Posted by: Jenny | Friday, 27 December 2013

The power of poetry

On Monday I was fortunate enough to hear Andrew Marr interviewing Clive James on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’.  We were driving to the funeral of a dear Bahá’í friend, Rita Bartlett, in South Wales.  Maybe reflecting on the end of life, in its various forms, predisposed me to respond to a poem on this subject.  (We had also attended two other funerals during the previous week.)

James is very ill and is evidently focussing his limited energies on writing, rather than public speaking or broadcasting.  Though I have read some of his essays and the first volume of his autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, published in 1980, I had not been aware of his powerful poetry until this interview, when he read some of it aloud.  Here is an example:

Leçons des ténèbres

But are they lessons, all these things I learn
Through being so far gone in my decline?
The wages of experience I earn
Would service well a younger life than mine.
I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.

The mirror holds the ruins of my face
Roughly together, thus reminding me
I should have played it straight in every case,
Not just when forced to. Far too casually
I broke faith when it suited me, and here
I am alone, and now the end is near.

All of my life I put my labour first.
I made my mark, but left no time between
The things achieved, so, at my heedless worst,
With no life, there was nothing I could mean.
But now I have slowed down. I breathe the air
As if there were not much more of it there

And write these poems, which are funeral songs
That have been taught to me by vanished time:
Not only to enumerate my wrongs
But to pay homage to the late sublime
That comes with seeing how the years have brought
A fitting end, if not the one I sought.

Clive James, ‘New Yorker’, 28 May 2013


More here:



  1. […] More recently, in December 2013, I happened to have the radio on in the car, and recognised the distinctive accent of Andrew Marr’s interviewee on ‘Start the Week’.  James was, at that time, already very ill, and spoke about how approaching the end of his life had affected his worldview and his work.  He read one of his poems, and a section from his just-published translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  I was greatly moved by the poem, and inspired both to visit his website and to buy a copy of his Dante.  I also blogged about my experience, and copied James’s poem into my blog post. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: