Stride Magazine -


CLEMO THE POET by Brian Louis Pearce
(£6.50, Magwood, 72 Heathfield South, Twickenham, Middx TW2 7SS)

This brief handbook, subtitled ‘Study and Colloquy’, is a model introductory volume for anyone interested in Clemo’s poetry or anyone who wants to begin finding their way around his work intelligently. Brian Louis Pearce provides a guide to the figures who inhabit Clemo’s monologues, a useful introductory survey of his work and several fascinating autobiographical fragments from letters between them, dating from the period 1989-1992. The ‘colloquy’ or conversation of the subtitle is then enacted within fourteen of Pearce’s own poems, mostly about Clemo and his landscapes, and a concluding essay, ‘Thoughts on Being a Nonconformist Aesthete’, of which more later.

Blind and deaf before the age of forty, Clemo still managed to produce several volumes of visionary religious poetry, much of it about his native Cornish claypit landscapes, and volumes of  fiction and autobiography, notably The Marriage of a Rebel (1980). His strongest individual volumes (as Pearce agrees) are probably The Echoing Tip (1971) and the volume which followed, 1975’s Broad Autumn, but the easiest way to begin reading his oeuvre is to seek out Bloodaxe’s Selected Poems, published in 1988.

Clemo’s poetry can be craggy, unfriendly and difficult to navigate at times, but it is worth persevering with: he is a notably clear writer, and the best of his work is often to be found in the monologues sprinkled throughout his volumes which reveal his love of ( and debt to ) Browning. They throng with other literary and artistic figures, too, and the new reader might like to begin with ‘Max Gate’ (Hardy), ‘William Blake Notes a Demonstration’ or ‘Alfred Wallis’, all of which are in the Bloodaxe volume mentioned.

Pearce’s concluding essay, ‘Thoughts on Being a Nonconformist Aesthete’, originally published back in the early 1990s in the Reformed Quarterly, is a thought-provoking document in its own right, sketching out the constricting trials and tribulations of those like Clemo (and Pearce himself): ‘the temptation remains: to jot the poem in secret, in the back pew, and to keep the Bible out of sight in one’s work as well as when out in ‘the world’. For me, this reanimated the unease I have felt in the past when appending scriptural verses to my poems (initially to aid interpretation). Why should the feeling persist? Because, for God’s sake, above anything else, let no one presume to think that we are preaching!

Anyway : if you’re at all interested in Clemo, you’ll enjoy this brief guide to his work. It also includes a handful of black-and-white photographs in which he disconcertingly resembles John Cale’s grandfather.

          © M C Caseley 2002