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Portrait of John Clare by Thomas Grimshaw (1844). Painting courtesy of Northamptonshire Central Library.
Probably nobody wishes they had been John Clare. The son of an agricultural laborer and an illiterate mother in tiny Helpston, Northamptonshire, Clare (1793–1864) had only the barest schooling. After finding, at age thirteen, “a fragment” of James Thomson’s long poem The Seasons (1730), Clare “scribbled on unceasing,” drafting his own poems in fields and ditches. Helped by a vogue for peasant poets, his Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) likely sold more than 3,000 copies in a year. Visits to London literati, and three more books, ensued, despite diminishing sales. In 1832 Clare, his wife, and their six children left Helpston for another village, a few miles off, where he never felt at home. Five years later Clare was declared insane and confined to an asylum. In 1841 he escaped and walked home, sleeping under culverts and trudging twenty miles a day. Clare spent the rest of his life in another asylum, “disowned by my friends and even forgot by enemies,” though in some years he continued to write. At times he thought he was Lord Byron. His late poems can present a scary sense of disembodied, empty confusion.
And yet most of Clare’s voluminous poetry, early and late, mad and sane, exults in what he saw firsthand outdoors: crops, wildflowers, birds, mammals, and fellow laborers, all threatened by the Enclosure Acts of the early 1800s, which turned shared fields and forests into private property. Before enclosure, Clare wrote in the manuscript version of “October” (1827),
Autum met plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown & grey
Unbounded freedom ruld the wandering scene
No fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect from the gazing eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
(Note the misspellings, which his printed books correct; some modern editors, led by Eric Robinson, restore the manuscript usage.) The wonder that Clare found in unspoiled, unenclosed landscapes was something like the wonder he found in childhood, with an unphilosophical glow:
We sought for nuts in secret nook
We thought none else could find
And listened to the laughing brook
And mocked the singing wind;
We gathered acorns ripe and brown
That hung too high to pull,
Which friendly windows would shake a-down
Till all had pockets full.
He also portrayed the gypsies, now called Roma, as “a quiet, pilfering, unprotected race” whose language he claimed he could speak.
Almost everything that could have seemed, to a nineteenth-century reader, like a reason to count Clare as minor, or not to read him, makes him a resource for poets today. “Bard of the fallow field / And the green meadow,” as he called himself, Clare remained closely attentive to what we now call his environment, what he called “nature,” in a way that is neither touristic nor ignorant of agricultural effort. He saw tragic ironies all over the place, but he never sought verbal ironies himself: he is about as sincere (if not naive) as poets get. Clare seems to have benefited from few of the changes wreaked on the planet since the invention of the steam engine and cannot be blamed for whatever brought them about: he may be the last significant white Anglophone poet for whom that was true.
Better yet, Clare’s apparently unorganized—but minutely observed—poetry looks like a model for poets who want to stay true to a material world while rejecting the hypotactic, well-made structures that earlier generations preferred. Clare’s poems, Stephanie Weiner writes in her study of his legacy, “insist on their origin in real acts of perception” even though “he seems deliberately to court unboundedness.” John Ashbery loves him: in his 1969 prose poem “For John Clare,” “There is so much to be seen everywhere that it’s like not getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new.” Twenty years later, Ashbery called Clare’s verse “a distillation of the natural world with all its beauty and pointlessness, its salient and boring features preserved intact.” The distinguished scholar Angus Fletcher found in the incontrovertibly English Clare—and in Ashbery and Walt Whitman—what Fletcher called A New Theory for American Poetry (2004), all about the anti-hierarchical, centerless, “self-organizing and nonlinear . . . . environment-poem.”
No wonder some poets now work with Clare in mind. The sonnets of The Gypsy and the Poet (2013), by the English writer David Morley, dramatize Clare’s meetings with the Romany leader Wisdom Smith:
Clare gazes at the fire. Wisdom cradles the poet’s cup and stirs
and stares at the tea leaves: ‘Our lives are whin upon this heath
whose growing makes one half of heaven and one half earth.
