Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Category Archives: Jack Clemo

Christ in the clay-pit: the vision of Jack Clemo

A drawing for Holy Week:

“I was astonished,” wrote the Cornish poet Jack Clemo (who became both deaf and blind for much of his adult life), “when early in February 1945 I came in from a stroll around Goonvean clay-work one Sunday afternoon and immediately wrote, quite effortlessly, some lines which I knew at once were the finest poetry I had ever penned. The poem was ‘Christ in the Clay-pit’ …”

… I peer
Upon His footsteps in this quarried mud;
I see His blood
In rusty stains on pit-props, waggon-frames
Bristling with nails, not leaves. There were no leaves
Upon His chosen Tree,
No parasitic flowering over shames
Of Eden’s primal infidelity.

Just splintered wood and nails
Were fairest blossoming for Him Who speaks
Where mica-silt outbreaks
Like water from the side of His own clay
In that strange day
When He was pierced …

Clemo later reflected:

“I brooded much on this ‘resurrection’ of a dormant faculty, and began to realize that this too was part of the paradox of my Christian life. While I lived for poetry I wrote only doggerel; it was only after I turned my back on poetry that I became a poet. I proved in the literary sphere the truth of Christ’s words: ‘He that loseth his life for my sake, the same shall find it.’ I renounced poetry because it had meant for me the worship of strange gods, the cultivation of ideals that could never be reconciled with the curt brutality of the Gospel. I chose the bristling, harsh barren world of dogma because it was the world of our Lord; and the result was that I began writing poetry of a quality that would never have been possible to me had I devoted myself to the beautiful, the ideal, the fanciful. The claywork symbolism, sensuous Calvinism, credal sexuality – all the idiosyncrasies of my writings – were produced by the renunciation of the ‘natural’ vision of the poet. All poets are aware of the antagonism between Nature and dogma, but no poet, except by the grace of God, ever takes the side of dogma against Nature.”

The invading gospel of Jack Clemo

Jack Clemo by Lionel Miskin

In the deep wood dwells a demon
Taller than any tree –
His prison bars are the sailing stars,
His jailer is the sea.

He walks the white hills of Egypt
Reading the map of clay
– And through his night there moves the light
Artillery of day.

(Charles Causley, “Homage to Jack Clemo”)

A few paragraphs in honour of the deaf (for most of his life) and blind (for much of his adulthood) Cornish poet Jack Clemo, who died in 1994. For many years Clemo lived in the same tiny cottage in the heart of the Cornish china-clay quarries – “the lunar and lunatic landscape of the moon: a weird, white world dusted over with the colour of sex,” as Cornish balladeer Charles Causley put it. (A geometric landscape also vividly shown in the paintings of Herbert Truman.) Somehow Clemo maintained a vivid awareness that sustained his writing to the end, even though in his deafness and blindness his mother, and later his wife Ruth, could communicate with him only by tracing letters by fingertip on the palm of his hand.

Though Clemo’s work is not particularly well remembered these days, Bloodaxe and others have kept him in print over recent decades, and there is a decent amount about him online, such as this informative obituary, portrait photos at the National Portrait Gallery, his diaries and manuscripts, together with books from his working library at Exeter University, a nice reminiscence by T R Hummer of a visit to the Clemo’s in Weymouth in the ‘eighties, and so on.

He was content to write simply, often in lines of varying length chopped up by persistent terminal rhymes, for he mistrusted, on religious grounds, all forms of sophistication:

I cannot speak their language; I am one
Who feels the doggerel of Heaven
Purge earth of poetry …

(“The Excavator”)

Having shunned any development of poetic form, he is celebrated now mostly for his sheer Cornishness, or for his remarkable overcoming of background poverty and physical disabilities. But to me, what is extraordinary in his work is its defining theological content; Clemo’s austere non-conformist upbringing and the transcendent austerity of his surroundings met with the demands of a sensitive and sensuous nature that had to struggle with the imprisonment of sensory deprivation, to make for a stark, uncompromising, Calvinist mysticism that mellowed only in his later years. Reading Clemo is a direct challenge to anyone’s warm and fuzzy Christian certainties. His God, if not silent or obstructive –

There squats amidst these pyramids
The Sphinx-mood of a Deity …

(“Clay-Land Moods”)

You would not hear my voice
And how could I hear Yours
When you were slamming, slamming all my doors?

