They take away our belts so that we must hold
Our trousers up. The truly mad don’t bother
And thus are oddly hobbled. Also our laces
So that our shoes do flop about our feet.
so begins Anthony Hecht’s poem ‘Coming Home’ , a creative retelling of the English poet John Clare’s escape from an asylum house in Essex back to his ‘homeland’ in Northamptonshire, in the summer of 1841 [from John Clare’s journals].
but what connection does this excerpt from a poem have with a bright blustery morning in early may?
well, out of the blue, the picture editor of The Times Literary Supplement [TLS] contacted me and asked if they could use a picture of mine to accompany a poem by John Clare as the ‘Poem of the Week’.
the request was for something “wild and woody”, as they liked my ‘Clare inspired’ sketchbook paintings in this journal [blog]. i hadn’t conceived of these painting sketches as outwardly ‘clare-inspired’ but i had, in a curious inversion, quoted a couple of lines from John Clare’s poem ‘The Progress of Rhyme’ to accompany the sequence of paintings from some muddy and muted days in winter.
maybe it was something to do with seeking hope, on the horizon, escaping to the country, side-tracked, down a country lane, a nearby hill, the corner of a field, or down on the marsh – all reflected back in jaded eyes. an overwhelming sense of ‘enclosure’ in these agricultural landscapes could make anyone go a little stir-crazy after a while, but in John Clare’s poem i was reminded that sometimes it’s small nature that grasps and grounds you. one can easily ramble on about these things, it’s a common side-effect of the ruralist condition.
‘the progress of rhyme’ is, as the title suggests, a poem about poetry: nature as muse, his enduring love for ‘poesy’ as he terms it, intertwined with memories of past acquaintances, the indifference and fickleness of others, finding beauty in weeds, uplifted by birdsong – “cheer-up cheer-up cheer-up”, solace and joy in nature. it goes on. & on, & on [with quite a lot of curly ampersands en route]
‘the progress of rhyme’ is also a poem that requires repeated reading, not only because it is quite long and there is a quirky dialect to be deciphered in the words, grammar and spelling, but because with each reading a short rhyme might chime out with new resonance.
whenever i take time out to skim through the two books of John Clare’s poems i have, there is always an interesting pause for thought in the wider narrative. maybe this is the nature of poetry – you read what you need – as i must confess i have not yet read all of the poems, nor have i fully comprehended them in the academic literary sense.
but i must get back to the original back-story, for this is not about ‘the progress of rhyme‘, but another poem…
in reply to the enquiry from the TLS, i sent them pictures of five landscape painting sketches for consideration, not knowing which John Clare poem they might be associated with. naturally, i was flattered by the picture request even though no fee was involved, as i like john clare’s poetry, and oddly, maybe it would be some good exposure for a hermit artist [i’m not really a hermit, it just appears that way in comparison to other artists’ lives].
then a small muddle-up occurred as it transpired that the ‘poem of the week’ wasn’t going to be a John Clare poem after all, but a poem inspired by Clare’s ‘Journey out of Essex’. i had not previously heard of the poet Anthony Hecht, but have discovered via the wonder of the worldwide web he is/was a prestigious american poet [now deceased]. i was still happy with the picture agreement.
i later emailed a friend who has more literary connections – they have worked in graphic design & book publishing, and are currently working on illustrations for a new book of poems – and i said that i found it unusual that a small wintery bleak painting of mine was chosen to illustrate a journey taken in summer time. they replied: he sleeps in ditches. this sounds reasonable, but i wouldn’t want my painting to be interpreted that things had got that bad. in any case, ditches can be beautiful in summer, overgrown with the tall, swaying fluffy-ended stems of meadowsweet.
after re-reading the poem, the contrast made more sense: John Clare’s escape from the mental asylum to a place called home, as reinterpreted by Hecht in ‘Coming Home’, is a solitary and inhospitable journey: he travels wearily “by the dark of night”, the trees in the landscape are “unimaginably black and flat” against the grey sky, puddles are “flagstones of silver”, he goes hungry, takes a nap in a ditch, is “troubled by uneasy dreams”, forgets he has a wife and child, and still holds on to the hope that when he arrives ‘home’…
here is the link to the full poem mentioned at the beginning, ‘Coming Home‘ by Anthony Hecht, in The Times Literary Supplement: [http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1552228.ece]
some other sources of information found on the internet this week:
Interview: Anthony Hecht, The Art of Poetry N0. 40, the Paris Review: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2487/the-art-of-poetry-no-40-anthony-hecht
John Clare Cottage, Helpston: http://www.clarecottage.org
[note to self: there are probably some inconsistencies in using capitals, with regard to my usual ‘house style’ of typing]
[another thought: as a result of the general election here in the UK this week, a cloud of despondency has descended upon the liberal and left-leaning voters of the population. five more years of austerity. any analogy will do….]