Sentenced to Life by Clive James

A Graph Review:          70 but mostly highpoints of 75 plus

Sentenced to Life          Clive James

Picador,          Hardback.         £14.99.        978 14472 8404 8         published 9 April 2015

sentenced to life cover37 poems.

Clive James is a television writer and presenter, author of more than forty books, poetry, novels, autobiography and criticism (‘Cultural Amnesia‘ is a book I was reading!!!  but packed it away in a move and annoyingly have not re-discovered it yet).

“As often happens with poetry, the ostensible meaning and the deeper meaning might be at variance”.   Says Clive James in his Acknowledgements in ‘Sentenced to Life’.

Here is the simplicity of story telling, some vignettes, much on the trials of ill health and approaching death.  Plenty of nostalgia using a sleight of words that give not a meaning to life but an acceptance of what was and is.  Any anger, maybe placed in another’s story but even then quietly dissipated.  Throughout, Clive James admits the weight and tedium of his illness through verse with a skill that is sharp and witty. His is a mind still working at full tilt despite a tired body.  A burst of humour in a line or two or a lighter-touch poem help to release the tensipns a little.  And the landscape?  They are of fine images, concise, precise and immediately in the mind.
Frequent glimpses of Australia and regret at not treading its beaches or seeing the sun setting overhead.  Relationships and family reach into the poems, the past and the present.

Writing on death is often a poet’s forte, the elegies, the emotion, the memories in sequence or random; usually of a loved one.  Clive James, however is processing through his own death, seemingly at a stage of acceptance.  Here we have a classic line followed in awesome skill.  Did I say simplicity?  Even partway through a verse, a line, maybe just touching a word, you could be sign-posted to another thought or possibility.

Despite a concentration on ‘the blackness’, the void, I find this collection is almost purely a celebration and remembrance of life: ‘The sea, the always self-renewing sea/ The horses of the night that run so fast’.  The waves seem calm(ish) in these passages, safe in the knowledge that there is continuation, albeit not his/ours.  As in the ocean there are many undercurrents to be aware of.

You may find ‘variance’ if you change your perspective a little on further reading.  Like fine music, you discover more options on every reading.

As usual I noted poems I especially liked for one reason or another but once again I say the whole collection deserves a place, not only on my shelf but on that of every reader, writer and student of literature.
My attention was especially caught by:
Elementary Sonnet.      WinterPlums.        Transit Visa.        Japanese mMaple

Japanese Maple may well be the anthologist’s favourite.

Other poets to sample: Douglas Dunn:  Elegies

                                         Christopher Reid: Scatterings


The Forward book of poetry, A Graph Review

A Graph Review
60 with highpoints 75

The Forward Book of poetry  2015

978 057131524 6      paperback       £8.99

Did you Remember National Poetry Day 2014?  A UK event organised by the Forward Arts Foundation for the last 19 years.  Well, this annual event has once again produced a compilation from a wide ranging number of authors.  The finings of a year’s selection from best collection, best first collection and best single poem, from Oct. 2013 to Sept. 2014. forward book of poetry 2015 cover imageThis includes  winners and highly commended of each section.
The panel, including and chaired by Jeremy Paxman consisted of ….. Dannie Abse, Vahni Capildeo, Helen Mort and Cerys Mathews.

So, what is offered by The Forward book of poetry 2015?

Simple, 70 of the best poems written by the best of writers in English.  Authors in all ranges and style, stages and ages.  What have they in common?  Quality.

The Foreward by Jeremy Paxman states that more than half the poems in this collection are by new and emerging writers.  Many are names that I have not previously read but that is my shortcoming and I am happy to follow them up.  I was happy to see (read!) Ruth Padel and a long term favourite, Douglas Dunn.  Also Andrew Motion and Louise Gluck, who has caught my attention quite recently.  More authors who grabbed my attention as I read through this collection are: Robert Crawford, Theodore Deppe, Carrie Etter, David Hersant and Emily Wills, not forgetting Kei Miller who gets a mention below.  Having said that, this was a real pleasure throughout.  A treasure of modern verse with takes and echoes and rhythms to be read over and again.  Each poet, each poem, deserves its place here.

Any regrets?  None. Well, maybe for myself in now having to wear glasses to read the smaller font size in books and perhaps sit under a brighter than previous light.  Is this relevant?  It is when you have to catch time when available to read so much good verse.  Incredible value for £8.99.

One last point:
Next generation Poets:
Check out the names of the poets in this Forward anthology of 2015 (2014 poets, prize winners, shortlisted and commended) and then compare them with the names of the ‘Next Generation Poets 2014’ ( ). This is a commendation of the best new poets in UK and Ireland which is considered every ten years and this October was it. You will find three names on both lists:

Kei Miller, short listed by Forward.
Jen Hadfield, Highly Commended by Forward and in 2014 collection
Hannah Lowe, Highly Commended by Forward and in 2014 collection

Kei is published by Carcanet and Jen and Hannah both published by Bloodaxe.

So, maybe statistically, we have three poets to watch particularly.  I just hope they continue to write their own poetry in their own way without having to worry about any such weight on their shoulders.

But then you know what statistics are, so grab a chance to read them all, find who you like and follow their writing.  However the only way to enjoy particular poets is to read around them too.  All tastes and styles change over time for both the reader and the writer.  I was just about to mumble on about pools and ripples but then I remember statistics and teaching grandmother to suck eggs!   I have just been reading James Elroy Flecker, now there’s a different kettle of fish.     Enough! Enough!

Douglas Dunn wins Queens Medal for Poetry

Many congratulations to Douglas Dunn for winning  the  2013 Queens medal for Poetry, in recognition of his lifetime contribution to literature.

