Poem of the Year
"When Clive James started keeping a verse diary of the year 1982, he could only guess at some of the events the next twelve months would bring. That was the whole idea: to start a project of which the unfolding of history would determine the shape. But even though he was prepared to be surprised, he was not prepared for just how surprised he would be. Britain went to war with Argentina in the South Atlantic. There was a massacre of cavalry in Knightsbridge. Over Beirut on the night after a catastrophe, the author flew towards a tour of China in Margaret Thatcher's entourage.
"All these events he recorded as they came, but the result has a striking unity. It is united by the sprightly ottava rima and by the author's concern for the future of his children in an uncertain world. Above all it is united by the quality in which this writer's vitality and concern become one - his humour. Poem of the Year is a long gallery of images, in which Arthur Scargill flaunts his latest baroque hairstyle, Hurricane Higgins fizzes with energy around the snooker table and the Cambridge dons discover an undergraduate who writes sonnets faster than Shakespeare. Other things are less easy to take lightly, but still the diarist never quite ceases to smile. For its seriousness, frankness, playfulness and narrative pace this is the author's most characteristic work in verse to date."
First Paragraph from the Preface
Most narrative verse is written from hindsight. The reader doesn't know what happens next but the writer does. There has always been a place, however, for the kind of narrative verse which turns this relationship back to front, putting the reader in the know and the writer in the dark. In a verse chronicle of unfolding events, the writer can accurately predict very little, whereas the reader will judge from experience. The finest modern example is Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal, a poem one starts off by admiring and then admires more deeply with advancing age. MacNeice could be fairly certain that the autumn of 1938 would bring the Second World War closer, but not of anything else. His personality declared itself along with the events, gaining coherence as they lost it. Rarely has apprehensiveness sounded more human or humanity so worth preserving.
A verse chronicle must be essentially self-revealing. The attitudes struck can easily look ridiculous, and never more so than when struck judiciously, so as to hedge all the bets. The temptation to go back and rewrite is hard to resist. I denied it to myself by publishing my efforts paripassu in five separate issues of the London Review of Books. The few stanzas which had to be taken out for production reasons I have here put back in. Also I have altered the prosody in several lines which the mother of the dedicatees thought were too much of a challenge to the jaw muscles. One couplet has been rewritten for the good reason that it struck even its author as two matched lengths of haematite. But otherwise the thing is as it was when it was growing in 1982, a year whose events turned out to be beyond anybody's calculations, including those of Nostradamus.
From the Jonathan Cape hardback edition, 1983.
This page and its contents are copyright © 2002 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.Return to Clive James page.
Last modified: January 9, 2002.