The Fire of Joy is the last book by Clive James, a poet and cultural critic internationally renowned for his intellect and prodigiousness. When James wasn’t making prime time TV programs, he was translating Dante’s Divine Comedy and writing best-selling memoirs.
But it is as a poet and literary critic that James will be best remembered. The Fire of Joy exemplifies what made James so popular. He had a vast knowledge, and he dispensed it generously. The goal in his writing was to enrich the life of the reader, and to point him or her in the direction of further gratification. Cutting through the pretentious crap, he focused only on what mattered: appreciating the beauty and power of the written word.
His style is therefore perfect for this book, a collection of short poems dating from the middle ages to the present century. If (like me) you’re new to poetry, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better guide than James. As Virgil to our Dante, James provides fascinating, hilarious, and deeply personal contexts for each poem. (With reference to the final couplet of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, the ailing James says that he prefers to keep the blinds open as he approaches his own ‘slow dusk’.)
And because poems ought to be spoken, says James, he also gives tips on how to read aloud, and other pointers on the technical details that go into a successful poem.
The mini-essays attached to each poem then set you off on a journey of your own. Potentially, they will lead you to the poet’s other works or to a period of writing you haven’t explored before. It’s exactly what makes reading so exciting: discovering one thing helps you discover another! I’ve already started reading and learning poems by several poets listed in The Fire of Joy.
If you want a way into poetry, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you might even get the urge to recite lines to yourself in the mirror. But without a doubt you’ll come away with a greater appreciation for what poetry is, and, therefore, what it means to be human.