Poetry as farewell    
Thu, 09 January 2020

‘An elegant and restrained farewell’: poetry as the perfect way to say goodbye
There are many ways of saying farewell, countless ways of leave-taking. For some, a videographic record becomes a precious keepsake after a beloved has departed. For others, a living will helps to map out the path ahead. For most of us, the final quietus happens in a private space, far from the gaze of others, and usually in the presence of our closest family. But there are other ways to depart, and one of these is to legacy your loved ones with lines of love and longing, as did legendary Australian broadcaster and writer Clive James.
When James was first diagnosed with terminal leukaemia in 2010, his thoughts turned to ways of mediating his eventual departure. He wanted to create a record of remembrance, free of any hint of self-pity or anger at his predicament, free of regret and recrimination – he wanted to build a body of work that would comfort those he loved, long after he had left. Poetry became his point of departure, quite literally, his preferred way to ponder on his eventual passing. 
One of his most widely loved poems, Japanese Maple, was published in The New Yorker in 2014, and quickly went viral. It resonated so richly with its readers, and its simple metaphor – the seasonal transitions of a single tree – echoed his own desire to live until autumn, so he could see the maple’s many-fingered leaves ‘turn to flame’. You can read the poem, structured in elegant formal quintets, below.
The sense of an ending, the knowledge that one is facing a terminal illness, and that all time is borrowed time, can sharpen and hone one’s sensibilities and refine one’s awareness of the world. And so, James’s poetry is stripped of all superfluity, rid of all excess, and pared down to an essence. In the second stanza, he asks:
When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree [?]

When faced with our own mortality – the death of others is something we see daily on our newsfeed, and it desensitises us – we tend to develop a hyper-awareness of everything that happens around us, from the mundane to the profound, from the daily to the occasional. And this is precisely the province of the poet: the poet performs the social function of seeing the unseen, and saying the unsayable. And so, too, does a dying man or woman. James understands all too well the fragility of his existence – of all existence – and compels himself to live on, in order to witness the autumnal burst of colour that the maple will bring:
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that.
James died at age 80, almost a decade after his diagnosis, and wrote poems right up until a month before he passed away in November 2019. Many of his earlier poems made up the collection Sentenced to Life, which was published in 2015, and which was an instant bestseller.
James was a prolific poet, writer, essayist, commentator and critic, a lovable rogue, a regular ‘bloke’, and a caustic comic, but it’s his poetry that lingers like the lyrics from a much-loved song. Poetry, it seems, offers us a meditation on dying, an elegiac sense of an ending. It is the fitting vehicle for loss. And this sense of an ending informed his craft. Early on in his diagnosis, he said that “you get into what my friend Bruce Beresford calls the Departure Lounge, and two things happen: suddenly time really matters, you can hear the clock, and also you have all these freedoms, because you’ve got more of life to reflect on.”
And that, surely, is the curse-gift of the poet – to ‘see heaven in a wildflower’, to find freedom in that final hour.

James spent his final months writing and editing an autobiographical anthology called The Fire of Joy. It will be published in 2020. To find a collection of over 6 000 elegiac poems written in all 11 of South Africa’s official languages, on the themes of death, love, birth and hope, visit


Japanese Maple

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

© Clive James, 2014