You desire an earthly heaven, John, and will find it in Helpston.
The leaves also say you are welcome to my fire—and to this cup.’
‘You read a world from so little,’ thinks Clare. And the Gypsy looks up.
Of Roma descent himself, Morley weaves Romany lore and language (often untranslated) into his poems; a trained biologist, he also corrals the horticultural details. Morley’s wise, witty, circuitous Gypsies seem better adapted to the land than Clare himself, though his written words may outlast their music and speech: “Wisdom Smith tugs corks on two bottles. He pulls a long face. / ‘John, I know no man more half-in or half-out of your race. . . . / We die if we do not move, whereas John—John, you would die.” In their low-pressure conversation, their unobtrusive hexameters, their samples of English and Roma customs and landscape, Morley’s poems draw winningly on aspects of Clare that no American poet could use.
Yet Americans—and not just Ashbery—now use Clare too. Lisa Fishman’s Clare is a poet of parataxis, of one thing after another and another. He is also the Clare of the unretouched manuscripts, whose messiness prefigures contemporary rejections of prose sense:
Was I said Clare a ball of grass / and he meant by double tree / I saw the river
through my window once the leaves fell
& underneath was knowledge we did not dig up the lilies by the cat’s fake grave . . .
the wild rabbit is a town rabbit
for in the winter I live in town
& my own shadow all my company is not the case
& lone & see the shooting stars appear
said Clare; I also
picked currants in July
Next morning plus two my father died
Forever there is nothing to say
Fishman is quoting Clare’s “Love and Solitude,” where he aspires to leave other people behind: “Free from the world I would a prisoner be / And my own shadow all my company / And lonely see the shooting stars appear.” (Fishman’s notes give other sources—Clare, Chaucer, the Department of Agriculture—but not that one.)
Like Clare, Fishman can ramble; her friendly, loose-woven writing, with its lack of transitions, can feel like erasure. She also yearns “to hear past words of the self,” to bring other people’s voices into her poems—the people who wrote the books she read, and the human beings who share her rural Wisconsin life:
I want to include Taralie saying everything was included
Three of us on bikes, & she said it riding past
Two weeks ago we gleaned berries
James may remember
‘Look with your hands not just your eyes’
I swim with
the person who taught me
his presence around me the water
Dear who asked about my father
Taralie and James are alive. Fishman’s father is not, though when Fishman goes swimming she feels as if he were. The title poem from her 24 Pages and Other Poems (2015) also works as elegy for him, and so echoes Clare’s own habit of referring to people absent from his life—his deceased childhood sweetheart Mary Joyce, for example—as if they were present.
If Fishman’s Clare found his home unselfconsciously in nature, David Baker’s Clare is at home nowhere. In Midwest Eclogue (2005) Baker derives a six-page poem, “Bedlam,” from Clare’s long walk: “he’s looking for it now, / a home in the green world, yet sees hardly / a thing he knows for his own.” Clare’s anger over enclosure fits Baker’s own anger at “developers’ saws tearing the woods / beyond our green hill,” erecting “McMansions” that Baker has denounced in his prose. Baker, whose daughter has something like ADHD (see his poem “Hyper-”), also responds to the Helpston native’s troubled mind, acknowledging modern remedies that Clare could never have seen: “Adderall, Prozac, Paxil, / Dezyrel, Wellbutrin . . . I know our meds / like the life list Clare keeps in his journals.”
Ten years after Midwest Eclogue, the Baker of Scavenger Loop has hardly improved his state. He and his wife, the gardener in “Bedlam,” have split up; his mother has died; and his grown daughter has moved away. He remains in his Ohio exurb, “with my magazines and cell phone,” “drifting by myself” admiring ash trees that may not be there for long: “the scourge emerald borer rode in on / shipping crates,” and that insect is now doing to ash what Dutch elm disease did to American elm. The long title poem from Scavenger Loop, an elegy for Baker’s mother, also laments “chestnut blight, emerald ash bore, oak wilt,” rural meth, “Archer Daniels Midland” and Midwestern monoculture, “the corn fields, the soybeans, / for ten miles, a hundred / more, for / a thousand” (note the poke at Catullus). The poem’s notebook-like form stands out in Baker’s oeuvre; much of his work, as before, uses strong closure, clear syntax, and more or less syllabic stanzas, like Marianne Moore’s.
