Poignant tribute in poet's sunset years
Clive James. Photo: Ken Robertson
THE honours are coming fast for Clive James. Today he becomes an Officer in the Order of Australia (AO), adding to the Commander of the British Empire conferred by the Queen a year ago and a special career award in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards in December.
A sense of urgency has flushed out long-deserved recognition for James, 73, who is suffering from leukaemia.
From his British home in Cambridge, he said of his latest honour: ''Alas, I have little energy and can't answer questions, but you can certainly say that I'm delighted.''
James, who was made a member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 1992 Queen's Birthday honours, receives the more senior AO ''for distinguished service to literature through contributions to cultural and intellectual heritage, particularly as a writer and poet''.
His prolific versatility has brought James both fame and derision in some earnest quarters.
Best known for his entertaining television programs and ''unreliable'' memoirs, he has wished for greater appreciation of his poetry and literary criticism. ''He's probably the most versatile of that generation of expatriates and far less doctrinaire than [Germaine] Greer or [Robert] Hughes,'' said Andrew Riemer, The Sydney Morning Herald's chief book reviewer.
''The versatility is self-evident - he is a fine poet, essayist and an engaging novelist. And he was always entertaining. I have a particularly vivid memory of a piece he did for the Observer about Charles and Diana's wedding.''
James has published internationally more than 30 books of memoir, essays, poetry, fiction and the 900-page Cultural Amnesia (2007), an overview of 20th-century culture. His legacy will also include a series of erudite, wide-ranging broadcast conversations with the fellow expat poet Peter Porter.
Peter Rose, the editor of Australian Book Review, counts James as ''a poet of great distinction and technical virtuosity'' and ''a peerless critic'', whether writing about Marilyn Monroe, Barry Humphries, Philip Larkin or Eugenio Montale.
''James achieved all this on his own, and achieved it indefatigably: a fatherless boy from Sydney who took on the world's great literary metropolis and who has been entertaining and edifying us ever since,'' Rose said.
Rose said it meant a lot to James to win the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for Literature in 2003 but for a major writer he had not won many awards. In 2010 he was made a fellow of Britain's Royal Society of Literature.
Poet Geoff Page (whose poem Postcard to Clive appears in Spectrum) said: ''His audience, however, insists on seeing him for almost everything else other than his poetry. 'A great bunch of guys', as someone has already famously said of him.''
Page said James' reputation in Australia was not helped by his living in Britain since 1961 and writing more in the unfairly underrated satirical tradition of Swift, though he also has ''a small core of deeply moving poems which go well beyond the Swiftian analogy''.
Writer Peter Goldsworthy sees the epigram, or aphorism, as the building block of all James' writing and considers him to be ''an enormously underrated poet''.
''As many people have probably read his light comic verse such as The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered as have read his classic memoirs, but his enduring achievement might be in poems such as Go Back to the Opal Sunset, or The Lions at Taronga.
''His most recent book, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, contains many poems of this order - such as Whitman and the Moth or Silent Sky, his powerful elegy for his friend Peter Porter.
''Sadly, his illness means he will probably never see the sunsets, or hear the lions again - which gives these poems a special poignancy.''