Pj Kavanagh

Hazy like foothills

P.J. Kavanagh on James Michie's new poetry collection

As life-expectancy seems to grow longer by the minute, as it were — at least in our part of the globe — it was predictable that some writers would retain their marbles long enough to report ruefully back from the ageing-battlefield. At least two poets have done so very well: Roy Fuller and D. J. Enright; here is another, who, remarkably, kept on sending despatches almost to the end.

He did so in a particular way; this collection is called, correctly, Last Poems, but they are in no sense a summing-up of his career. His enjoyable Collected Poems (Sinclair-Stevenson) was published in 1994. The poems here, ‘short, intelligible, witty’ in the words of the Oldie editor Richard Ingrams, were commissioned once a month from 1999 for that magazine. They were written therefore (not a bad thing) with a defined audience in mind. They were also written, about half of them at a guess, during a period when after a healthy, even athletic, life, a series of illnesses suddenly descended; first of the heart (pacemaker, its installation here celebrated), then, too long undiagnosed, cancer of the throat (the last poem, two lines, sums up that). He died in October 2007.

James Michie has long been celebrated for his ‘light verse’, but the adjective has always seemed misleading. He is ‘light’ in the way Catullus and Martial can be light, both of whom he successfully translated. What gives his best poems their punch and their universality is that implicitly, if they are light, it is against a dark background, the wit a form of defiance.

What qualities Michie admired, or what failings he most deplored, is made clear in a poem from this book; it is also an example of what can best be described as Michie’s pleasing neatness. A colleague-observer of decay has finally succumbed:

For D.

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