Monday, 23 September 2013

On Jack Clemo

In yesterday's blog I mentioned the poet Jack Clemo, a writer I'd never heard of before coming across his name in A. T. Tolley's magisterial Poetry of the Forties in Britain. Tolley rates Clemo's The Clay Verge very highly, and I'm reading this collection at the moment. It's very good. Here are some notes on his life.

He was born in the village of Goonamaris,  near the Cornish town of St Austell, in the heart of china clay country with its surreal topography of snow-white waste heaps and livid turquoise lakes. His father was killed at sea in the First World War and he was raised by his Non-conformist mother (a powerful and dominating presence throughout their life together), attending the village school to the age of 13. His education ended with the onset of his blindness and what followed was a life of extraordinary privation. Living in great poverty with his mother in a tiny granite cottage, he was entirely deaf by the age of twenty and became completely blind in 1955. His mother (who died in 1977) and his wife Ruth Peaty, whom he married in 1968, could communicate with him only by tracing letters with a fingertip on the palm of his hand.

He is, I think, on the strength of what I've read so far, a quite extraordinary writer in a tradition going back to Milton and Blake. He is a Christian visionary poet and austerely Calvinist, exploiting fully the Biblical associations of 'clay' and finding in the lunar landscapes of the region one of his central and abiding themes. He's also a mystic erotic, or erotic mystic.

He continued writing to the end of his life and was, given his circumstances, both a prolific writer and a consistently good one. His prose works include Wilding Graft (1948), The Shadowed Bed (1986), and the autobiographical Confession of a Rebel (1949) and The Marriage of a Rebel (1980). I've just ordered the last two from abe.com.

The poetry collections are The Map of Clay (1961), Cactus on Carmel (1967), The Echoing Tip (1971), Broad Autumn (1975), A Different Drummer (1986), Selected Poems (1988), Banner Poems (1989), and Approach to Murano (1993). I've picked up the Selected and will think about the others - all available at a low price on the internet. And before you ask I've already checked our local independent bookshops.

The tiny cottage in which Clemo lived for most of his life was demolished, despite much local protest, in 2009. When writing this blog I came across this wonderful short film about his lifeYou can see an obituary here and (below) read an example of his work:


The Flooded Clay-Pit

These white crags
Cup waves that rub more greedily
Now half-way up the chasm; you see
Doomed foliage hang like rags;
The whole clay-belly sags.

What scenes far
Beneath those waters: chimney-pots
That used to smoke; brown rusty clots
Of wheels still oozing tar;
Lodge doors that rot ajar.

Those iron rails
Emerge like claws cut short on the dump,
Though once they bore the waggon’s thump:
Now only toads and snails
Creep round their loosened nails.

Those thin tips
Of massive pit-bed pillars – how
They strain to scab the pool’s face now,
Pressing like famished lips
Which dread the cold eclipse.



Poem copyright Jack Clemo, Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 1988)

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