I have previously mentioned  his ‘Elegies’  in relation to other writing by James Reeves and Christopher Reid and I had planned to witter-on about Douglas Dunn via his ‘Selected Poems 1964 to 1983’  which I have shelved and bookmarked ready for re-reading and no  doubt  including  ‘Elegies’ too.     Latest title and others can be bought through this link.

frosted tree

Photo by Lin Smith

I have been considering the worth of delving a little deeper when writing about the poetry/poets I have been reading or just unearthed.  My basic feeling is that I should comment on what is before me and my likes and preferences of that book with only a little pointer about the poet’s life. This may encourage readers, including myself, to find more to read both of works by and material about that poet.   I am not a critic, not really in the high literary and poetic manner, only  as a reader.  I do care about what I like and discover so perhaps I should look deeper into the poet and the work to understand my own interpretation of what I read.  Understanding what the poet says is required emotionally and no doubt logically but do you need to dig deeply into the mechanics of comma versus semi-colon and metre and or rhythm?

You can tell from this that anything I learnt when young was discarded and forgotten long ago.  I do believe you should read poetry.  If you  understand what is being said logically as well as emotionally then it is a first step.  The next is to glimpse the life of the poet and try to get a grip on appreciating the forces that worked upon them through life and pushing through your own subconscious to understand the common ground you have with the writing.

Here is where it starts to hurt in that history, history of literature and language (real and poetic) all develop out of the previous years/periods/style that rise to the concious levels either of the literate and or the populace.  And Life, let alone Art, Art of any sort, is always trying to emulate, improve and denigrate, shock and create anew.  So the spectrum of poetry follows similar patterns and you have to choose where you sit and read, or write:  on the fence-post, the fence itself or the spikes.

So, should I pretend I can be a critic for you, or rather myself as I am the one doing this for my own pleasure?   Or maybe I think that wherever I sit and dribble out my thoughts on writers I will never be right?   But then whatever I find, or believe, or say, will only be me with a sign-post saying where I have been and suggesting you have a look around.  If you are taller, shorter, etc etc your view will always be different and if you understand what you read, to a degree, like it or not, you will always be right.  Until you move on and the view changes.

But for some years now my view of Douglas Dunn’s poetry has not changed.  He remains firmly on my shelf.

The Talking-Skull, poems by James Reeves

A Graph Review:   45 with highpoint 60

(0=dont bother, 100 =best ever)

talkingskull trimmed piccymy copy is Heinemann, jacketed hardback

published 1958

This was Reeves’ fourth collection of non-childrens poetry. He is possibly better remembered as writing poetry for children or editing anthologies and also as a literary critic. He was also the first to edit a volume of folk-song and traditional poetry from Cecil Sharp’s collection for many of music had been previously published:  titled ‘Idiom of the People’.

I was pleased to find this old edition containing  his poetry.  The themes as per title on death and sadness might have weighed a little heavy  but there were enough variations, interests and touches of humour to balance the collection nicely.  You need to know your Classic Greek and Roman at times in order to get full reverberations from some poems.  (Here I admit  lacking somewhat though I have a couple of very handy books to help the old memor)

Some 47 poems, some harking back to Hades, to Catullus and ‘Field of Lies’  (I also mentally transposed it to Lilies), not forgetting ‘Frogs’ .  Then a poem I found almost hypnotic, the title being:  ‘And so they came to live at Daffodil Water’.   Thumbing through to pick out my choicest, it gets more difficult as I read.  Classicism may not be much in the current mode but it is a refreshing style with its variation of lines and word selections that do not fall so frequently nowadays.

Yes, I know I am being generalist and shouldn’t.  This is just my current stance on recent reading, there are plenty fabled, old and new who lean on the classics in theme or style but remember James Reeves and tuck him into a corner too.

What drew me initially to this book was the first poem (second, if you include the poetic dedication):  ”The Savage Moon; a meditation on John Clare’  beginning:

‘I saw a dead tree, and the moon beyond,

Low in the sky, untroubled, full and round;

Nearer, the thin rain’s diorama fell

And blurred the surface of the brimming pond’

There follows, in a number of verses a brief resume of John Clare which is full of the passion and emotion that reading Clare’s works and knowing his life can produce.  Clare clutched at fame briefly and then fell away with his mental instabilities holding sway.  Moved up from labourer suffering ‘enclosure’ to poet in London Society, down again to a poor labourer with family and thence to Epping and Northampton asylums.  His Nature was an obsession. His observation and writing was with a passionate but still clear eye though his mind was often clouded.  (sorry, bit of a hobby-horse, see some earlier blogs, even better pick out some of the now-growing number of books on Clare , life and critical studies to see his place in the poet’s spectrum)

And again in this collection, in  a different poem; ‘On a Poet’ Reeves uses the lines:

‘When he is dead and his best phrases stored

With Clare’s and Hardy’s in the book of gold,

She with her unpresuming Saxon grace

In the Queen’s starry train will take her place’.

‘She’ being the poet’s muse in the poem but read more of James Reeves life to seek a possible person.  The important element for me is the position Reeves places Clare as a poet, but then you might also judge from this that all poets deserves such a place.

This book, trying to resist my enthusiasm for its Clare content, is a worthwhile read if you like to vary your period and styles and like to taste currently less well known authors.  There are no great leaps into beat or modern or skeletal poems. but romantic, assuming brittleness, classical references, clutches of humour and touches of sorrow.  Compare with Douglas Dunn: Elegies (Faber) or Christopher Reid: A Scattering (Areta books)

Poems noted above are worth finding, as are the poems: Academic, Bottom’s Dream; and ‘The Talking-Skull’, seems especially good for recital.