The wonder Clare found in unspoiled landscapes was like the wonder of childhood.
Baker’s title denotes the way that detritovores, in a stable ecosystem, return nutrients from dead matter to living agents: if the scavenger loop breaks down, dead matter piles up, and the ecosystem resembles the dejected poet’s junk-packed barn, with its “musty box / springs, two ancient-at- / eight-years- / old laser printers / and all manner of lawnmowers, power tools, hand- // tools, shredded planters . . . crammed” uselessly inside. Such disarranged heaps reflect anguish, or grief, “that you are gone, that I am still here,” as the book’s last poem all too plainly states.
“Unboundedness,” to use Weiner’s term, may reflect Baker’s condition, or Ohio’s, but it gives him no cause to rejoice. The fine “Five Odes on Absence” sets Clare’s genuineness about genuine losses beside what Baker sees as the glib or even dishonest fashion for erasure: “if purple’s the new black as Vogue says . . . perhaps erasure’s / our poetry du jour.” Clare’s works include “erasures” of other kinds—lost love, lost common land, missing punctuation, and, in some letters, vowels left out to save paper: “ppl tll m hv gt n hm n ths wrld,” (“people tell me I have got no home in this world”), a line Baker quotes. The sad Clare of Baker’s poems, with their careful arrangements, perhaps reflects more wisdom, and more of life, than the Clare whose limitless attention to every feather and blade of grass most of us could not emulate if we tried.
And yet there is another Clare—no, several other Clares—to be found in his more than three thousand completed poems. Given how often Michael Dickman’s own poetry has portrayed unstable mental states, you might expect him to gravitate toward Clare’s madness. In fact, the Clare of “John Clare,” appearing in Dickman’s Green Migraine (2015), is an altogether friendlier figure: an avatar of childhood closeness to nature, a man who saw nature as something we live among (not something we travel to visit), a paragon of enlightened simplicity, and a devotee of local or dialect words. As such—this being Dickman’s poem—Clare resembles the kids in “7-Eleven parking lots / skateboarding through / black fields.” Adulthood itself is for Dickman a kind of enclosure: “Children play in the past / in pastures . . . Cows move through the fields to the fence and won’t move again.”
Dickman’s raw short lines, incapable of hypotaxis, speak to Clare’s sometimes-obsessive attention to the immediate, visible world. There are holes in the fences, holes in the logic of poetry, holes in the planks of reason: it is as if Clare saw through the adult world and its barriers, and the sight drove him mad. “Now I remember,” Dickman muses. “There are holes all around // Holes in children / Holes in trees.” Yet Clare’s kind of play, and his stubborn resistance, survives “between the yellowhammers and the leaf blowers // Between a worm getting pulled out of the dirt into the sky and a worm proging the dark.” (Prog—pierce, poke, prod—comes from Clare’s often-anthologized sonnet “Mouse’s Nest.”) Clare with his innocence, Clare with his honesty, Clare who was close to the ground and close to animals, becomes an unexpectedly cheerful inspiration in what must be Dickman’s happiest poem, the one that concludes Green Migraine by narrating the first days in the life of his son. Clare’s coinages—or his misspellings, or his odd English—fit a person for whom the whole language is new: “You sawn and shool . . . now your mouth is here mizled in the totter grass.” (For shool—which seems to mean “carry”—see Clare’s “Summer Evening”; for mizled, meaning “drizzled-upon” or “dampened,” see his “Signs of Winter.”) Young August will learn, awake or “asleep in a car seat,” what the world can bring, what else his poet father can say:
Animals are here
and night and day and noises
are here and wolves
Trees are here and John Clare is here
The limits of such a style may seem obvious—what can occasion this kind of speech, except a baby?—but its attractions should also be clear: Why would you want poetry that cannot celebrate babies? And why would Clare not be its loyal resource? It matters that Dickman developed a similar style for portraying dangerously irrational lows, and it matters that Clare and Dickman are men, for whom “babies are awesome” might still be a slightly surprising thing to say. New mothers, who may feel socially required to announce that babies are awesome, have been fashioning another kind of poetry by showing how babies are exhausting too.
