Sam Milne on the Poetry of Jack Clemo

jack clemo

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Reginald John Clemo (11 March 1916 – 25 July 1994) was a Cornish poet and writer who was strongly associated both with his native Cornwall and his strong Christian belief. His work was considered to be visionary and inspired by the rugged Cornish landscape. He was the son of a clay-kiln worker and his mother, Eveline Clemo (née Polmounter, died 1977), was a dogmatic nonconformist.

Clemo was born in the parish of St Stephen-in-Brannel near St Austell. His father was killed at sea towards the end of the First World War and he was raised by his mother, who exerted a dominant influence on him. He was educated at the village school but after age of 13 his formal schooling ceased with the onset of his blindness. He  became deaf around age twenty and blind in 1955.  The china clay mines and works around which he grew up were to feature strongly in his work.

Clemo’s early work was published in the local press but his literary breakthrough came with the novel Wilding Graft, which was published by Chatto and Windus in 1948,  winning an Atlantic Award. This was followed in 1949 by his autobiography, Confessions of a Rebel, which established Clemo as a remarkable and original writer. Clemo developed further as a writer and in 1951 he published his first collection of poetry, The Clay Verge. Set in a stark landscape, the poems explore the forces of nature and the workings of a hard-won grace. He received national recognition for the first time in the same year during the Festival of Britain where he was awarded a literary prize.

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Clemo selected

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NB: Selected Poems by Jack Clemo is currently available from Enitharmon press.

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W.S. Milne on the Poetry of Jack Clemo

I first came to Jack Clemo’s poetry as a teenager in Corby, Northamptonshire, relating his poems on the clay-pits of Cornwall to the open-cast iron workings and slag-heaps which surrounded me every day at home. There was an inescapable connection in the experience of those physical surroundings which immediately grasped my imaginative attention. I admired his bloody-mindedness and obtuseness, standing outside of what he saw as an increasingly secular age, writing poetry of deep mysticism which I found compelling. That attraction to his poetry has not diminished over the years, but it is only now I have tried to capture what I found fascinating about his work and what still holds my admiration today.

Rowan Williams has said that Jack Clemo is ‘an uncomfortable poet’, and Richard Warren that he presents ‘a stark, uncompromising Calvinist mysticism’. Williams adds that his is not ‘a bland or consoling voice’, and that his poetry is firmly rooted in ‘uncompromising Reformed Christianity’. This seems to clear the ground and gives us a base to work from, but we have to consider equally the history of Clemo’s physical handicaps. He was born in the village of Goonamarris in the clay country of Cornwall. From the age of thirteen he was partially blind until he became wholly blind at the age of nineteen. Over the course of his childhood and adolescence his hearing had been gradually fading and by the age of twenty he was deaf. It is astonishing that anyone could write verse of the quality of Jack Clemo’s whilst suffering from these twin disabilities. To my mind it signals an almost unique triumph of the human spirit. The metaphysical and physical elements which fuse in his work appear to stem from his family background. His mother was a dogmatic nonconformist (the fount presumably of his contrariness and religious conviction) and his father was a clay-kiln worker (the occupation which provides the background to nearly all of his best poetry). Simultaneously it also accounts (to my mind) for his stance as a self-confessed ‘rebel’ (he had much to rebel against after all), the title of his autobiography published in 1949, Confessions of a Rebel, telling us as much. This rebellion was in no way political, however, but took the form of the poet living by a Christian-existential ethic, extra-denominational in his faith (what he calls ‘the sweetness of unbroken truth’), regarding poetry as a contemplative vocation, observing in his local clay landscape (his genius loci) signs of Christ’s eternal presence. He places himself in the same tradition of non-conformism (‘I’m a poet/Of Calvin’s trend, one of the sparse tribe/From English Dissent’) as the likes of Wycliffe, Milton, Bunyan, Wesley, and D.H. Lawrence.

I think today we are not accustomed to reading a poet of convinced faith (unless it be from the past), the poet’s ‘deep fixations’, his concerns and obsessions are, in the main, not ours, but Clemo’s work stands up bravely against what he regards as a materialistic age. ‘My faith and symbol shall be stark’ he tells us—it will be ‘the mystic ground’ of his verse. It is a confirmed poetry of belief (‘the blood’s crusade against all doubt of Him’ he writes) attracted to, but often suspicious of, ‘delicate aesthetes’, his own work, he argues, rooted in the poet’s ‘lonely worship’. His disabilities link to the holy ‘darkness’ of his faith. He writes of St John of the Cross, for example, in his poem ‘Beatific Vision’, that ‘the monk John thanked heaven for absolute/Unbroken darkness’. The blindness is rendered in the cry ‘If only the mountain eagle would appear!’ and the deafness in the equally heart-wrenching, ‘If only the kingly bird would cry a decision!’ Rarely I think have lines held such personal intent, and rank, I think, with Milton’s sonnet on his blindness, ‘How I consider how my light is spent’:

I have questioned often, questioned the worth
Of the long pain and mirage, the rotten clay-fields,
Or the cruel fate distorting clay-fields and me.
I hardly care where the blame goes:
Five pattering minutes more
And we shall caress together
The laughing tongue of the palm tree,
The damp full lip of the rose.

