All 5 entries tagged The Gypsy And The Poet
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June 12, 2016
‘John Clare’s Heirs’ by Stephen Burt from “The Boston Review”
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.
…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...
June 11, 2016
Ken Head reviews ‘The Gypsy and the Poet’ for “Ink, Sweat and Tears”
The strands of David Morley’s thought in this collection are rich and various. On the one hand, he makes use of ... his knowledge of the Romani dialect in which he sometimes writes. On the other, the poems in the book’s first and third sections work to develop an insight into the real-life friendship between John Clare, the poet, and Wisdom Smith, the gypsy, material for which Morley draws from Clare’s journals and emphasises in the title of the opening sonnet, “Wisdom Smith Pitches his Bender on Emmonsales Heath, 1819″. The central section of the book, by contrast, is concerned to demonstrate the validity of Clare’s own belief in the creative forms of nature itself: “I found the poems in the fields/ And only wrote them down.” There is concrete poetry here and experiments in what George Szirtes has described as “the dynamics of birdsong”. These elements constitute a complex mix, the source material for which, it’s probably fair to say, is not well known, a particular difficulty, I felt, with the epigraphs taken from traditional Traveller songs and The Book of Wisdom of the Egyptians, for which no translation is offered because, as the notes make clear, “meaning may be found within the poems.” True enough. Both in content and form, the poems work hard to be accessible, but even given the problems of translation, I should have preferred to make my own judgement as to the relationship between each epigraph and the content of the poem related to it.
The collection, sixty-four poems in all, is bookended with two italicised sonnets which seem to me to define the basis of the entire project. In the first, “The Invisible Gift”, Morley describes the way in which, he believes, Clare went about making poems: “John Clare weaves English words into a nest/ and in the cup he stipples rhyme, like mud/ to clutch the shape of something he can hold/ but not yet hear; and in the hollow of his hearing,/ he feathers a space with a down of verbs/ and nouns heads-up.” It is a joyous creative process, craftsmanlike and unpretentious, that is being described, although at the other end of the collection, “The Gypsy and the Poet” makes clear the agonies a compulsion to write may bring with it: “Shades shift around me, warming their hands at my hearth./ It has rained speech-marks down the windows’ pages,/ gathering a broken language in pools on their ledges/ before letting it slither into the hollows of the earth.” Morley may, perhaps, be speaking of his sense of his own predicament here, caught between cultures, struggling with the notion of belonging, although what he writes is clearly, he believes, also true for Clare. The point, well made throughout the Wisdom Smith sonnets, is especially clear in “An Olive-Green Coat”: “John Clare longs to look the part, the part a poet can play/ – no part labourer. He stares at a tailor’s display, his money/ gone, his hands numb with the vision of further toils.”
Clare’s struggles with poverty, lack of education, his sense of isolation, the misery and depression these forced him to live with and his eventual decline into mental illness, are well documented and commemorated poignantly in what may be, if not his best, then certainly his best known, most anthologized poem, “I am”: “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 -”. Morley’s poems, however, in bringing together the very different mindsets of poet and gypsy, both of them, in material terms, impoverished, both living close to wild nature, but in other ways so dissimilar, create a dynamic that also highlights the love of nature, the life and energy, which readers familiar with Clare’s work will know predominate throughout his writing. “Mad” makes the point well: “Wisdom Smith smiles into his steaming bowl: ‘March Hares/ grow spooked in their bouts, so tranced by their boxing,/ you can pluck them into a sack by the wands of their ears!’/ John Clare hungers. He hugs his bowl and starts writing/ on the surface of the stew with a spoon. ‘Let the hare cool/ on the night wind,’ urges the Gypsy. ‘Sip him but do not speak.’ ”
In what Wisdom Smith teaches, or tries to teach, Clare, there is Romani lore that has been passed down through generations: how to survive in a world that is always indifferent and may well be hostile, how to enjoy it nonetheless, how to learn who and what are trustworthy and who and what may not be. As Smith says in “A Walk”, ” ‘I know no more than a child, John,/ but I know what to know …’ “ There are many similar examples, moments when the practical gypsy spells out the lessons of life to the brooding, insecure poet: ” ‘I envy your free-roving,’ John Clare sighs to Wisdom Smith./ ‘To have the wide world as road and the sky and stars as your roof.’/ ‘That bread in your mouth, brother,’ butts in the Gypsy, ‘is ours/ because I bought it with my muscles and my calluses this morning./ Man, the day gads off to market with the dawn and everything/ sells itself under the sun: woods, trees, wildflowers and men.’ ”
This book, to which my one thousand words haven’t begun to do justice, is the most interesting new poetry I’ve read this year; it’s a delight, a testament to what is important, not only in English poetry, but in life also: ” ‘Poor John,’ whispers the Gypsy, ‘a quaking thistle would/ make you swoon.’ ‘Truth is, Wisdom, a thistle still could!’/ laughs the poet. And the friends snort and drink to the night./ Clare snores beneath his blanket. Wisdom rises from the earth./ Their fire is all there is to show. Orion stares down on the heath./ He searches for their world with a slow sword of light.”
