Tea for Two in Clare’s Empire

When Yeats wrote that “out of our quarrel with the world we make rhetoric, out of our quarrel with ourselves we make poetry,” he could have been thinking of John Clare.  This man, son of illiterate parents, had a quarrel with the world, with high lords, rich landowners,  venal lawmakers, ruthless enforcers of Enclosure acts, and indifferent clergy.  Yet, while Clare exposes the callous power of upper-class England, he does so not by rhetorical force but through lyrical (sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce) introspection. Through his lyric writing, this manual laborer has control, as Jordan Smith’s title affirms, of an empire. Clare’s and Smith’s verbal mastery and imagination—the essentials of  poets—direct the mental, imaginative, musical imperium, encompass its warring internal factions, and enlarge its boundaries, as the language of each poem promotes interactions within and beyond itself.

Clare not only inspires these lyrics, but he also lives in them.  The landscapes and their inhabitants, the fields, the spaniels, the gypsies, are Clare.  What happens to them happens to him.  And they happen as well to Jordan Smith, who joins Clare’s introspective battles, remakes Clare’s poems, and shows how they were made.

Imperial exertion towards mental unification, towards an indivisible, unassailable imaginative field, achievement of the final coherence of empire, is key to the poems as poems.  One of the poets’ metaphoric selves, the Mandrake, “like us, longs for the undivided mind, wonders at its incompletion.”  The drive for completion is not simple.  It springs from powerful emotion: “we are splintered, scattered fragments” with “a forked, a pronged, a bifurcated, split, unhouseled, ungovernable self” (these synonyms, taken from different discourses,  demonstrate the innate divisions). The pain of this dissociation can be dreadful: the mandrake “screams.”  As a poem, “The Mandrake” demonstrates its own lyric-poetic nature as non-propagandistic, non-rhetorical, revealing not a dominant belief or idea but, rather, the agonizing persistence of contradiction. Poems, as the “the Mandrake”  makes explicit, must endure the contest, and, in fact, are based on it.  

Union of such opposite forces, the “momentary stay” against confused inner turmoil, is fleeting. The poems in Clare’s Empire show us how the continual process towards such union proceeds and, for a moment, catches hold. In the unfolding of this process is to be found Smith’s explanation of how Clare’s poems are made. They do not magically coalesce.  The process starts with alphabetical letters, which take on a life of their own, as they gravitate towards each other or skip away in continual quest.  The most entrenched ideas, which I take to be dualistic oppositions which circulate through the poems— rich/poor, hunter/hunted, lord/servant, owner/renter, natural/stylized—loosen as squads of  animate letters repeat and vary each other, start thinking for themselves, change context, rearrange themselves in  patterns, like those of  the murmuration of starlings over corn fields. To illustrate, here is brief commentary on the first stanza of a poem about  elevated poetic style.

Clare’s Meditations on the Sublime

     Are nothing.   Full stop.

     Perhaps his pen

     Runs dry mid-line. The

      muse withdraws

     Her witness, witless. He

     Tries again

     In his impatience spills ink.

     Crows caw.

     In a world outside his window [are] crows,

     Cockerels, kine, larks in the willows.

Here the poet writes about a writing-block as he thinks about the “sublime,” an exalted term, and we can follow a little drama that develops as the pen stops writing; his muse will not inspire, and, when the poet repeats his effort, the ink spills. Sublime elevation does not result from the letters he thinks he should be arranging but seems unattainable for him.  However, at the end of the stanza, a little, literal  commentary becomes a choral parody of his straining after the exalted genre of “sublime,” and a contradictory and more “real” form develops. His letters, themselves, enact the process of creation as they turn the harshness of crows’ cries into the songs of larks, traditional emblems of musical poetic power; further, by incorporating the letters into a fertile image of a tree which holds within itself, as a tree, the symbolism of family perpetuation, the family itself resulting from sexual desire (“will”), the “willows” bring the transformation of lingering poetic hopelessness into accomplished poetic delight.  

A closer view of the literal transformations in the final three lines, draws attention to “C” making its first appearance in “Crows caw.” “Crows” for Clare/Smith are aesthetic emblems, this  status explained in the poem “Crows.” Here their importance is emphasized by repetition. The crows, significantly, do not make transcendent glories of sound but, rather, they “caw.” ‘Cs’ join with ‘Ws,’ gather momentum, and bring us to a “world outside his window” where the Cs and Ws of “crow” and “caw” join the young male cocks (“cockerals”) and propel us to “kine,” a herd of (female) cows, the c-sound of “kind” now edging into the final k of “larks” “in the w illows.” The doubling of ws and ls (“w I ll o w s) emphasizes continuing repetition both intensive (again and again, penetrating) and expansive (one time, two times, and on and on). ‘Crow’  moves to ‘caw’ to ‘cock’ to ‘Kine’ to ‘kind’ to ‘larks’ to ‘willows’ in a  progression that tracks precisely the movement from sound to gender to sexual desire, to reproduction and perpetuation within the interactions of Clare’s/Smith’s empire.

