Clive James’s “Opal Sunset”

The publication in the United States of Clive James’s new book, Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 1958-2008 (Norton, $25.95), – the first volume of his poetry to be published there – gets this David Orr penned review  in The New York Times.

….on the whole this is a wry and pleasingly exacting collection. That fact alone will never establish whether Clive James is, somewhere down in the tangled strands of his DNA, a True Poet, but the work gathered here makes it plain that whatever James may be, he knows how to write poems worth reading.

Having read most of the poems in this collection elsewhere, I’d say that that’s a fair assessment of James’s output as a poet.

It should be said here that on occasion there have been those who would argue that James is a true poet. Peter Porter, for instance, writing some over 21 years ago and reviewing Other Passports: Poems 1958 -1985 (Cape), was firmly of the opinion that James was more than a mere verse maker.

It was the young Auden, writing at about the time he was composing his “Letter to Lord Byron” who declared that you could tell if someone was going to be a poet by considering his love of words. If he found words fascinating – their sounds, their peculiar symmetries and associations, their chimes, rhymes, assonances and quiddities – then he was likely to prove the real thing. If, on the other hand , he regarded words as a medium for important ideas he wished to impart, then however impassioned or crusading he might be, he was not going to be primarily a poet, even if he cast his messages in verse. This nostrum begs many questions, but it remains a good rule-of- thumb By this test, Clive James is a true poet. Line after line of his has a characteristic personal tone, a kind of end-stopped singingness which is almost independent of what it says – Peter Porter, London Review of Books 22 January 1987.

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