Too many poets pack a line with thought
But melody refuses to take wing.
It’s not that meaning has been dearly bought:
It has been stifled, by a hankering
For portent, as if music meant too much.
Sidney called this a want of inward touch.
True poets should walk singing as they weep,
As Arnaut Daniel once epitomised;
But nothing written will be worth its keep
Composed by one who has not realised
This to be true, and tested his own song
On others, seeing if they listen long
Or turn away. Verse is a public act
To that extent at least. As cruel as love,
The wished-for gift declines to be a fact
Except for the elect. The gods above
Loll on their clouds and lazily look down
To choose who gets the laurels of renown
Even if deaf. For them, it’s just a game,
But not for us, and though there might well be
Too many poets, we all nurse the same
Faith in the virtue of our mystery.
Courage, my friend: the world will not forget
What you have written. Or at least not yet.
Clive James’s latest collection of poems, Sentenced to Life, is published this month.