I was very prepared to like this collection. The biographical note says,
Having worked as a labourer most of his life, thanks to a legacy he is now able to devote his time to writing. We also read, in an extraordinary contrast, that he was educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge. Peterhouse... labourer: there's a story in that and I'd like to see it in prose. The detail of such a life would surely by fascinating. However, Michael Haslam is, and seems determined to be, 'a poet'. Those who are touched by genuine poetry are few and far between and for some, however hard you try, it will never happen.
John Clare was a poet. No doubt about that. In the space of his mind, his thoughts turned through language in to the most exquisite sounds. His lines intertwine with the realities of his rural life and his syntax pictorialises daily perceptions. Two extracts from his work sit in this book's introduction and I cannot resist quoting them both:
Abscence in love is worse than any fare
Summer is winters desert and the spring
Is like a ruined city desolate
The shaded lanes dirty
The ruts dribble on
And the sludges splash spirty
Where waggons have gone.
His spelling was nor the best but his sense of truth through language was first rank. The three words 'sludges splash spirty' is the work of genius.
But, what about a 'poet' who puts the following words in the first ten lines of a poem: 'noumenon,' 'polysemousness,' 'dicotyledons?' Or, in another poem,'... upon the cusp of its concupiscence / in glistening, repeated deliquescence . . .' This is not the magic of language: this is death of meaning.
There are moments when the language begins to sing. A narrative fluency carries forward the following lines from All Blue Chickens go to Goodgold (1972):
Along the shoreline, feathers are the only trace.
A fast scream enters in his lack
of fine ideas.
The thought of slaughter grabs him
like a woman. Currents slide
through sheen and slime ...
but such locationary placings and observations are rare. Too often the poem is about the poem itself, a solipsism that destroys the connection between writer and reader and makes consciousness self-consciousness, the point where identification collapses and the poem is about nothing.
What is on the page often resembles, in his own words,
a mosaic / of varicoloured glass. We (John Idris Jones) want the poet to tell us something. We want a theme, a driving feeling. We want beginning, development and ending. All old-fashioned and centuries-old needs and criteria. We want the poem to stand up on its own feet and we want to recognise him / her / it. We want 'a man speaking to men.'
On page 49 is the following
...the sea knows only where the water / slowly goes, which is attractive and packed with meaning. And yet it's very simple. Again, p50:
In his own space he moves through his idiom of rooms: this is graphic and comments on mind and method. Would that there was more here of this sort. Too often one feels that there is a poem trying to form itself and escape from a dense net of verbiage.
At the end he turns to prose (perhaps his best mode) with the following:
Meanwhile he'll be up each morning stacking piles of woodness for the winter in the clapped-out caravan, the shed of things he keeps in cold remembrance that he lived and loved, it may be said, and later on would have been dead, and so it closes. I have made most of this up out of my head, among the brambles and the briar-roses.
Beautiful. Carefully-observed. Honest. Thoreau-like. An account of his life is crying out for shape and form, with the focus not on the ego or the lexis, but on the observed setting, on the events of the day, on narrative: the landscape of self.