281-305.
http://www.pitt.edu/~kiesling/dude/dude.html

2) Watch James in Clive James on Television and listen with nostalgia for the intelligence and humour with which he dissects ‘Captain Power’ and the singing kiddy evangelists:  http://youtube.com/watch?v=eXf4ZtYsSWg

(3) Given my earlier comments on Rufus Sewell and ‘feminine’ masculinity, I also have a secret soft spot for this Keats, the Keats whom Byron accused of perpetually ‘frigging his imagination’ in verse. Nicholas Roe’s book is John Keats and the Culture of Dissent.

(4) James’s own website has a splendid selection of prose, poetry, audio, video work by James and people whose work he admires. www.clivejames.com

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