I have always been a big fan of Clive James’s work (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clive_James) and was saddened to hear some time ago that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. True to form, Clive has not allowed this diagnoses to stop his ongoing and amusing flow of insights, and in yesterday’s Sunday Times (UK) there was a major article about how his most recent book, a volume of poetry, was also turning out to be among his best received (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/newsreview/article1547894.ece)
The reality of his impending death is the subject of many of the new poems, and Clive writes with typically self-deprecating humour about how ‘Perhaps the sole virtue of my book is that its constituent poems have the same attraction as a man playing a piano at the edge of a tall cliff.’
Of course, this isn’t true. The poems have a tremendous power because they resonate so strongly about a subject that most of us don’t treat with the importance it is due: the reality of our own death.
Buddha used to teach that death was the greatest meditation. When we truly face up to the fact that we will die, and perhaps a lot sooner than we would like, we not only appreciate every moment of our life more. We also recognise what really matters and review our priorities accordingly.
One of Clive’s poems, published in the Sunday Times, reveals exactly this, and I’d like to share it here.
Leçons de Ténèbres by Clive James
But are they lessons, all these things I learn
Through being so far gone in my decline?
The wages of experience I earn
Would service well a younger life than mine,
I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.
The mirror holds the ruins of my face
Roughly together, thus reminding me
I should have played it straight in every case,
Not just when forced to. Far too casually
I broke faith when it suited me, and here
I am alone, and now the end is near.
All of my life I put my labour first.
I made my mark, but left no time between
The things achieved, so, at my heedless worst,
With no life, there was nothing I could mean.
But now I have slowed down, I breathe the air
As if there were not much more of it there.
And write these poems, which are funeral songs
That have been taught to me by vanished time:
Not only to enumerate my wrongs
But to pay homage to the late sublime
That comes with seeing how the years have brought
A fitting end, if not the one I sought.
I find this both a deeply moving poem, and one which illuminates important insights in the most powerful way. Clive says he only found out too late that he should have been kinder, behaved more ethically and been less fixated on work, lessons that would ‘service well a younger life than mine.’ These are in complete accord with Buddha’s teachings, and quite probably the teachings of other spiritual traditions – and how wonderfully expressed!
I just wanted to share this poem with you – I hope you find it as inspiring as I do.
And thank you, Clive James, for your wisdom, your humour and your life.
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