Jack Clemo and the Map of Clay

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Anyone bought up in Cornwall has an awareness of the Clay Country. A mysterious lunar landscape of white peaks dominating the skyline in the centre of the country. Even without knowing much about how it came to be there, or why, its brooding presence has an impact on the imagination. Explore a little further and the narrow lanes reveal a fabric of bleak villages, isolated chapels, and the ever-encroaching pits and tips that have been gradually obliterating the natural landscape for well over a century. It’s a harsh and entirely man-made environment in the heart of one of the most beautiful parts of the UK.

Jack Clemo was born into this landscape in 1916, ‘dwarfed under Bloomdale clay-dump, solitary, grim-looking, with no drainage, no water or electricity supply, and no back door’ as he wrote in Confession of a Rebel. He considered it a ‘fitting birthplace’. He would not leave until 1984 when he and his wife Ruth moved to Weymouth, finally leaving behind ‘the rubble-wreckage of defiled meadows’ and ‘the iron teeth of an outgrown rejected cradle’.

Clemo was, and is, the poet of the Clay Country. In such a grim environment with its strong nonconformist heritage, its poverty and grind, it’s perhaps not surprising that his work is highly religious, mystic and passionate. Add to this the fact that health problems beginning in childhood left him deaf and blind by middle age (the result of congenital syphilis) and the ingredients for a unique poetic vision were in place. His early focus on novel-writing gave way as his disabilities increased to poetry and to religious writings and while he moved gradually away from a focus on the Clay Country in his later work, his most powerful poetry remains the work of the forties and fifties when poems such as The Excavator and Christ in the Clay-Pit were written.

Clemo’s poetry was reaching a wider audience in the early sixties, at a time when the work of The Movement poets was well-established and the publication of The New Poetry was promoting a group of writers including Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill and Thom Gunn as well as (in its second edition) Sylvia Plath. All these writers came from a university-educated background and, different though they were in approach, were closely connected and fed off each other in their poetic development. Sealed in his physical and geographical micro-climate, Clemo was refining his approach through religious debate in local newspapers and identification with religious mystics such as T.F. Powys. His publication in the Penguin Modern Poets series in 1964 was alongside George MacBeth’s allegorical responses to the holocaust, war and human cruelty and Edward Lucie-Smith’s sophisticated cultural vision. In this context Clemo’s poems must have seemed to readers to be from a different world altogether, his vision uncluttered and unaffected by the cultural shift of the sixties that was just beginning:

I shall see the flesh that is clay, the open-cast mine
Where men are not trapped but work with the wind on their faces
And the cold rain stings them away from the sterile swoon.
No pit-props there to sag with the weight of the ego;
No hot salacious smear on the white rib:
Only, when the vein is touched, the signal granted,
Comes the sharp snap of blast
As the agnostic rock is splintered and the barrier passed.

This is the final stanza from the poem Clay Phoenix, which also provides the title for Luke Thompson’s monumental biography of Clemo. Thompson has undertaken a significant work of scholarship in his forensic examination of Clemo’s papers and diaries, and his navigation of the damage done by the attempted sanitisation of them by his widow after his death. Like all good biographers, Thompson gives us Clemo warts and all, and unlike previous commentators does not duck the more disturbing aspects, such as his obsession with young girls which in a post-Operation Yewtree world is perhaps more of a concern than it might have appeared at the time (notwithstanding the village gossip it caused). Thompson is also the first to examine the roots of Clemo’s disabilities in detail and to consider the implications of congenital syphilis on his worldview as well as his physical and mental health.

Thompson charts a clear development of Clemo’s life and work and his apophenic impulse, which saw him seek patterns and connections in his life and that of his relatives and friends, feeding into his belief that God intended him to be cured when he reached the right point in his life, namely the point of marriage. The influence of his mother and latterly his wife on his life is critical and Thompson shows us this with a clarity of understanding that is the result of a deep immersion in Clemo’s diaries and other papers. Those who provided Clemo with support do not always come out of this well, though they undoubtedly devoted their lives to him and his promotion, a complexity that Thompson navigates well in his description of Clemo’s inner and outer lives.

Clemo is a significant poet who stands almost as a prophet in the wilderness looking in on the literature of the mid-twentieth century and declaiming a working-class industrial nonconformist and mystical vision of a world that is now distant from us and was distant even from many of his contemporaries. In some cases writers of this type are more important for what they represent than for the quality of their writing. Clemo however has given us some of the most accomplished and vivid poems of the period and deserves to be better known for that, and not for the peculiar circumstances of his life. Thompson’s excellent explication of Clemo’s work and his obvious love of the poetry make him an ideal guide to Clemo the man and the poet. This biography was needed and, superlatively written and researched, does both Clemo and poetry a great service. It can and should bring Clemo’s work to a new generation of readers.

The Clay Phoenix: A Biography of Jack Clemo by Luke Thompson is published by Ally.

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