June 10, 2016
by Stone and Star
David Morley's most recent collection, The Gypsy and the Poet… is a unique tribute to one of the most celebrated poets of the English countryside, John Clare. Many of the poems make up an ongoing dialogue between Clare and a mysterious Gypsy named Wisdom Smith.
Wisdom Smith appears briefly in John Clare's notebooks, and Morley uses this as a starting point for a series of playful, joyous sonnets made up of springy, alliterative verse which occasionally turns sombre (as when Clare says "Were poems children/I should stamp their lives out" and Wisdom Smith responds "Then do not make them", in 'My Children'.) I found myself wondering if Wisdom Smith was simply another aspect of Clare's complex personality (or is Clare another aspect of Wisdom Smith?) and if the sequence was a sort of Yeatsian dialogue of self and soul. This is particularly the case towards the end of the collection, as Clare descends into madness and the corporeal reality of the two figures' encounters becomes more doubtful. I think the poems can be read either as real encounters or as aspects of one personality, but in any case, the two characters have much to teach each other. Each sees the world at an angle that the other finds challenging, and so they bring each other to new understandings, even if it's through banter and mockery:
'I do not read, brother,' states Wisdom smiling,
'for I will not bother with Mystery.
Worlds move underfoot. Where lives Poetry?'
Wisdom Smith gets Clare to live in the moment, in the natural world; Clare gets him to look more seriously at poetry.
'Poetry is in season,' laughs John. 'Rooms woven from wound wood
are like rooms of woven words.' Wisdom looks at Clare - hard.
'Poetry is not everything. You know that, John,' smiles the Gypsy.
'You are wrong,' dances Clare. 'Everything. Everything is poetry.'
The poems are highlighted by English and Romany epigraphs, which heighten the impression of a dialogue between two cultures, both at home in the natural world, but in different ways.
The book is divided into three sections, the first and third of which are the John Clare and Wisdom Smith sonnets. The central section is made up of a variety of nature poems, including pieces which became part of the Slow Art Trail in Strid Wood, poems based on birdsong and painted on bird boxes, and shape poems. I am not really a fan of shape poems in general, but I saw all the poems in this section as a kind of extension of John Clare's (and David Morley's) notebooks and his observations about his life in the natural world. These poems are a record of what is happening around us, often unperceived, and they go a long way to show us how complex and intertwined the natural world is. Two poems, 'Fight' and 'Ballad of the Moon, Moon' are based on Lorca and his rich, strange perceptions of the Gypsy world.
The Gypsy and the Poet is a book to be taken out and read in the fields or the forest, but if this isn't possible, it can at least take the reader there in imagination and provide new insights into our relationship with the natural world and with other cultures, all wrapped up in some very colourful, distinctive and haunting verse.
BARDEN TOWER (David Morley)
I have heard a tourist claim this view
as though she had bought it at cost -
an expensive mirror. Unseen and ornately
ivy throws its ropes across the leaf-litter
shifting a forest's massive furniture;
the moss robes veil the thrones
of fallen oaks; trees flare with lichen;
Autumn smashes rainbows across
the woodland floor. You may never
have seen these trees more brilliantly
than when you turned your eyes
to that hunting lodge and sensed the light
kindle a million leaf mirrors.
In his woods near Lake Tuusula
Jean Sibelius shaped symphonies
from the speech of trees; firs bowed
violins while his swans sailed, keening.
Before his death a solitary swan
veered over and made him her own.
