Northampton has a number of famous sons and daughters: Alan Moore, Alan Carr, Matt Smith, Lesley Joseph and even Baroness Falkender; but perhaps none so literary as John Clare, rural poet famous for his decline in mental health that resulted in his living many years in asylums.
I studied English Literature when I were a lad, but I confess that John Clare only passed me by momentarily somewhere between Browning and Tennyson. I was still only 18 when we covered 19th century literature and I found it hard enough to keep up with all the set books we had to cover, let alone discover new poetry for myself off-piste, so to speak. So today I am eager to discover more about our local hero.
A couple of years ago, Mrs Chrisparkle and I joined a town walk, organised by the Royal and Derngate Theatre, which took you to some less likely vantage points in the town and gave you a hidden history that involved places tourists wouldn’t normally frequent – not that we have many of them anyway. This walk was a semi-dramatised event; ostensibly it was a straightforward guided walk, with a real guide, who would answer your questions and interact with you as a real guide would; but at certain moments the story of the town came alive with an unexpected supporting cast of actors. At one point, our guide took us to All Saints’ Church, which is known to be where John Clare used to hang out, scribbling bits of poetry on the steps, probably bringing a bit of a rank smell to the place; and whilst we were there this young ragamuffin appeared from nowhere at the Church entrance, clutching a chalkboard, hair awry, eyes wild; then letting out a mad holler he scampered off into the traffic. It could have been Clare; very cleverly done. Just out of curiosity, please look at this excellent plaque below that commemorates John Bailes who lived in three centuries. Mr. Bailes must have been an extraordinary chap. Or lied about his age.
I mention the town walk, firstly because Sir Andrew Motion’s talk was held in All Saints’ Church, and secondly because walking was its main theme. He considered the healing powers of walking in the countryside, just for the sake of doing it. You can; it’s free; so why not. Clare, of course, is well known for his long walk of escape from the asylum in Essex back to his home, and the first reading was from Clare’s prose account of the walk with its characterful, honest writing.
July 19, Monday. Did nothing.
July 20, Tuesday. Reconnoitred the road the gypsey had taken, and found it a legible one to make a movement; and having only honest courage and myself in my army, I led the way and my troops soon followed. But being careless in mapping down the road as the gypsey told me, I missed the lane to Enfield Town, and was going down Enfield Highway, till I passed the “Labour-in-vain” public-house, where a person who came out of the door told me the way. I walked down the lane gently, and was soon in Enfield Town, and by and by on the great York Road, where it was all plain sailing. Steering ahead, meeting no enemy and fearing none, I reached Stevenage, where, being night, I got over a gate, and crossed the corner of a green paddock. Seeing a pond or hollow in the corner, I was forced to stay off a respectable distance to keep from falling into it. My legs were nearly knocked up and began to stagger. I scaled over some old rotten palings into the yard, and then had higher palings to clamber over, to get into the shed or hovel; which I did with difficulty, being rather weak. To my good luck, I found some trusses of clover piled up, about six or more feet square, which I gladly mounted and slept on. There were some drags in the hovel, on which I could have reposed had I not found a better bed. I slept soundly, but had a very uneasy dream. I thought my first wife lay on my left arm, and somebody took her away from my side, which made me wake up rather unhappy. I thought as I awoke somebody said “Mary”, but nobody was near. I lay down with my head towards the north, to show myself the steering point in the morning.
A word about Sir Andrew’s style: he’s very thoughtful, measured, calm and quiet; when flustered – as at the beginning when he arrived ten minutes late because his pre-talk sausages were delayed – he hides it behind a slightly nervous laugh; when animated, there’s not a huge amount of difference. To be honest, he could have done with some better amplification, as it was hard to catch all his words, even with a microphone, at the back of the church (we snuck in at the back – old habits die hard).
He moved on from discussing Clare to one of his favourite poets, Edward Thomas. He took the poem “Old Man”, read it to us, and then did some Lit Crit on it. You’ll think me very ignorant for an ex-student of literature, but Edward Thomas passed me by too, somewhere between Eliot and Yeats. “Old Man” is new to me, and I confess that when Sir Andrew read it, I didn’t get it. I know for certain that Mrs C didn’t get it, as I recognised that glazed look. Today I have read it; and now I can appreciate it much more. Here it is:
Old Man, or Lads-Love, – in the name there’s nothing
To one that knows not Lads-Love, or Old Man,
The hoar green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.