(“Prisoner of God”)

– is downright persecutory. For Clemo, the Calvinist notion of predestined election became a “divine bludgeoning”, a dark working of the relentless, imprisoning will of God. (Though such individual election is not exclusive; the non-elect are not conversely damned.) In “The Excavator” this will is compared to that machine’s sadistic gouging of the violated material of the clay-pit:

The bars now hinged o’erhead and drooping form
A Cross that lacks the symmetry
Of those in churches, but is more
Like His whose stooping tore
The vitals from our world’s foul secrecy …

… Keep far from me all loveliness, O God,
And let me laud
Thy meaner moods, so long unprized;
The motions of that twisted, dark,
Deliberate crucial Will
I feel deep-grinding still
Under the dripping clay with which I am baptized.

The clay-pit speaks of Christ because it is a de-beautified and anti-natural world. Sentiment or beauty, flowers or music, are inadequate or mistaken expressions of the divine, given that Nature is merely the surface of a fallen creation:

If you were nature’s child
I could not love you, for I shun
Corrupted trees and flowers which the sun
Kindled in disobedience …

… Hell snickers in the chatter of a starling,
And fleers in each sunrise,
Because one Eastern tale
That makes creation pale
Is known to me and true.
The Christian nightmare holds me, darling –
Creatively, as I hold you.

(“The New Creation”)

Only the baptism of the believer can make a person “lovable” (in the fullest sense of that word). Love is

… full-grown Dogma’s offspring,
Election’s child,
Making the wild
Heats of our blood an offering.

(“A Calvinist in Love”)

(“Dogma” here is an entirely positive term – doctrine received on the authority of the church and scripture, rather than on the basis of experience or reason – as distinct from our casually pejorative use of “dogmatic”.) This possibility of redeemed sexual love (“creed-embedded marriage”) was a central preoccupation of Clemo’s, much explored in what he termed his “strange contacts on spiritual and emotional borderlines”. In his 1949 autobiography Confession of a Rebel he makes a remarkably powerful and accessible case for the sensual superiority of a non-ascetic and unashamed puritanism:

The Christian and the unbeliever inhabit different worlds, and nowhere is the gulf between them wider than in sex experience which seems most common to all men. The thrill of being in love is short-lived for the worldling because it is for him a process entirely inside Nature and therefore soon burnt out. The Christian, however, cannot be burnt out in his love for a woman because he has already been burnt out in the stress of conversion; the life that animates him spiritually is no longer his own but Christ’s. This divine life controls his sensuous reactions, so that the feminine glamour which is to the “natural” man irresistible is to the Christian physically repellent, while the unadorned simplicity which the worldling finds dull and unexciting is for the Christian an object of sensuous ravishment. When St Paul forbade Christian women to wear jewellery or use artificial beauty aids he was merely recognizing the existence of this law – a law which the modern critics of Paul’s attitude to sex seem never to have heard of. Christianity does not condemn the glittering fashions of sophistication because they rouse sexual desire but because for the Christian they paralyse it … I do not suggest that Christians reach this level automatically; but I do insist that this is a fundamental law of Christian experience and not a pathological peculiarity of my own.

(My emphasis. The argument is male-centrically worded, but is capable of a two-way application.) With the sermons of C H Spurgeon and the novels of D H Lawrence sat in happy adjacency on his bookshelf, Clemo could bring together – without a thought of irony – the cross of Christ, his penis and a mechanical digger in a single image:

I fondle and understand
In lonely worship this malicious tool.

No wonder that some of his churchgoing neighbours considered him, as he recalled, an “uncouth village fundamentalist with an unpleasant erotic streak”!

His insights, won at such personal cost, command respect and demand serious consideration by Christians, particularly at a time like ours when the versions of cheap grace offered by a thin teenage evangelicalism on the one hand, and an apologetic, conforming and reductive liberalism on the other, appear symmetrically unsatisfying.

Charles Causley (looking very schoolmasterly) with Clemo

A small afterthought: one puzzlement to me is why Clemo and his fellow poet W S Graham seem to have shown no awareness of each other’s work, given the extent of their shared years in Cornwall. Clemo was befriended by Charles Causley, who in turn was in touch with Graham, as the latter’s letters show. Poles apart they may have been in many ways, but what might they have made of each other?

a history of my short life as a poet (so far)

No one who stumbles across this post is likely to be interested (feel free to skip on), but for me it seems a good time to take stock of my career as a fledgling poet so far. It’s been an odd combination of exhilaration and frustration.

