I have previously spoken about Clive James’s poetry here (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/poem-for-today-by-clive-james/).

I am a fan.

In recent years, his compositions focus largely on death and dying – he has leukaemia and emphysema – and he has chosen to speak openly about his own personal experience (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/18/clive-james-japanese-maple-dying-valedictory-farewell).

From Leçons De Ténèbres:

‘But are they lessons, all these things I learn

Through being so far gone in my decline?’

‘…I should have been more kind. It is my fate

To find this out, but find it out too late.’

‘… 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…’


The New Yorker recently published James’s poem Japanese Maple, which continues the now established theme in his current work:

‘Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact…’


It ends:

‘My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.

What I must do

Is live to see that. That will end the game

For me, though life continues all the same:


Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colors will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.’


Yet, although James so consciously and explicitly speaks of his own increasingly imminent death, I do not find his words maudlin or despondent. Sad, yes, but also hopeful. He does not bemoan his fate. On the contrary:

“Even with my health, things could have been worse. It could have hurt, for example, and it didn’t. So I haven’t got all that much to be miserable about.

“I like to think I have a sunny nature, but a sunny nature doesn’t last long if you’re in real pain. I’ve just been lucky.”