You can celebrate Clare by incorporating his language, and by paying homage to his naiveté, but you can also take him seriously as a composer of poems, a figure who thought about vision, rather than just seeing whatever he saw. Donald Revell has treated him that way, adopting the ecstatic Clare for whom every petal and bee—whether or not we note them—is already holy. Here is Revell’s unrhymed sonnet “After Clare,” from Drought-Adapted Vine (2015):
Ball or balloon, beetle having torn
The wings from a fallen moth, and called
Her kinsmen to the feast, so much
To be said is said in childhood, like
A pet name never to be heard again.
She left suddenly, with no explanation,
Never to be seen again.
I was away. I shall not forget,
But I shall surely be forgotten.
Love may come in its many disguises—
Son and daughter, dog and Beloved—
All the lost childhood without its tender name.
Ask me at Sunday-school, as she did, about life,
And I will tell you again there is no such thing.
Revell, like Baker, has lost his mother, who must be the “she” in this poem. There is no life, he declares, because there is no death; love undisguised is eternity, giving the lie to Frost’s brutally atheistic sonnet “Design,” with its dismembered moth and its parody Eucharist, its parody family meal. The poet sees a kind of ecstasy in oblivion, recognizing that he will not last forever; nor will his memory of his mother. He may be writing “after” any of several poems by Clare, among them the asylum sonnet beginning “That farewell voice of love is never heard again / Yet I remember it.”
Reusing a title of Clare’s, and of Edmund Spenser’s, Revell writes a poem called “A Shepherd’s Calendar,” although Revell’s shepherd is probably Jesus Christ. His sonnet examines bicycle spokes in the sun, “the effortless white of the wheels” like Ezekiel’s vision, “where time is finished with itself.” “Much is made of the pathos of John Clare’s madness,” Revell writes, in an essay on Clare’s poem “The Yellowhammer’s Nest,” “and of the quiet courage with which he endured it. . . . But we could never attend enough to the greater body of his works: poems characterized by the serenity of a steady, loving gaze.” That is the gaze we find in Revell’s other poems, where fruits, foliage, “the bitter taste of small berries / Before the summer began,” “loose dogs and walking bicycles,” all “become the angels of themselves.”
Revell’s declarations give theological grounding, and a confidence unique among contemporary poets with his gifts, to one goal that Ashbery, Dickman, Fletcher, Fishman, and earlier critics such as John Barrell also spot in Clare: the goal of deeming everything important, but nothing on Earth authoritative or central. “Either everything is music or nothing is,” Revell announces. “Either we live in the past or there are more birds / Than can be counted.” That vision is Whitmanian, and childlike, as the last poem in Drought-Adapted Vine delights to admit: “I saw the grass giving live birth to grass, / Every blade split open, pushing new, / Wet clumps into the light. . . . There were also children / Running around with brightly colored pails.”
Those pails are Clare’s too. Revell does not—as Fishman and Morley do—make Clare a cornerstone: the Helpston native is one of many named heroes in Drought-Adapted Vine, along with William Cowper, Henry David Thoreau, and Antoine Watteau. And Revell does not take up the peasant poet because he avoided bad kinds of organization, because he suffered, or because he stood outside Western industry. Instead Revell—tear-stricken or faithfully smiling—honors the poet for what his writing could do and accepts what Clare accepts: birds’ nests, “the human eye,” extreme joy beside extreme grief, “as if I could lie beside my mother in the ground.” Revell does not require you to believe in his Paradise any more than Clare makes you visit Northamptonshire or Fishman southern Wisconsin. The poets just ask you to believe that the places mattered, that they saw them, that they were there.
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