Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A Journey with John Clare

The woods are always poetic

I only really became aware of John Clare after a visit to his cottage in Helpston a few years ago, thanks to New Networks for Nature. When I went looking for an edition of Clare’s poetry, I discovered that another poet I like, Paul Farley, had edited a new Clare collection, which comes with a lovely and illuminating introduction. At the time I bought it, I was living near – and spending lots of time rambling through – Epping Forest, where Clare was cooped up in the mental asylum at High Beach for some time. Clare was a passionate pastoral poet, and it added another dimension to my love of those woods to imagine him wandering amongst the same ancient trees, taking inspiration even as he clung to the belief that he had been both Byron and Shakespeare in previous lives. Epping Forest contains a multitude of strong and strange atmospheres, thanks I suppose to its sheer age and history. These are quite intense even for a (mostly) sane writer, but for Clare, it must have been an even more magical place, in both good and bad ways.

I’ve also long been fascinated by the poem/song ‘My mother said I never should/play with the gypsies in the wood’. You can read the full version (as I recognise it) here. What appears to be a warning, or moral, tale, unravels into mystifying confusion and seems to deliver the opposite of what the opening line promises. I recently started re-reading it, trying to pick it apart. When I reminded my mother of this poem, she told me about seeing the Gypsies passing through her home town when she was small, and her own fascination with the Gypsy children, riding with feet dangling on the backs of the caravans. Already writing stories inspired by Lorca’s Romancero Gitano, or Gypsy Ballads, I decided I wanted to think more about this old-fashioned English romance of running away with the Gypsies, and see if a story would come out of it.

Days later, luck (and a friend) meant that I got to see a live version of Andrew Kotting’s By Our Selves, a film about John Clare’s walk from Epping Forest north to his home (about 80 miles). The film was created as the actors and production team undertook the walk themselves. There is a clip here and a longer version has been funded through a Kickstarter campaign. The beautiful and discombobulating footage of the forest was accompanied by words read from Clare’s account of the journey (which you can read here), astonishing live singing and sound effects, and it was through this performance that I learned about Clare’s encounter with the Gypsies as he made plans to escape the asylum. Sadly for Clare, when he returned to the camp to take up their offer to hide him, he found only ‘An old wide-awake hat, and an old straw bonnet, of the plum-pudding kind', an image as arresting as the strange ideas in the poem ‘My mother said I never should’.

Feeling that fate was helping me out already by tying together poetry, Gypsies, woods and Clare, I went searching for more. What should I find but a collection of sonnets by David Morley, called The Gypsy and the Poet. This series of poems illustrates a conversation between John Clare and the Gypsy Wisdom Smith. Each sonnet is introduced with a quote, many of which are lines in Romani dialect, as a result of Morley’s Romani heritage.  Others are lines from Clare’s own writing. Nestled amongst this feast of poems is one called ‘Ballad of the Moon, Moon’, directly inspired by a poem from Lorca’s Romancero Gitano

Morley’s sonnets have floored me, and will keep me preoccupied for some time, I know. To watch connections emerge between things I love is wonderful but also indicates to me how many other people desire and find these same connections. Whatever is at the heart of the romantic notion of running away with the Gypsies, it seems to be in many of us.

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