Jack Clemo's status as
a poet is rather puzzling. On the one hand, his poems during his lifetime
(Clemo died in 1994) were accepted by Cecil Day-Lewis, printed in the
acclaimed Penguin Modern Poets series and published by mainstream publishing
houses, such as Chatto & Windus and Methuen. On the other, many of his
poems first appeared in regional magazines such as The Cornish Review and Dorset Year
he was one of the featured poets in the 1995 Stride anthology Completing
subtitled 'exiles, outsiders and independents'. Is he a 'regional writer' in
the same way as, say, Norman Nicholson, published by Faber, was?
This matters only because Clemo is so inextricably linked with the landscape
of his early clay poems, set in the ravaged Cornish landscape. This new,
well-designed, slim selection edits down his corpus significantly to present
the reader with a version majoring on these elements of his work, and whilst
it is good to see his awkward, charged poems back in print, I have
Rowan Williams, in his introduction, highlights the 'gleeful savagery' of
Clemo's early work of the 1950s / early 1960s. A poem like 'Clayland Moods'
is typical of this, 'the Olympian thunder…of all God's moods', a 'darker
power' which relishes bloodshed as a necessary consequence of 'primal guilt'.
Williams is right, also, to state that whilst Clemo is explicitly a Christian
writer, there is an egoistic arrogance that disfigures some of his work: the
poem quoted ends, 'Then I begin to know/ why I am tested so'. Clemo's
physical handicaps – he was deaf and lost his sight in the mid-1950s –
perhaps begins to explain this strange clarity.
What remains undeniable is the power and unique vision of landscape in some
of these early works. 'The Flooded Clay-Pit', for instance, paints a picture
of poisoned pastoral like no other writer:
What scenes far
those waters: chimney-pots
used to smoke; brown rusty clots
Of wheels still oozing tar;
Lodge doors that rot ajar.'
This insistence on grotesque underwater specificity is almost Hardy-like at
times, and it is a pity that room could not have been found for 'Max Gate',
from Frontier Signals (1961). This is an important meeting: 'you missed redemption's paradox' the
visiting Clemo states to the shade of the older writer, concluding that 'to
blaspheme with tears is to believe'.
In terms of his religion, Clemo is closer to R.S.Thomas than C.S.Lewis, with
the important exception of his confident search for redemption. Clemo's heart
must be 'rendered fit/ by violent mouldings through the tunnelled ways'
('Christ in the Clay-Pit'). Later in his writing life, this redemption came
through Clemo's marriage and poems like 'Affirmative Way', from the 1975
collection Broad Autumn, are written in a quieter, less insistent
tone and are more effective for it.
In his final collections, Approach to Murano and The Cured Arno,
by Bloodaxe in 1993 and 1995 respectively, Clemo writes in this more muted,
subdued tone, without losing his grasp of violent images: 'Moor Hunt',
included here, still includes the vampiric image of a dredger and a violent
fox-hunt, but his identification with the fox gains from this.
This collection may reintroduce Clemo's
'uncomfortable' poetic voice to those who have not yet encountered him, as Williams hopes in his
introduction. For a truly comprehensive overview, however, room could have
been found for some of his other moods: the meditations on Alfred Wallis, the
Cornish painter, or Blake noting a demonstration on Hampstead Heath (both from The Echoing Tip, 1991). Some of these pieces do much to humanise the rather detached,
alienated tones evident in much of Clemo's work.