The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as someday the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path,
Thinking perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, though it is not old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I can only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.
As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember;
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
But I’m afraid I can’t pass on any gems of Sir Andrew’s critical appreciation of the poem as I had precious little understanding of my own on which to hang it. I think it is fair to describe it as the most scholarly moment of the evening.
As another comparator, he then introduced Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died”. The Lady in question, was the one who sings the blues, according to the film and song title, Billie Holliday. O’Hara was a 20th century American poet. I chose American Literature 1800-1960 as a specialist subject in my degree, but, guess what, Frank O’Hara passed me by, somewhere between William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. “The Day Lady Died” was new to me; but when Sir Andrew read it aloud, it instantly spoke to me. A wonderful series of ordinary observations made whilst walking through New York City on an ordinary day that acquires an extraordinary quality by virtue of what else happened on that day in question.
The Day Lady Died
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
He returned the discussion to John Clare with the poem “Langley Bush”. At his rural best, the poem is a sad realisation that what is now an old and mouldering feature of the landscape, must once have stood young and strong and witnessed splendid things. It’s an appreciation of both the honour and decrepitude of old age, and, like Thomas’ “Old Man” the bush becomes a key that links your present to your past. It’s a “still point in the turning world”. “I placed a jar in Tennessee”. I’m sure you see where I’m coming from.
O Langley Bush! The shepherd’s sacred shade,
Thy hollow trunk oft gain’d a look from me;
Full many a journey o’er the heath I’ve made,
For such-like curious things I love to see.
What truth the story of the swain allows,
That tells of honours which thy young days knew,
Of “Langley Court” being kept beneath thy boughs
I cannot tell–thus much I know is true,
That thou art reverenc’d: even the rude clan
Of lawless gipsies, driven from stage to stage,
Pilfering the hedges of the husbandman,
Spare thee, as sacred, in thy withering age.
Both swains and gipsies seem to love thy name,
Thy spot’s a favourite with the sooty crew,
And soon thou must depend on gipsy-fame,
Thy mouldering trunk is nearly rotten through.
My last doubts murmur on the zephyr’s swell,
My last look lingers on thy boughs with pain;
To thy declining age I bid farewell,
Like old companions, ne’er to meet again.
Finally Sir Andrew read one of his own poems, “In A Perfect World”, the poem he famously wrote for the TUC when he became Poet Laureate in 1999. Taking the simple act of walking the Thames Path, he includes words like “free”, “liberty” “equally” and “level”, all giving you an insight into his political ideology just by simply describing a walk. In reading out this poem he rather cleverly associated himself with the other poets in his talk.
In a Perfect World
I was walking the Thames path from Richmond
to Westminster, just because I was free
to do so, just for the pleasure of light
sluicing my head, just for the breeze like a hand
tap-tapping the small of my back,
just for the slow and steady dust
fanning on bricks, on cobbles, on squared-off
slab-stones — dust which was marking the time
it takes for a thing to be born, to die,
then to be born again. The puzzled brow
of Westminster filled the distance, ducking
and diving as long parades of tree-clouds
or skinny-ribbed office blocks worked their way
in between. The mouth of-the Wandle stuck
its sick tongue out and went. The smoke-scarred walls
of a disused warehouse offered on close
inspection a locked-away world of mica
and flint and cement all hoarding the sun.
I was walking the Thames path east
as though I was water myself — each twist
and turn still bringing me out on the level,
leading me hither and thither but always
back to the hush of my clarified head,
into the chamber where one voice speaking
its mind could fathom what liberty means,
and catch the echo of others which ring
round the lip of the world. Catch and hold.
The buttery sun kept casting its light
on everything equally. The soft breeze
did as it always does, and ushered me on.
There were some questions and answers, but our distance from his podium coupled with the under performing microphone made them a little difficult to follow. However, it was very interesting to see the ex-Poet Laureate at work, and to get a little insight into his character and his appreciation of the poets he considered.