The Carnival

This poem by Clive James is one of my favourites.  It understands that desire we all experience for things, happy days and so on, not to end.  Yet we know that they must, and that they should.  Clive James expresses it so well, here.

The Carnival

You can’t persuade the carnival to stay
Wish all you like, it has to go away.
Don’t let the way it moves on get you down.
If it stayed put, how could it come to town?

How could there be the oompah and the thump
of drums, the trick dogs barking as they jump?
The girl in pink tights and gold headache- band
Still smiling upside down in a hand stand?

These wonders get familiar by the last
Night of the run. A miracle fades fast.
You spot the pulled thread on a leotard.
Those double somersaults don’t look so hard.

Can’t you maintain your childish hunger? No.
They know in advance. They have to go,
Not to return until they’re something new
For anybody less blasé than you.

The carnival, the carnival. You grieve,
Knowing the day must come when it will leave.
But that was why her silver slippers shone-
Because the carnival would soon be gone.

Clive James






Clive James

I find myself returning to the poetry of Clive James more and more recently.  In the 70s I was most interested in his television criticism.  Then, I discovered his novels and his series of memoirs.  Now, it is his poetry that I find so interesting.  This poem is a moving one, especially if you know something of his biography.

My Father Before Me

At noon, no shadow. I am on my knees
Once more before your number and your name.
The usual heat, the usual fretful bees
Fitfully busy as last time I came.

Here you have lain since 1945,
When you, at half the age that I am now,
Were taken from the world of the alive,
Were taken out of time. You should see how

This hillside, since I visited it first,
Has stayed the same. Nothing has happened here.
They trim the sloping lawn and slake its thirst.
Regular wreaths may fade and reappear,

But these are details. High on either side
Waves of apartment blocks roll in so far
And no further, forbidden to collide
By laws that keep the green field where you are,

Along with all these others, sacrosanct.
For once the future is denied fresh ground.
For that much if no more, let God be thanked.
You can’t see me or even hear the sound

Of my voice, though it comes out like the cry
You heard from me before you sailed away.
Your wife, my mother, took her turn to die
Not long ago. I don’t know what to say —

Except those many years she longed for you
Are over now at last, and now she wears
The same robes of forgetfulness you do.
When the dreams cease, so do the nightmares.

I know you would be angry if I said I, too, crave peace.
Besides, it’s not quite so.
Despair will ebb when I leave you for dead
Once more. Once more, as I get up to go,

I look up to the sky, down to the sea,
And hope to see them, while I still draw breath,
The way you saw your photograph of me
The very day you flew to meet your death.

Back at the gate, I turn to face the hill,
Your headstone lost again among the rest.
I have no time to waste, much less to kill.
My life is yours, my curse to be so blessed.

Clive James

The poetry of Clive James is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


Clive James: Event Horizon

Clive James is a writer.  Whatever else he is, and he has been many things, he is always a writer first.  I read him in the 70s when I was a boy; he wrote a column in ‘The Observer’.  I read his collected television criticism when I was at university and then I read the first volume of his autobiography when it was published in 1982.  He was a big presence on television in the 90s but this is the decade when I also read one of his novels.  He has also published collections of his essays.

Now, I like his poetry.  I especially like to hear him read his own poetry, which he does when he is interviewed on the radio.  I can hear his Australian accent when I re-read the poems.  ‘Event Horizon’ is a poem I keep returning to, after hearing him interviewed on BBC Radio Four by Andrew Marr.  The television appearances may be gone but we still have the poems.

Event Horizon

For years we fooled ourselves. Now we can tell
How everyone our age heads for the brink
Where they are drawn into the unplumbed well,
Not to be seen again. How sad, to think
People we once loved will be with us there
And we not touch them, for it is nowhere.

Never to taste again her pretty mouth!
It’s been forever, though, since last we kissed.
Shadows evaporate as they go south,
Torn, by whatever longings still persist,
Into a tattered wisp, a streak of air,
And then not even that. They get nowhere.

But once inside, you will have no regrets.
You go where no one will remember you.
You go below the sun when the sun sets,
And there is nobody you ever knew
Still visible, nor even the most rare
Hint of a face to humanise nowhere.

Are you to welcome this? It welcomes you.
The only blessing of the void to come
Is that you can relax. Nothing to do,
No cruel dreams of subtracting from your sum
Of follies. About those, at last, you care:
But soon you need not, as you go nowhere.

Into the singularity we fly
After a stretch of time in which we leave
Our lives behind yet know that we will die
At any moment now. A pause to grieve,
Burned by the starlight of our lives laid bare,
And then no sound, no sight, no thought. Nowhere.

What is it worth, then, this insane last phase
When everything about you goes downhill?
This much: you get to see the cosmos blaze
And feel its grandeur, even against your will,
As it reminds you, just by being there,
That it is here we live or else nowhere.

Clive James








‘Event Horizon’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?