Last night I went to Uppingham Theatre to hear Paul Farley talk about John Clare. The last time I saw a poet at the venue, about three years ago, it was Hugo Williams, and I was just about the only ‘civilian’ there, the rest of the sizeable audience being pupils from the public school just down the road. This time, though, there was a much wider range of people attending.
Farley recently put together an anthology of Clare's poetry for Faber and Faber’s Poet-to-Poet series, and he was probably sticking his neck out to come and talk about the Peasant Poet just a stone’s throw from his home turf. I got the impression that a good few of the audience were first and foremost Clare aficionados rather than more general poetry fans. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, just that he was probably at high risk of being corrected if he got anything even slightly wrong.
But anyway, the first half consisted of him reading some of Clare’s poems, and some of his own, and he did both very well. Well enough to make me think I should give his more recent collections a go. As I’ve said before, I have a bad habit of giving up on a poet if I’m underwhelmed by their work the first time I encounter it. Sometimes, I suppose, my instinct might be right, but other times (and this is one) I should really be a bit more open-minded.
What I enjoyed even more than the poems, though, was what Farley told us in between them, and in the second half of the evening, when he took questions from the audience. For one thing, he touched on something I talked about earlier in the week (in relation to Robert Mitchum – it’s not often Bob Mitchum and John Clare get into the same sentence), regarding the image people have of poetry and poets. Clare’s deep unhappiness, and eventual mental illness, may have had a lot to do, Farley suggested, with the fact that he didn’t quite fit in London literary society or the rural labouring class he came from. And, as he pointed out, that was in part because he had been very much ‘marketed’ as the Peasant Poet, with his lack of learning (rather than his humble beginnings) highlighted and even exaggarated.
Another thing he touched on was Clare’s particular style of nature poetry, one in which precision of description is paramount, and more importantly, in which everything is given equal weight. That’s to say, he didn’t home in on the birds, trees, natural features, buildings and people in his poems to give them metaphorical or allegorical emphasis, instead preferring an approach that reads more like excerpts from a nature diary. At the time, Keats thought Clare’s poems were too descriptive, while Clare in return thought Keats’ poems relied too heavily on a ‘life-support system’ of Classical allusions. There’s no reason, of course, not to enjoy both (I’m not one for pitching my tent in any particular poetry camp), but it certainly seems to me that Clare’s approach has gained far more acceptance in modern poetry. To some extent in poets like Hughes, and now Alice Oswald, but also in more left-field figures such as Lee Harwood, who continue that Clare trademark of refusing to signpost significance (as well as getting themselves well out of the picture being painted).
There was loads more, too. I was interested to hear Farley say that, for sheer species count, Clare beat any English poet since our old friend Michael Drayton, which just went to show my general ignorance of this blog’s spiritual godfather. In my defence, I would say it’s hard to get hold of much of the Elizabethan’s work, but I’ll try harder now. There was good stuff too about the places and names that Clare used in his work, his writing methods, and the man himself, and the Faber book is well worth buying.