The Fire of Joy by Clive James

As Clive James came to the end of his life, chasing ‘the deadly tunnel merchant’ in his face (a cancer) he wrote this book with help from his family and friends. In it he chose 80 poems that are to be read aloud and then wrote some commentary about each one. I wasn’t that keen on much of the poetry but I did love his commentary. He was a very funny man with a clear, strong intelligence and very well-read.

For the poems, he recalled where he first came across them, what they meant to him, which parts worked and didn’t and linked them to other texts. For many a poem, I didn’t know what they were about, but his writing illuminated them and made them relevant to life today. Although I think of him as a TV critic, I suspect he thought of himself as a poet and this shows in his writing and life-long love of poetry.

I did enjoy Mrs Midas by Carol Ann Duffy at first thinking it was someone standing in the golden light of the late afternoon in summer in their orchard but as the poem moves on that changes

. . . Look, we all have wishes; granted.

But who has wishes granted?

Oh, that change of punctuation and the change of meaning. Fabulous and something Lynne Truss the grammar pedant would delight in.

And then he moves out to a caravan they have in the woods and the separation from each other becomes real. The poem is told not from the male point of view but from his wife’s point of view and that is what I love most. And the greediness and selfishness ruined the marriage and what was she left with? Not gold but loneliness.

I am reading this as the leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon’s husband is arrested for financial irregularities and decades of hard work, moves towards independence and leadership are undone. I am pretty sure she and her husband will split before too long. Is she a Mrs Midas or is she a Mr Midas along with him, collaborating at every step?

Thinking about Carol Shields Stone Diaries where we only know about the woman from what others say about her; she has been written out – or never written in. Here, we get the inner feelings and thoughts of the Mrs Midas, bringing her to life, the humour and her losses – no child with him and no more being touched by him, their close physical comfort.

This is a poem from the collection entitled The World’s Wife with some of the poems about women who were written out of history.

This book is a great help in thinking about how to respond to poetry.

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