Review, September 2020
When I requested a review copy I was expecting an anthology of Clare’s poems and selected works, with the latest commentary and insights, and a chance for me to get back to my academic roots. To my surprise what we have here is the capturing of an interactive, community poetry project. Amazingly, I found myself being instantly drawn in. The volume is somewhat slender, with less than 100 pages, but there is no way you are going to want to rush through the contents. They demand a response. And though most of the poems are not actually Clare’s, in a rather special way it feels as if we are engaging with Clare, the poet and the man, through his contemporary followers.
The cover gives us a clue about the kind of man Clare thought he was. Or perhaps who we think he was. It features an empty white silhouette of a downtrodden man, one who is not seen by others as he passes by. A man who is not really there. Not in conventional society, perhaps, but he certainly was there, on the margins, lost in communion with nature, as was his wont.
Literally not there. Or was he? (photo: Simon Kovesi's Twitter feed)
Much of what I previously knew about Clare came from an In Our Time podcast with Melvyn Bragg. This featured Simon Kovesi, Professor of English Literature at Oxford Brookes University, a Clare disciple who continues to be increasingly and unashamedly obsessed. I learnt that Clare is mostly famous for two things. First, he rebelled against enclosure, the 18th and 19th century policy of segregating people by parcelling off strips of land, causing division and disquiet. The parallel with divisive social policies today is inescapable. Secondly, Clare spent much of his adult life in an institution for the psychologically disturbed, where he apparently felt comfortable and happy both setting his verse down on paper and performing to an audience.
John Clare (image: The John Clare Society)
This leads us nicely onto the community project, a series of mini performances of new works by contemporary poets around the country, via workshops, all drawing inspiration from John Clare. Not well-known established superstar poets, but local wonders and developing wordsmiths. Most of whom have admittedly won a prize or two or been on a shortlist. Some have an MA or are currently on a creative writing course, others are teachers, active or retired. Their biographical footnotes also provide fascinating reading, adding to the human element of the project.
The workshops were held in Bradford, Peterborough, Clapham and Manchester. I find that I have to read poetry aloud to make sense of it. And in this case, I tried to read in what I imagine to be the local accent. The one I couldn’t get to sound right was Peterborough. In fact, I've no idea how people sound in Peterborough. And that's where Helpston is, Clare’s home village. So that set me back a bit.
Helpston, Clare's home village, in the Soke of Peterborough. Formerly in Northamptonshire, now in Cambridgeshire (photo: TravelExaminer.net)
Many of the poems from the workshops stand out. The following lines on enclosure come from Dearest John by Mary Matusz:
“I will tell you a strange thing;
towns and villages have swelled and some
people build wooden fences taller than me.
The poor red fox cannot fly over, hedgehogs
blocked from roaming the land to find supper”.
I particularly like this conversational style, spanning the centuries, referring to progress both in Clare’s time and now. Would Clare have been surprised to see our modern-day fences and boundaries? Surely not. He was a visionary, after all.
In Some Men (for John Clare), by Clare Shaw, we are given an insight into Clare’s own sense of place and how he related to society, or not, as well as reference to destruction and change:
“Some men have seen the whole world
fall and reform around them
and cannot find their place in it”.
Clare was such a man. The poem continues:
“A few know the language
of birds: they may pay a high price for it”
That price – for Clare – was freedom. In his own time, at least, it was thought that Clare cared too much about nature and not enough about society and conventions. He maintained his creative freedom with his poetry but was restricted in his movements.
Professor Simon Kovesi and Clare Shaw (photo: Oxford Brookes)
There are many more examples in this collection of modern-day poets communing with Clare, in some cases stepping into his persona, in others simply musing, or alluding to Clare’s favourite subjects in his own verse.
Shifting away from the library sessions and towards the theatre, The Meeting (project) also includes an extract from The Fallen Elm, a stage play based on Clare’s life, especially his romantic thoughts and aspirations, by Steven Plaice, formerly writer-in-residence at Lewes prison. I wonder if Plaice was incarcerated there or free to come and go.
I don’t have a lot of reference points for monologues; Alan Bennett is pretty much it for me. So, this new monologue is refreshing and captivating. Entitled Johnny Two Wives, the work draws on Clare’s spoken appreciation of his first wife Martha Turner Clare. Clare poignantly remarked that meeting Patty of the Vale (his preferred name for Martha)
“became the introduction to some of the happiest and unhappiest days my life has net with”
(Plaice, after Clare)
The second wife is Mary Joyce, Clare’s childhood sweetheart, whom he called ‘Mary Clare’ and his ‘spirit wife’ in later life.
Plaice’s monologue is dramatic, naughty and very amusing. Hardyesque at times, even though Clare came first. (Clare lived from 1993 to 1864, Hardy 1840 to 1928). Both Clare and Hardy were mainly in love with two women, at least one of whom considered herself too good for her husband poet. Both had a roving eye for many more. Clare was perhaps by nature a bit more of a ram.
Hardy and Clare and were also both highly musical. Hardy was a violinist and champion of the village quire. Some of his verse bounced along, in contrast to his morbid poems. Clare’s poetry is also full of musicality, and this has led to another aspect of The Meeting.
The climax of this project was meant to be a public performance of The Meeting by Clare, with words and music coming together in a grand finale, in tribute to both Clare and his modern-day celebrants. A section in the book is provided by composer Julian Phillips. The production, arranged by Phillips, will still go ahead, when theatrical performances are possible and safe again. I’d very much like to be there, to enjoy this celebration of a marvellous, much ignored Victorian poet. A man who continues to have a surprising influence in modern times. As Simon Kovesi says in his brilliant introduction, the level of continuing engagement with John Clare and the variety of forms in which this appears is “all quite astonishing when considered in the round”.
I have to admit I’ve never really been much of a community arts project man. I’ve never really wanted to join a book club. But I’m sensing I’ve missed out. Ironically, I think that Clare has often been regarded as a loner, a bit of a lost cause. But his words and their musicality really came alive when he was engaging with devotees of his performances at the asylum. And I can well see the value of engaging now with people who view and say things differently, in different voices.
The Meeting, in project form, comes to us two hundred years after John Clare’s first book of poetry was published. This seems to me to be rather timely, in an age where we need a coming together more than ever, at a time when socially and politically the country is tearing itself apart. In the face of so much isolationism, a shared, creative response feels essential. This calls for one final line on Clare from Simon Kovesi:
“so many facets of his life and work seem to ripple with fresh relevancy across artistic, creative practice”.
Through this multi-disciplinary project, with its demonstrable popularity and potential to engage many more, the relevance is undeniable. And here I am, writing what I like to think is a creative non-fiction piece, in the form of this review. This is my own humble response, my appreciation of Clare’s words and his life. My contribution to The Meeting. I’m there!
© Eddie Hewitt 2020