John Clare was a farm worker’s son, a contemporary of Keats, and, sometimes, a madman who thought he was Shakespeare and Byron. “I’m John Clare now,” he wrote. In one of his most famous poems, “I Am,” he penned the lines:
I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
In the July issue we published Jeanette Lynes’ wonderful selection “From School of Flowers: The John Clare Poems.” Jordan Smith read those poems and almost immediately sent me some of his John Clare poems, written long before but aching to be part of the conversation. This delights me because I do have the persistent idea that NC is a community, a group of readers and writers talking to each other, not just numbly glancing and racing to the SUBMIT page. NC writers inspire each other and are inspired by the same things. I also really enjoy seeing two poets dealing with the same material (more or less), a practice that throws their styles and personalities into a bold relief. Read Jeanette’s poems and Jordan’s poems side by side and you will read them both better, find their individual felicities in difference.
When he sent me his poems, Jordan wrote: “I read the set of John Clare poems right away, with the complicated pleasure that the warps and threads and vines and dead ends of Clare’s life and work offer. I’ve thought about him a lot in the last several years, and spent a good part of a sabbatical in 2010-11 writing a book-length sequence about him. Jeannette Lynes’s poems are quite different than what I was up to, but I can see we were caught in the same gravity of that sweet, sad, class struggle of a life.”
John Clare, His Early Poems
He wrote on scraps of paper his mother craved
For her own purposes, tedious, domestic,
Practical. He hid his drafts away;
Practice in penmanship or arithmetic,
He’d lie straight-faced if any such were found.
He spoke one once. He claimed it. The room went round
With laughter. Later, he found a stratagem
That suited his desire be heard
Unmocked. He’d read his poems and say he’d found them
In an almanac. Then they thought them fine,
Though as he grew more deft, more sure in verse,
He found he liked best those that they thought worst.
And yet they cared and prayed. His mother talked
Of service, her highest hope for him, in livery
To a lord. He nodded as a horse will, balked
and bridled, pawed and stood his ground, quivered,
Feigned stupidity. Feckless and disheveled
He wrote to tell the truth and shame the devil.
Under an ivied oak in Oxey Wood
He twisted young vines into a bower
And hid there and found it good,
Cramped, and private. So the hours
Flee in idleness and rhyme.
Both shamed him, He knew that time
Loves the industrious and labor’s
The first cause of God and his first
Rebuke. Play Adam’s sin with tabors,
Pipe Eve’s as well; no sin is worst.
And yet see what has come of it:
Fields, towns, the unfit ruled by the fit.
He knows all this. He hates it. Briars
Are better friends to man, and God
Is not our friend when not a liar,
Governing with a wink and a nod.
The men who felled the tree thought witches
Hid there. Good guess, you sons of bitches.
John Clare at School with the Gypsies
Were it not for dread of winter cold,
He might have gone with them, whose talk
Was horses, lasses, dogs, who were less bold
Than rumor claimed and cannier, who balked
When questioned closely about God, or why
Their men had a crooked finger (sly,
They broke them to avoid the king’s levy
Of soldiers that would not claim a crippled man).
Their thefts were petty, their arts were mummery–
Beguiling, fortune telling. They could mend pans,
But not their slandered, squalid reputations.
One reverend judge suggested extirpation,
Hardly needed once the groves were cut,
The fields fenced, paths gated, commons turned
To private profit. They dwindle now like June
Flowers in a storm or ash trees burned to ash.
He should have gone too. His sadness was a riddle
They might have answered. They taught him how to fiddle.
Thoreau’s Flute, Clare’s Fiddle
Thoreau’s flute was made in Albany
By Firth & Pond, given by his father
With a family book of tunes; an Irishman’s
Shanty supplied Walden’s planks, his mother
His laundry. Don’t scoff. He knew what he was about.
Pure New England. Make do, or do without,
As writers do, though making do means taking
Some small advantage of another’s work
To do your own, and better that than waking
To make pencils, teach a day school, fork
Manure, survey a lot, herd the cattle, bend
And scrape to scrape by, and defend
A little leisure anyway you might.
Take up your flute, your fiddle, and you’ll find
No one asks you why, no one slights
A good tune. Even the halt and blind
Harper might find a place at the lord’s right
Hand, the cramped, closed hand, the one that writes.
Included Thompson’s Seasons, Ward’s Mathematics,
Fisher’s Young Man’s Companion, Robin Hood’s
Garland, pamphlets and sermons, Joe Miller’s antic
Jests cheek by jowl with Death of Abel, the good
And bad alike brought home at no small cost.
A Shatterd Copy of Milton’s Paradise lost…”
His mother gave him a small locked wooden chest
To save his coins for clothes in. Leave off writing,
Buy no more books, she said, meaning the best.
He knew she did. He had no thought of quitting.
He rhymed in secret, furious, a kind of theft,
Locking the drafts away inside her gift.
What else could Milton teach him? Mankind plunges
Into labor, an angel guards the garden.
We study to get back, nothing expunges
Our desire to know. We scribble in the margins
Of any texts. n.b, q.v, inter alia,
Ad infinitum, our gloss, our glossolalia,
But Everywhere He Is In Chains
The ego is a chain. The chain
Connects the trap and stake. The stake
Is class, an accident maintained
By some as virtue; the trap’s the stake
By other means, sharpened teeth, weight
Of bite, sprung jaws. The ego’s bait–
How’s that, you say, stake, trap, and bait?
