The voice in this post is poet John Clare, who arrives here via the work of poet and novelist Jeanette Lynes.
Known as the Peasant Poet of Northamptonshire, John Clare (1793-1864) is the author of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) and The Rural Muse (1835), among other works. Largely unschooled, he served in the militia, and worked as a gardener and lime-burner. In 1817, Clare met Martha (Patty) Turner, whom he married. He struggled to support his large family during an era when rural poverty was widespread. Clare might be considered an early ecopoet, given his concern with the massive re-allocation of land during the enclosures. He suffered from depression, spending the last years of his life in and out of asylums, and, at certain points, apparently assuming various identities, including those of Byron and Shakespeare.
As these cracked windows are my witness these black willows and all other green waving racks I am now free. I tramp through furze, shadow the crooking rivulet. Move among toadflax, red-rattle. Mounded purpled thyme.
Sky shovels blue into my face. Welcome back, my Lord. Grammar? I’ve left that twitching like a useless limb in the asylum inside my rumpled coverlet. They say I cannot reason. No less than they who’ve picked the bones of Swordy Well sent the butterflies packing or the ones who spin me in the wretched chair to make me well or draw my blood. Nor wish I to plait straw or weave baskets. Who shall I say I am? I insist I’m a simple rustic poet out for a walk, released for good conduct, a vow to stay inside asylum grounds. A beautiful girl beneath a lime tree requests a poem. A poem for a kiss, I tell her. I try for more. Her dress gives me an idea. A dress is a fence. I leave her there within the white cage of her dress. An asylum fence is gauze. They’ve given me a key of air.
Key to the forest. They suppose I have no plans. I slip through to the side of poesy. Past Ponders Green, the spire. Mail coaches rumble near my head. Not one French actress traverses this road. Those days of low topiary, gone. My wish for paper and snuff more fervent. Songs tumble from my mouth. I strum the day. I walk and walk. Devout. I see a white thing whiz past a slip of smooth shard. Paper? My feet follow my leaping heart. Only a feather. I spear it through my buttonhole nonetheless may trade it for a light. No Lucifers have I to spark my pipe. The road fills with flint and not a heel of bread.
When Byron looks inside the mirror
he sees me
Byron and all his bread
his bottomless stack of fine paper
A cross in the road + a stone
I do not know the word carved there
I choose the left fork. I tell a chaffinch the happy thing about poesy is all can claim it.
Crouching rock, look out, a prize fighter I am. I pull down my hat. Commas drift forth from the marsh. I rest below a portico. A man asks am I not John Clare the mad poet? Indeed I am. He wants a love poem (trouble at home
he has no words for it). I write it for light and some ale. An old woman stops (Busy road this left). She fancies christening lines, grandchild. For a quid of tobacco. Small price for birth heralded on the horns of verse. Then a poem on a dear spaniel’s death. Another dram. I do a brisk business all afternoon. Someone tosses me a shilling just to write my name. This day began with a key, a dream. Now I have tobacco for a month
a handkerchief swell of cheese belly of ale.
Had I known the world wanted poems this bad
I’d have gone mad
long before this.
Before this, mad poems. The world I’d wanted, gone. Ale belly cheese swell handkerchief, gone. I now dream this key day. My name. A shilling. Dram. Afternoon all business. Brisk. Another death, spaniel’s dear poem. Verse of horns heralds birth. Small price. A quid for her grandchild, christening lines. Old woman stops, I write Help! Words, home, trouble, poem. Love I want. Am I indeed John Clare the mad poet?
Am I not a man dejected, a portico below rest? That’s me, fighter, prize, that’s me, crouching. Rock outlook. Write to calm everyone. Fork left. Byron’s bottomless stone, his mirror, me. No flint no Lucifers no light. Happy the chaffinch. Walk and walk. Fervent topiary, paper, snuff, commas. Letters rumble the spire a word carved in a stone back there. Green ponders past poesy. Slide through the pass. Have plans.
Lunatics, they’ve picked the bones of Swordy Well, sent the butterflies packing.
Suppose fence is gauze. Her asylum dress, cage, white. She gives me more for a kiss –
Try a poem I tell her. Lime tree, girl beneath –
a beautiful case! Sky property. Prison inside a vow, good conduct. Released for a walk.
I insist. Rustic simple Lord. Welcome back, face! I can reason. Purpled thyme. Blue shovels. Rattle red, move free.
Now am I green, all cracks waving as these willows are my witness.
* * * *
About Jeanette Lynes: Jeanette Lynes has published five books of poetry, most recently It’s Hard Being Queen: the Dusty Springfield Poems and The New Blue Distance. Her work has received the Bliss Carmen Poetry Prize and been shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Her first novel, The Factory Voice, was published in 2009 and was longlisted for the Giller Prize. In 2005-2006 she was writer in residence at Saskatoon Public Library.
This post © Jeanette Lynes, 2011, all rights reserved.