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Why Clive Jamess Japanese Maple is so much more than a poem | George Szirtes

Because we know James is dying, his poem ranks alongside Tichborne, Owen or Marvell in the canon of valedictory farewells

In his key book of 1972, Ways of Seeing, John Berger presented us with an image of Van Goghs Wheatfield with Crows, then asked us to turn the page where he showed us the picture again, this time with the text: This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself. He pondered on how exactly the words had changed the image: what we say and what we know are a part of what we see. Retrospective knowledge is the frame.

But what of prospective knowledge, the sense that something is not only a certainty but impending? Clive Jamess poem Japanese Maple, first published in the New Yorker and reproduced in the Guardian, is more than a poem now. We know that James is dying. We cant help but know it. The name Clive James means many things to us, but now the meaning of the name is modified. We read the poem as a formal and elegant valedictory, and since form especially as rhyme is an aspect of wit, we understand it as wit too, and admire it all the more for that. It is of a piece with the other productions of Clive James, intelligent, witty, skilful, highly crafted and, under the lightness, serious: deadly serious in fact.

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