Imagine you stood by the road.
A distant horse. Dust. You think your fate’s
A calloused palm’s line. Hoofbeats. Goaded
(he’s used his whip) you start to sing
An old ballad, made new each spring.
A gypsy lures the lord’s wife out;
She forgets herself in the song he sang,
Rolls in his arms. (She’s in yours now,
Joyous.) They’re caught. The gypsy hangs.
He canters up. You doff your hat.
Good song, lad.
……………………….M’lord. (I’ll rewrite that.)
Genesis, Reconsidered in Light of the Enclosure Acts
The Great Rift, where all time began
In endings, scavengings, some ape
With thought, thought’s ape, leading his clan
Through thought’s default, jaws’ agape,
And wonder at, yes, flower, flock,
And pelt, as earth, unseemly, quaked
And humped, plate sliding under plate.
It strikes Clare that the world can be
So lovely only when unconstrained,
That God’s hand in the willow’s leaves
Must wither when enclosure comes,
His voice among the reeds go dumb.
That Pan should die, and panic not
Seems mystery enough. The grip
Of property’s another, and the lot
Of all the wretched, pox and grippe,
And scarcest of all, happiness,
That sweet disorder, undone, blessed.
The Poverty of the Imagination
Is nothing to it. The poverty of spirit’s
Mere fiction, noble or otherwise
Ill-intended; the poverty inherent
In inheritance (the will’s demise)
Is but circumstance; the poverty
Of scholarship’s self-fashioned penury–
Compared, I mean with this morning’s mourning-
Grey sky, a hospital hallway, windowless
Whose inmates mutter, scoff, and scorning
Reason as the king’s gang scorns the impressed
Sailor. Let’s join them in that suite
Of endless rooms, that hell whose only heat’s
The mind’s fevers, flaring like the sun ,
And each room similar as snowflakes,
But maddeningly, meltingly its own
Design. Left to these, how they ache;
And hunger’s nothing to it,nor an ear,
Throbbing, bursting with what it alone can hear.
Clare’s Badger and the Arrest of Big Bill Haywood, Denver 1904
Pull it, you son of a bitch, pull it…”
Big Bill, bulky, blind in one eye,
Down at the Denver depot, decked
Capt. Williams, faced down the carbines,
You damn bastards, was hauled by the neck,
Pistol whipped in the hall of the Oxford Hotel—
As Marlowe said, we all know hell:
It is the baiting of such fierce nobilities,
Clare’s badger harried from his sett
For dogs to worry; it is equality
Redrawn as suffering and the yet
Undisproven axiom that the rich
Deserve their riches. Son of a bitch.
They used a cuspidor to catch
His blood (they get a forked stick
To bear him down) after they pitched
Him headlong down the stairs (till kicked
And torn and beaten there he lies).
He did his best. He didn’t die.
An Economy of Poetry
………………..-– for Hunter Brown
Poetry is necessary
Only to those who find it so,
That is to say, unnecessary
To whatever makes the world go:
A mill’s shuttle, the back and forth
Of industry walking over the earth,
Each step a thread, the weft, the cross-
Hatched fence through the warp of property,
A world ill-divided, lost,
As Adam Smith said labor must be
In details, infinite, repeated,
Efficient, skilled, or not, depleted.
Imagine a poet and the few
And fit readers in a public house
A small fire, small beer, the news
Is war, ventures; the talk is loose
As capital, but talk is cheaper.
And poetry cuts its losses deeper.
Clare’s List, Like Orwell’s
So we must imagine Orwell lying in his sanatorium bed,
gaunt and wretched, going through his notebook…wondering….
which of the 135 names to pass on to Celia.
……………………………………………………………………………— Timothy Garton Ash
A notebook full of unnoted treasons
Of the cloaked and waspish enemies
Of language, which is to say, of freedom;
Nettles; among the anemones,
A serpent’s sibilants. So he names
Names. Wouldn’t you do the same:
The carpers, the false friends who claimed
He did not write his verses, wastrel
Publishers and patrons and the damned
Mutability of public taste,
Those who’d write in fealty
To tyranny, authority.
He is no saint, and they would try
A saint’s patience, much less a wrecked,
Sick man who, before he dies
Would like to think words have effects,
Even his, and so he hands his muse
These private notes, for her public use.
These poems are a fantasia on the life and work of John Clare, and make no claim to accuracy. For whatever fidelity to the facts they possess, the author is indebted to Jonathan Bates’ John Clare: a Biography and to David Powell and Eric Robertson, the editors of the remarkable John Clare – By Himself. The epigraph to “Clare Finds a Watch Upon the Heath” is from William Paley’s Natural Theology. J. Anthony Lukas’s Big Trouble provided the epigraph to “Clare’s Badger and the Arrest of Big Bill Haywood, Denver, 1904.” Background information and the epigraph to “Clare’s List, Like Orwell’s” are from Timothy Garton Ash’s essay, “Orwell’s List,” in Facts Are Subversive.
Jordan Smith’s sixth full-length collection, The Light in the Film, recently appeared from the University of Tampa Press. His story, “A Morning,” is in Big Fiction # 2, and Clare’s Empire, his book-length sequence of poems after the life and work of John Clare will be published in a digital edition by The Hydroelectric Press. He lives in eastern New York and teaches at Union College.