Three and a half years ago I went to the launch of Black Country poet Brendan Hawthorne‘s collection Slide, and was ambushed vigorously by the Muse on the way out. A few months later, having served a brief apprenticeship at monthly readings of Poetry Wednesbury – thank you, Brendan – I started to self-publish pamphlet collections of my work, which Wolverhampton Literature Development Officer Simon Fletcher advised me was a premature step. It turned out that his judgement (at least in this instance) was spot on. These pamphlets have a few decent bits, but they also contain much that I no longer care for. (Actually the drawings are pretty good, though I say it myself.) Even so, Dead Cat Bounce made number 15 in Geoff StevensPurple Patch 2009 Best Individual Collections of the Year, and Science & Magic made 20th equal in the same list. Blimey. Thank you, Geoff. Also, you’re still the only small mag editor who will publish me. So far, I’ve sold one copy of one of these pamphlets, and given away half a dozen more. Email me at rwarren99@yahoo.com, anyone, and I’ll post you one of each for free. There’s a box of them attracting dust in the corner.

Simon Fletcher gave me, very decently, some other pieces of advice as we mulled over a civilised coffee one day in the City Bar in Wolverhampton, happily chattering about Eliot, Auden and George Barker. (Though he didn’t seem to like Barker very much.) He advised me to punctuate my verse properly. (Have done.) He advised me to avoid the topic of religion. (Haven’t done.) He advised me to read Simon Armitage. (Have done, but I still don’t like most of it.) He advised me that my poems were not yet fit for the ears of his elderly audience at City Voices, though I pointed out that at least I was in the right age range myself. We shook hands, and I left.

Still undeveloped but not entirely discouraged, I found my way to Tony Stringfellow‘s monthly Wolverhampton open mic, then at the Lighthouse, but now moved to the Britannia Hotel. Simon had advised me that open mic’s were liable to turn into “car crashes”. He’d seen too many of those, he had added, reaching for the smelling salts. It seemed to me that a car crash or two might at least provide some excitement. And so they did. Thank you, Tony. You have unselfishly provided a welcome and welcoming venue for many of us with nowhere else to read. Ditto Richard Bruce Clay‘s splendid monthly do at the Holly Bush, Cradley Heath. Tony even gave me a slot on his poetry radio show at Wolverhampton Community Radio. That was before the show came off the air for a while, of course; shame – I kind of miss Wordy Worm and Bobby Binder …

Meanwhile I found that I had achieved third prize in the revived Jack Clemo Poetry Competition for 2009, held by the Arts Centre Group, London. That’s me, at the bottom of the link, receiving a certificate from a retired bishop. I was pleased about this, as Clemo was a blistering poet, whose uncompromising Calvinist mysticism I much admire:

“The Christian nightmare holds me darling
Creatively, as I hold you.”

Whoa! Not bad for one who was deaf and blind for most of his adult life!

After the presentation, a very nice elderly man in some official position whose name I have since forgotten sat me down and offered some advice on my writing. He advised me to establish the metre firmly in the first line. (My first line was “I am my beloved’s. My beloved he is mine.” Privately, I felt that the metre was already pretty firm there. To the point of being lead-lined, actually. But never mind.) He also advised me against the use of half rhymes, which he considered did not belong in true poetry. (That would disqualify most of the big names, then.) I thanked him graciously. We didn’t shake hands.

More recently I tried my first slam, at the faintly prestigious Much Wenlock Poetry Festival 2011, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself among the four semi-finalists. Me and the excellent Dotty Bluebell were beaten only by Theo and by Emma Purshouse, the eventual winner. Gggrrrr. How many slam trophies do you need, Emma?

It’s been an uphill curve. Still is. Seems to me that it’s disproportionately hard to get your voice heard in all the competitive clamour. At the height of Eliot’s Criterion, its circulation was something in the hundreds. Today there are tens of thousands of us out here, all scribbling, all shouting, all stamping our feet, all demanding publication.

Some aspects of this seem odd. For instance, why has “performance poetry” lately veered off into a self-contained genre that is somewhere between stand-up and traditional “light verse”, with laughter the only desired audience reaction?  And what’s all this celebrity based performance stuff about, mentioning no names? I really don’t get that … Don’t you people have anything better to write about?

A number of friendly advisors have suggested that I may not yet have “found my voice”. But have reassured me that I will. I think I have. But then, I thought that before, and I hadn’t.

And anyway, what triggers this compulsion to write? Whatever it is, it may require treatment. I do know that in the last three years writing has almost obliterated my ability to draw or paint. It seems that I can’t fire up both brain hemispheres at the same time. What’s going on?

Soddit.

“I must tackle my dreadful table
And go on the hide and seeking hill.”

(W S Graham)