If you didn't tune in to Radio 3 on Tuesday night to listen to The Essay, in which Alison Brackenbury talked about John Clare's influence on her work, you still have four days left to catch it here.
It was excellent, I thought, and I especially enjoyed hearing the poem The Cuckoo. And it all set me thinking about Clare. He's very difficult to get away from here, around Peterborough where I work, because his name gets attached to all sorts of public buildings, streets and even businesses. And it was when I lived over here in the late 90s that I first really got into his poetry, out of curiosity more than anything, I think. I lived in Bourne, and used to get the bus to and from work, and it wound its way past Helpston, where he was born and raised, and through Northborough, to which he was moved, unhappily, later in his life.
While both villages have so far resisted being swallowed up by the city, the countryside is pretty unrecognisable from the one Clare wrote about, intensive agriculture having put paid to it. Emmonsails (now Ailsworth) Heath, for example, subject of one of my favourite Clare poems, is now pretty much farmland, and elsewhere roads and gravel pits have carved up the landscape.
And that, I suppose, is why Clare has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, and a critical reappraisal. It's not merely nostalgia for an imagined England of days gone by - it's the fact that in his exact and first-hand writing about the natural world, he was making the now extremely relevant point (without ever trying to hammer home 'a message') that no one part of it exists in isolation.
Finally, I just found this article on Clare, particularly interesting for what it says about how well read he was.