AU­THOR SPEAK

In and out of hos­pi­tal, Clive James felt com­pelled to write some­thing new – an epic, with him­self as the hero

Friday - - CONTENTS - The River In The Sky.

Clive James has emerged from a med­i­cal scare in time to wit­ness the launch of his epic poem,

Un­til a few days ago, I was a pa­tient in Ad­den­brooke’s hos­pi­tal, in Cam­bridge, while a bus­load of nurses and doc­tors strove to per­suade my tem­per­a­ture to stop act­ing like a wob­bling yo-yo. I as­sume they ar­rived by bus. I my­self ar­rived by am­bu­lance, strapped down against any ten­dency to slide on to the floor like a speed­ing cus­tard. It was a low mo­ment in my re­cent med­i­cal his­tory, but once again the com­bined ef­forts of my fam­ily and the Ad­den­brooke’s crash-cart crew dug me out of the hole, so that I have emerged in time to wit­ness the launch of my epic poem, The River In The Sky.

Beau­ti­ful ti­tle, isn’t it? I can ask that rhetor­i­cal ques­tion in all mod­esty be­cause I didn’t think of it. It’s what the Ja­pa­nese call the Milky Way and no­body in the west has ever heard the phrase with­out im­me­di­ately start­ing to write a book.

I started writ­ing my book the year be­fore last, or I started to write a poem with that ti­tle. More pre­cisely, I fi­nally ad­mit­ted to my­self that a sheaf of un­fin­ished po­ems be­longed to­gether. It’s con­ceiv­able that they be­longed to­gether in the wastepa­per bas­ket, and there might soon be crit­ics who say so; but it seemed to me that a small stack of would-be po­etic frag­ments were adding up to the same story, the story of a mind head­ing into obliv­ion.

I could imag­ine the cheer that would go up from my pub­lish­ers when they heard what I was hatch­ing. The cheer would be the sound of a sock-drawer full of baby mice be­ing fed milk from an eye-drop­per.

There hasn’t been, they might pip­ingly point out, a hit long poem since Ten­nyson’s Maud, and even Ten­nyson, a shrewd op­er­a­tor for a dreamy poet, tended to over­es­ti­mate the ini­tial ap­peal of any poem longer than a snappy lyric. Maud was a show­case for his tech­ni­cal vir­tu­os­ity but it was still a whop­per.

There is a true anec­dote, which all would-be epic po­ets should bear in mind, about Ruskin’s wife fa­tally ad­mit­ting to Ten­nyson at some so­cial gath­er­ing that she had not yet read his poem Maud, which she had heard a lot about. (That last bit was prob­a­bly the fa­tal trig­ger.) Gen­er­ously keen that she be no longer de­prived, Ten­nyson re­cited the whole thing to her from mem­ory. Hav­ing de­tected signs of rest­less inat­ten­tion on her part, he re­cited it to her again.

Reel­ing against the scep­ti­cal up­roar of the sock-drawer mice, all I can say about my new, and per­haps ter­mi­nal, po­etic project is that it’s not your usual kind of epic. For one thing, it’s quite short. In that re­gard it’s bang up to date. The great scholar John Carey, the world ex­pert on Par­adise Lost, has tac­itly con­ceded, by edit­ing a trimmed ver­sion, that a bit more short­ness was what Mil­ton’s epic needed.

Christo­pher Ricks, Pro­fes­sor Carey’s only liv­ing ri­val for clev­er­ness (how like Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rus­tum they are, dom­i­nat­ing the hori­zon with mighty use of arms) has pointed out that when a poet makes an al­lu­sion to some­one else’s po­etry he should be of­fer­ing a bonus, not de­mand­ing an en­trance fee.

Mind­ful of this ad­mo­ni­tion, I have been care­ful in my own poem to keep ev­ery­thing mine, as it were - partly out of a con­vic­tion that if you aren’t ready to start again, you shouldn’t start. Hence my mini-epic spends al­most none of its time prov­ing that I have read Shake­speare. As some­body de­servedly ob­scure once said: I tried him once, and he was full of quo­ta­tions.

Nor does my epic have an epic hero. In­stead, it’s got me, go­ing nowhere. In the text, apart from the oc­ca­sional side-trip to the Great Bar­rier Reef, I don’t even get to Heaven, ex­cept to the ex­tent that Heaven is here on Earth. But that’s some­thing I’ve been con­vinced of since I was a child, and saw my mother weep­ing at the news of my fa­ther’s death: that Heaven and Hell are both here, with us.

Heaven is here in the way my grand­daugh­ter seems con­tin­u­ally to pick up speed when she drives my wheel­chair, as if she were head­ing for An­dromeda, which is in the poem, too: zil­lions of light years away but on its way here, un­less we’re on the way there. Sci­en­tists, I un­der­stand, are di­vided on the sub­ject.

My poem also touches Heaven, or tries to, when dancers dance to its in­ci­den­tal mu­sic. The nar­ra­tor dances the tango with a blind girl in Buenos Aires, on a stone ter­race be­neath the weep­ing stars. It re­ally hap­pened, or I think it did: there is al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity that I was dream­ing even at the time, and only thought I was tread­ing clouds of bliss.

But un­less I miss my guess, even the best and most beau­ti­ful things about Heaven are here now, or were here just re­cently. In my text, the Everly Brothers are still singing har­mony. But aren’t they do­ing that still, and won’t they al­ways?

And Hell is here, too, but hap­pen­ing to other peo­ple, if you’re lucky. I’m still one of the lucky ones.

There will still be epic po­ems, be­cause ev­ery hu­man life con­tains one. It comes out of nowhere and goes some­where on its way to ev­ery­where – which is nowhere all over again, but leaves a trail of mem­o­ries. There won’t be many fu­ture po­ets who don’t dip their spoons into all that, even if no­body buys the book. And any­way, who says it will be a book? Maybe it will just go bleep. There is a multi-wheeled cam­era run­ning loose on Mars that doesn’t even know where it is, but it can still go bleep.

At which point, grow­ing tired again now – I’m back in my of­fice, but it takes an ef­fort to walk from one end of it to the other – I should thank my el­der daugh­ter Claer­wen for paint­ing the book’s starry cover, and for point­ing out to its dim-wit­ted au­thor that the rea­son the ther­mome­ter showed a higher read­ing back then was that his tem­per­a­ture re­ally had gone up through the roof.

Now that I am home again, my wife has taken over the job of ram­ming the ther­mome­ter into my ear, and it seems to me that she is do­ing so with more fi­nesse lately, per­haps partly be­cause I have ded­i­cated my epic to her. Try it boys, along with the bunch of roses.

My mini-epic spends al­most none of its time prov­ing that I have read Shake­speare

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