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Summary: AN ENTREATY
Review: As I love you all, I entreat you (yes, ENTREAT you) to read the poetry of John Clare. Being a woman of very inefficient words, I have found a bowl of cherries, a box of chocolates of things to say to express how I feel (you see what I mean?)
If you in love (as I am), please do not neglect to read this book. It will tell you how you feel, and then you can tell them, rather more eloquently than any of us mere mortals generally can.
I am a poet myself. I have been published in an anthology. I'm pretty good. This guy is awesome. His simplicity and innocence and utter goodness (All things which I, very unfashionably, greatly admire) astound me. He fills my heart with joy. That's what good writing is supposed to do, isn't it? Forget prozac, take Clare.
Summary: Don't buy this book
Review: If you have any claim to love of poetry please have a glance at this book. Reading Clare, when he's got it on, is like walking through the countryside of a land that no longer exists...but can still, in 2003, through many of these poems, be seen. I opened this book thinking to read for ten minutes or so but could not put it down...
Summary: Don't buy this book
Review: John Clare is a fantastic poet, but this is a corrupt edition of his poems. The editor, one Jonathan Bate, has gone through and punctuated Clare's poems, despite Clare's explicit wishes that his poems be left as he wrote them (virtually without punctuation). If editors were still "tidying up" Emily Dickinson's equally idiodyncratic punctuation, we'd have their heads, but somehow this editor has gotten away with bowdlerizing Clare. If you want a bigger slection with more accurate texts, check out The Oxford Authors: John Clare, David Powell and Eric Robinson, eds., ISBN 0192813951.
Summary: Great Stuff, Questionable Selection
Review: The only thing more remarkable than John Clare's talent is that it has taken so long for it to receive the wider audience it deserves. Time and again in Jonathan Bate's appreciable but over-long biography we learn of great poems left to petrify in the dust of museums until "well into the twentieth century." That neglect alone qualifies as a disturbing testament to the cruelty with which some of literature's greatest geniuses flounder and fade under the rubble of history. Though Bate's recent biography is commendable in its success at introducing readers not just to Clare's complicated character, but also to the poet's technical, formal and linguistic ingenuity; he consistently describes poems in the biography that he chose not to include in this "Selected Poems." Most tragic is his decision not to include so many of the poems left out of the original published version of "The Rurual Muse." Moreover, to consider Bate's tantalizing description of some of the poems included in "The Rural Muse" along with his decision to leave them out of this Selected Poems is to encounter the strange misguidedness with which Clare's genius has been treated over the centuries. Writing of "Mary," the childhood love of Clare's life that haunted him into his grave, Bate says that "She is the subject of 'The Milking Hour' which "recalls a final evening conversation with her, walking in a wheat field; and in 'Nutting'" in which "Clare compares her auburn hair to the colour of ripe hazels, they shell nuts together, she flirtatiously throws the shells at him and then blushes when he pockets the husks as a keepsake." Yet neither poem can be found in this book. Even if page-count was the issue in putting this book together (one that contributed to the unfortunate underrepresentation of Clare's work in his lifetime), I seriously doubt that a lousy two more poems -- the very poems about which Bate speaks so seductively in his biography -- would have been problematic. Such tender images as Bate offers with regard to these poems must have made for some riveting verse from Clare, especially considering the enormous power of "First Love's Recollection," another poem about Mary from "The Rural Muse" Bate deigned to include here, or another of Clare's great "Mary" poems, "Love and Memory":
Thou art gone the dark journey
That leaves no returning;
'Tis fruitless to mourn thee
But who can help mourning
To think of the life
That did laugh on thy brow
In the beautiful past
Left so desolate now?
This is just the first stanza of a poem whose unusual lyrical intensity is sustained throughout. Why Bate couldn't have tossed in just a few more such poems - particularly the ones he talks about in his biography - is as baffling as it is enraging. After so much neglect and misfortune, one would think that Bate might have been a bit more discerning in his choice of poems to include here. It is time for Clare's reputation to be granted its very just reward, and I am afraid that Bate may have missed his chance. (Though I see that he has chosen to participate in the debate himself here, which exemplifies the deep love that must have motivated him to spend so much time and energy on the biography. His point about ratings and discussion is an excellent one.)
Nonetheless, readers will undoubtedly be thankful for some of the unbelievable writing Bate did select for this collection, such as the riveting "The Fallen Elm" in which we find ghostly anticipations of Auden, Philip Levine and Seamus Heany. Speaking of the elm whose falling prompted one of the most moving letters to a friend Clare ever penned, Clare writes:
Thou owned a language by which hearts are stirred
Deeper than by a feeling clothed in words,
And speakest now what's known of every tongue,
Language of pity and the force of wrong.
What amazing writing. That last line smacks of Auden's best work, particularly his masterful "September 1, 1939." The broad strokes of Clare's longer work are matched in power only by his more compact and formally unprecedented sonnets. In the biography, Bates writes that "Clare challenged the conventions of poetic diction by using the vocabulary of his region; in his poems of the 1830s he challenged the conventions of form, revealing that the sonnet could be divided up in new ways." Bates goes on to note that some of the rhyme schemes Clare employed in his sonnets are without precedent, while the timing of his execution simultaneously challenges and revitalizes an overly familiar poetic form. But beyond all of this jargon and technical criticism, the sheer emotional boundlessness of so many of Clare's sonnets is what really strikes home. Bates suggests that Clare is England's greatest poet of childhood. While I think such a statement undermines Blake's achievement, it is not unfair to consider Clare a very close second to Blake. Poems like Blake's "London" or "The Sick Rose" meet their match in some of Clare's more impassioned stretches of verse.
That the world has gone without fully recognizing one of its quieter geniuses is a sad fact of history now. At least someone is trying. Though Bate counts Clare's complete poems to the amount of "3500," it does not seem unreasonable to ask for a more comprehensive representation of the man's achievement. After all, Thomas Hardy's complete poems is over 900 pages long, and while the power of Hardy's work waned with age, Clare wrote some great material while languishing away in asylums as an older man. Even Hardy's amazing earlier poems -- "The Darkling Thrush" or "Neutral Tones," for instance -- fail to entirely outdo a good portion of Clare's work. The two poets are quite comparable, especially since Clare tackled precisely the same themes -- nature, mortality, lost loves, nostalgia -- and sometimes with just as much if not more majesty. I really applaud Bate's great effort on behalf of Clare, and though asking for more in the face of such hard work does little justice to my sincere gratitude, I still think some attention need be paid to the scattered nature of Clare's published writings. I think a fuller example of his work ought to be included in one book, not thrown across many different volumes. If Bate is not the man for this job, hopefully somebody else will be in my lifetime.
Summary: Correction of other review
Review: The reviewer who states that Clare did not want his poems punctuated is in profound error, as I demonstrate at length in my biography of Clare. He did. 'Unpunctuated' Clare is a 20th century editorial construct that perpetuates the myth of the 'peasant poet'.
(Apologies for filling in a rating box, but the system wouldn't let me leave it blank: how typical of our culture where everything has to be ranked rather than discussed!)
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