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This article is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

Clive James's Verse Oliver Dennis

Clive James has always endeavoured to reconcile a hankering for authentic modes of expression with an urge to put on masks. His poems therefore fall into two main categories: there are the parodies, verse letters, diaries and mock epic narratives written largely prior to the early 1980s; and the generally more sober poems written since then, by which James marks the arrival of an individual voice. (The song lyrics for Pete Atkin are in a category of their own and have to be considered separately.)

From the outset, James appears to have conceived of his poetry as something to be engineered, rather than an inevitable force of nature. To this day, he tends to talk up the idea of himself as a poet in a way that suggests he doesn’t quite believe in it. Yet it is this uncertain sense of a poetic vocation that has helped to keep the poems coming. James has founded an entire literary career on a willingness to aim high and risk making a fool of himself, only to appear pleasantly surprised at having done so well; in his own phrase, he has the ability of the pool-table hustler ‘to look as if he doesn’t belong’.

As an Australian who has spent more than half his life in England, he has clearly been well placed to cultivate such a view of himself, delighting in his role - now tiresome to Australians themselves - of the ‘raw colonial’, ‘the yokel in ...

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