I am close to you who once shared this view.
This is not my sky, my flight, my words. This is not a mirror.
Poem © David Morley, 2013. Artwork © Peter Blegvad. Used by permission.
August 06, 2013
John Clare, Wisdom Smith and Me
I’d finished a trilogy of books for Carcanet, and I had no idea what I was going to do next. What poet really does? I had been invited by New Networks for Nature, an alliance of creators whose work draws strongly on the natural environment, to perform at their annual gathering. My reading took place in Helpston Church. Afterwards, I sat down by John Clare’s grave and had a little chat with him.
Back home, I re-read Jonathan Bate’s biography then I read Clare’s Notebooks. Because Clare thinks nobody’s going to be reading them, he sounds more at ease with himself - a real, living voice surges through. He sows the earth for unwritten poems and even for an unpublished prose book about the natural history of Northamptonshire called Biographies of Birds and Flowers.
The Notebooks also show the presence of Gypsies in Clare’s life. I am partly Romani, I write in Romani dialect, and am alert to anything Gypsy. Clare liked Gypsies. He liked them at a time when it was acceptable for a clergyman to write in the local paper, “This atrosious tribe of wandering vagabonds ought to be made outlaws and exterminated from the earth”. Gypsies liked the poet back: ‘As soon as I got here the Smiths gang of gipseys came and encampd near the town and as I began to be a desent scraper we had a desent round of merriment for a fortnight’. A fortnight of merriment is not gained unless the Gypsies trusted this local poet - with his fiddle and pen – completely.
Clare also sought them out for stories, songs and tunes. And one character keeps cropping up in the Notebooks, a Gypsy called Wisdom Smith: ‘Finished planting my ariculas—went a botanising after ferns and orchises and caught a cold in the wet grass which has made me as bad as ever—got the tune of “highland Mary” from Wisdom Smith a gipsey and pricked another sweet tune without name as he fiddled it’. Wisdom was the catalyst. Next day, I went into my writing shed and found Wisdom Smith sitting in the chair, waiting for me, and I seemed to step into him, or he stepped into me. Some days I found John Clare waiting with his friend. This triple team could write a lot better than I could alone: they could turn sonnets and make them an outdoor form, an unenclosed space for singing the world into being. Clare’s example, with Wisdom Smith’s energy and – yes – his wisdom, forced me to make a step-change and write poems about the the life of love.
I allowed myself to be taken over and to trust in that transformation completely. Emmanual Levinas wrote how ‘I am most like myself when I am most like you’. It is true that once upon a time the action of writing used to take me over so completely it obliterated me. But, newly, sometimes painfully, I felt myself to be more myself than ever. Yet here I was, taken over by a gypsy and a poet. I felt as if I had lived three lifetimes, transcending the self and entering a near-constant state of negative capability that allowed me to escape the “literary” - and write from a wild love of the world and for life:
It is pleasant as I have done today to stand
... and notice the objects around us
‘There is nothing in books on this’, cries Clare.
‘I do not read, brother’, states Wisdom smiling,
‘for I will not bother with Mystery.
Worlds move underfoot. Where lives Poetry?
Look’, hums Wisdom Smith, ‘in the inner domes
of ghost orchids - how the buzzing rhymers
read light with their tongues; or in this anthill -
nameless draughtsmen crafting low rooms, drawing
no fame - except the ravening yaffle,
or fledgy starlings bathing in their crawl.
I see these worlds - lit worlds. I live by them’.
The wood-ants sting. John Clare shifts foot to foot:
‘I did not know you gave me any thought’.
‘This? All this - is nothing, John’, laughs Wisdom.
July 02, 2012
In my last poetry collection "Enchantment" I asked Peter Blegvad to come up with images that would intervene in the book, proving breathing spaces between sections and textural moods. If you know the book you will know he came up with great work (see PB's 'Hedgehurst', left).
Well, my new poetry book is completed.
It is called "The Gypsy and the Poet" and once again I am thinking about images that will work with the poems, not illustrating them - but extending from the poems in some manner that enhances and deepens the tone of the whole book, the conversation between the poems, and between the poems and their readers.
I need to experiment with images on the blog for the next few entries and am meeting with Peter again next Wednesday. What do you think of these? What do they say to you? What might they evoke or invoke?