Sunday, 10 January 2010

Poet of the Clay

James Goodman on the Cornish poet Jack Clemo

You might have seen the clay country while driving through Cornwall on the A30. From the bleak acid-soil plateaux, the land domes upwards and is crowned with shapes reminiscent of desert scarp or volcanic landscape, the moulded dumps of white sand-waste from the china clay pits.

For me it’s a starkly beautiful place: lonely, ruined, practically abandoned in parts. Even when it was worked by upwards of 8,000 men in a dozen huge pits or more, nature was able to prosper in between the workings. You can wander off pathways hedged-in by tall gorse and rhodedendron and discover silent, overgrown quarry-lakes surrounded by white cliffs. Or climb conical waste-tips shot with rabbit burrows, for buzzard-like views over the pits and the broken-up scraps of heath and moor. The altered landscape talks to me of the resilience of nature.

But Jack Clemo’s response to the clay country was quite different. He was a twentieth century recluse, an intensely spiritual, uncompromising Calvinist, anti-church and anti-nature. He grew up in the isolated hamlet of Goonamarris in the clay-country, with his widowed mother. The isolation was compounded by his religious views and social awkwardness – he wrote of a school trip to the beach, “the other boys knew I would not play with them on the beaches, and they ignored me. I would sit with mother on the rocks, staring out over the sea, miserable and fretful as the day wore on, longing to be back among the clay-dumps, at home”. Then compounded further from the age of 19 by becoming deaf and finally by going blind in his thirties.

His poetry describes his religious convictions using a lexicon of the industrial landscape: “My rebel vision, kindling the scarp/…amid the sand-bruised furze/Was moulding my separate prophecy,/Climbing the ridge with my thunderbolt/To answer the worshippers.” ('Beyond Trethosa Chapel'). The clay-country’s industrial workings, rather than the natural landscape they pushed aside, forms the backdrop to his personal faith: “I feel exultantly/The drip of clayey water from the poised/Still bar above me; thrilling with the rite/Of baptism all my own.” ('The Excavator'). It’s a metaphor that runs through much of his work, the bleakness of his Calvinist faith well-matched by the bleakness of the clay-country workings.

I described Clemo as anti-nature. His later poems show a reconciliation with the natural world, but his early work, before his marriage in 1968, clearly prefers the violence of the clay-country. In 'Neutral Ground' he explains this:

God’s image was washed out of Nature
By the flood of the Fall:
No symbol remains to inspire me
And none to appal.


I will turn to a world that is ravaged,
Yet not by His Will.

Christian truth for Clemo is to be found in the working pit, the effacement of nature. In Christ in the Clay-Pit he writes:

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.

Clemo’s father was a clay-kiln worker, his mother the daughter of a preacher. He was something of a prodigy. He writes that “before my father’s death, when I was only eighteen months old, I could recite not only all the usual nursery rhymes but the Lord’s Prayer, from beginning to end, without a mistake”. He published his great novel Wilding Graft in 1948 and a first collection of poems The Clay Verge in 1951. An auto-didact and mystic, his career is about as alien to us in the twenty-first century as that of Simon Stylites, the 3rd-century pillar-occupying ascetic.

He died in gentle Dorset in 1994, but the Cornish clay-country provided a deep well of imagery that he would always draw on, “turned back, reluctantly/To a savage Cornwall – scoop’s bite, earth-rind peeling” ('Wessex and Lyonesse')

He didn’t live to see the decline of the industry that forged his faith. As the hills become empty of china clay, the clayworks are being wound down, the workforce laid off, and the sky-tips landscaped and planted with conifers. I wonder what he would have made of that.

Jack Clemo's Selected Poems was published by Bloodaxe in 1988.

* James Goodman is also from Cornwall and is working on his first collection.