Throughout Smith/Clare poems, not only individual letters but also parts of speech, such as compound adjectives (“oak-framed,” “glassed-in,” “mirror-backed”) and compound adjectives with repetitions (“self-designed,” “self-aggrandizing,” “self-entranced,” “self-study”),  contribute emphasis to the principle of gradual refinement and precision.  The “self”s here, for example, seem to progress from egoistical  self-enhancement of the first three references to a state of self-examination  (“self-study”).  There  occur with some frequency straightforward syntactical lists (“let,” “let,” “let,” of the separate prayers in “Clare’s Ballad…”), as well as somersaulting syntactical lists (in “An Act of Violence”), where the word “follows” (denoting “comes after”) occurs as a word at the end of successive lines, literally preceding rather than following the list of words to come. For example,  “a scrape, a scrap, a  word follows/ A pint, walk, words, weak tea, follows…..” The “scrape and scrap and word” here literally introduce  but actually result from a “pint, walk, words, weak tea.” In other words, drinking the pint, walking, having words (conflict), weak tea (less strong and refreshing than the pint of ale) lead to a scrape, an abrasion and then to a scrap, i.e., quarrel or left-over,  and then to a word, perhaps cruel, unforgivable.  

To follow each poem’s  exact letters, syllables, and words  in their roles as individual agents that  make stories, trace historical events, meet gypsies and badgers,  examine cabinets and watches,  ponder Charity and Taste, and record personal loss is to witness formal process  which creates and directs ongoing content. Such style and content merging with each other is a goal for poetry often mentioned by scholars and poets.  Smith/Clare shows us explicitly how this union works in “The Pheasant Considered as Poet.”  

The Pheasant symbolizes art. “His beauty marries form and matter.” Beauty, the propelling desire and goal of art, is ceremonial and erotic (“marries”).  Its innate force, stimulated by  those who hunt it, becomes active: “See how the pheasant flushes, Hear the wings, that wild and local beating.” Even in the prey ’s, the pheasant’s, the poet’s terror, there is excitement, “wildness” as the wings swing into powerful rhythms.  The pheasant-poet at the moment has become subject to the strategies of the hunter and, in their mutual breathless, heart-felt  responses, the hunted and hunter are swept into a single moment during which, in contrast to the action of the pheasant’s heart and wings, the hunter’s heart becomes absolutely quiet (“drawn breath stills his heart”) as the moment of release approaches, “before he shoots.” The hunt scenario objectively catches the perennial rhythms of hunter and prey within each poet, and Smith concentrates on the aesthetic drama, the duality of hunter and hunted swept together in the mutual intensity of the scene, where each force may win. If the bullet or arrow hits the pheasant, that’s it. If the hunter misses, the pheasant continues to beat his way upward in beauty to the skies. If the hunter kills and eats the pheasant (who is “edible”), the hunter will incorporate into his body and mind a source—the meat of the bird and poet—of continuing life.

In another context but perhaps relevant here, Katherine Mansfield is said to have remarked that  E.M.Forster never gets any further than warming the tea pot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot.  Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.  Clare/Smith might have feared such a tea-less state.  In “A Neighbor’s Catalog,” we learn of “a teapot that resists all mending/ no matter how many try.”  Without the mending of the form, the container, there will be no tea at all.  In “An Act of Violence,” as part of the lists of nouns that “follow” each other, we  find that “weak tea follows/ A half-hearted embrace follows/ An act of violence (as light follows/ The sun’s rage as the moon’s cold follows/Our waxing and waning)….” Forster in Mansfield’s little story produces no tea. Clare/ Smith do produce tea. But both poets fear, perhaps, that their tea has been brewed improperly in a damaged teapot, within form that seems to lack the model consistency of surface sleekness characteristic of traditional English boned china. They know about human weakness that can dilute or weaken the tea--a “half-hearted embrace,” some failure of passionate commitment, which itself derives from “an act of violence,” not the proper form or content. But they have known the “sun’s rage,” the height of poetic intensity and passion, as well as the “moon’s cold,” with its  deathly  beauty of a still reflective light. They have the range, and their tea continually stimulates, sip by sip, poem by poem.  
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               april 15, 2015