(from ‘Sandsfoot Castle Gardens’)

For all the ‘questioning’, the poet’s Christianity is firmly advanced in Confessions of a Rebel, the poet stating unreservedly (in the third person) that ‘the life that animates him spiritually is no longer his own but Christ’s’—evangelism breaking through what he calls ‘the creedal skeleton’, ‘the isolate self’, ‘the weight of the ego’:

Our clay-dumps are converging on the land:
Each day a few more flowers are killed,
A few more mossy hollows filled
With gravel. Like a clutching hand
The refuse moves against the dower,
The flaunting pride and power
Of springtime beauty menacing the sod;
And it is joy to me
To lengthen thus a finger of God
That wars with Poetry.

(from ‘The Clay-Tip Worker’)

Mike Rose-Steel calls this ‘a personal theology at once mystical and bodily, austere and passionate’, a belief system torn at times by doubts, uncertainties and hesitations (what Clemo calls ‘the nagged spirit’, ‘our thorn-warped souls’), the religious outsider ‘a truant soul,/Deep in the Word’, challenging the whited sepulchres of complacency, hypocrisy and cant. He castigates those who revel in what he terms ‘the bladdered boast, the wan, competent face’, the self-satisfied technocrats, administrators and utilitarians:

I cannot speak their language; I am one
Who feels the doggerel of Heaven
Purge earth of poetry; God’s foolishness
Laugh through the web man’s ripening wisdom spun;
The world’s whole culture riven
By moody excavations Love shall bless

(from ‘The Excavator’)

The poet (in his Kierkegaardian fashion) prefers his ‘unchurched’, ‘unsheltered’ faith, his ‘fierce old pilgrim way’, the visionary singing alone, abiding by what he calls faith’s ‘guiding finger’. In this regard Rowan Williams (probably Clemo’s most perceptive critic) writes of ‘the sense of divine initiative and will’ in Clemo’s work. Although this is true to an extent, there is at times tone of doubt in the work, a faith often ‘ringed with nightmares’, a life of ‘the questing brain’, ‘the hungering clay’—‘I am far down in the pit’ he says (always bearing the landscape of mining in his imagination). It is in this sense that Williams is nearer the mark when he says Clemo’s poetry demonstrates the ‘dramatic dualism of nature and grace’:

I dimly recall the hunt and wounding;
I knew the roar of a landslip, the descent
Into an underworld where I lay almost pulseless
For ten years. But when I struggled back
I brought something strange, unseen, intangible,
A heart-weight of destiny…

(from ‘Porth Beach’)

This is faith’s ‘pain-dark mystery’, its ‘dark corridor’, ‘that Word which braves prisons, bids rejoice’ (not Bunyan’s stone prison but that of the subjective ego, the poet’s self, ‘the existential Moment’ in which ‘Baptismal waters flood the bed of clay’):

I am driven to a deeper unity,
A point where sap and prayer,
Seed and creed, tenderly swell…

Here is Christ’s ‘central sanity and absolute Being’, ‘the one bright flame of faith’, ‘faith’s insurgency’, the point of intersection (as Eliot called it) where ‘we find how disenchanted seed/Is changed to spirit’s Cana-spark’—‘the ripe, unblended victory of faith’.
Christ’s physical presence in the clay landscape of Cornwall is always more real for Clemo than the abstract thinking of philosophers. He has no sympathy for Simone Weil’s ‘nameless Absolute’ (in his poem entitled ‘Simone Weil’), akin to F.H. Bradley’s ‘bloodless categories’ and Plato’s ‘Eternal Forms’—‘too proud to take Abraham’s root/As pledge of a redemptive whole’. As with Weil, he will have no truck with Thomas Hardy’s view of life, or Schopenhauer’s (see his poem ‘Wessex and Lyonesse’). He will have ‘no croak of Fates or chorus of the Furies’, no concept of ‘the grim mysterious Will all help denies’. Likewise he has no time for ‘Olympian thunder’ or the ‘Thunder of swinish gods’ (perhaps having Eliot’s ‘strange gods’ in mind). In his work he maintains that ‘Fate’s workings are stilled’ (notice the mining metaphor again) by God’s protective care, a belief based on Calvin’s dogma of predestination and on ‘Luther’s fiery vision’. In what Rowan Williams calls Clemo’s ‘unfashionable inflexible theology’ there is no universal irony to be challenged—for him life’s little twists and turns are always settled by Providence. Faith is ‘a cup/Which lifts the soul beyond illusion’, beyond the world of shadows and appearances (‘the dead grey masks’) which beguile humanity. ‘Infinite life to express/Beyond our bleared fortress’ is how he expresses this transcendent vision (beyond the atheist’s ‘hollow voice on the broken path’), the poet, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, searching for a quality beyond the merely aesthetic, believing in ‘the apt myth alive in Galilee light’, ‘the blind trust’ of his faith—‘to escape from self/To the sublime, unrivalled union’:

Why should I find Him here
And not in a church, nor yet
Where Nature heaves a breast like Olivet
Against the stars? I peer
Upon His footsteps in this quarried mud;
I see His blood
In rusty stains on pit-props, waggon-frames
Bristling with nails, not leaves
Upon His chosen Tree…
(from ‘Christ In The Clay-Pit’)

So it is here, in the familiar clay-pits, in the seemingly commonplace, that ‘the agnostic rock is splintered’, that the ‘storm-flash of grace’ is found:

Is there grass
That cools like gravel, and are there streams
Which murmur as clay-silt does that Christ redeems?
I have not heard of any, so I trace
The writing on bruised iron and purged clay face…
(from ‘Sufficiency’)

The revelatory experience (‘Of flesh beyond the mortal moment’, ‘the lovely form of faith in Christ’) breaks through ‘Blind trust and blind suspicion’ to the ‘soul’s Jerusalem’.

The poet has little time for established religion, its ‘facile praise’ as he calls it, the ‘decadent religion at the false fount’, upbraiding ‘churches where His truth is bruised/By scholarship or art’, criticising ‘the pruned approach, the sleek interpretation’ of the scholiasts and pedants. Clemo’s faith upholds ‘A Cross that lacks the symmetry/Of those in church’, (praising its ‘distortion, twist and sag’) and pities ‘Christ’s dark hour’ borne in the barren ‘clayscape’ of Golgotha. At the same time the poet views nature, in Rowan Williams’ words, as ‘prolific, mindless, uncontrolled’, adding that he defies ‘with extraordinary consistency any temptation to seek refuge in natural beauty or ritual order’. The thinking here is visionary. As Clemo states it: ‘We cannot see beauty when we have as yet seen nothing else’. He is very suspicious of earthly beauty (an odd view one might think for a poet) writing of ‘The stain /Of Beauty’, of ‘Beauty and its old idolatries’, and of ‘The life that only grips/Where Nature’s in eclipse’. This is an idiosyncratic outlook to say the least. He views nature with a sort of fascinated disgust, generated perhaps by his physical disabilities and a general feeling of alienation, or estrangement, from the everyday realities most of us enjoy and delight in. He criticises the poetry of John Clare, for example, as being ‘merely natural’, with no transcendent qualities, no bedrock of belief, a harsh criticism one might think of one of our finest poets. I think the background to this type of thinking lies in the poet’s belief in the reality of The Fall, ‘the primordial stain’ as he calls it, ‘Eden’s primal infidelity’, ‘earth’s dust-laden air’, ‘hills still shadowed by the serpent’, its ‘ancient guile’ (with a possible side-glance at Milton’s Paradise Lost). We live in the wake of ‘the dark waves of the Fall’, he writes, fighting ‘witless instinct’ and ‘mortal pride’, always trying to surmount our ‘crippled ego’. Robert Warren concisely argues that for Clemo ‘nature is merely the surface of a fallen creation’, a post-lapsarian universe in which ‘the choking dust’ of mortality, the ‘doomed foliage’ of the earth, can only be saved by the incarnate Christ.

With the need, the necessity, to embody transcendence in earthly figures, the poet has to accede that if he is to write at all his feeling for immanence must encompass the mundane. It is for this reason that Rowan Williams has rightly commented on Clemo’s ‘sensuous intensity’, his ‘feeling for material things’. Clemo himself has written that ‘My creed was proved by sense-evidence’, and that ‘The soul’s road to divine wisdom/Passes so close to the sensuous quarry’. That ‘quarry’ of course links to what the poet calls his ‘intimate landscape’ of clay mining, and it is upon that ground that his whole ‘clay-world’ is built, the place where all the conflicts of his faith, his pilgrimages, battles and victories, are fought. Throughout his writings china clay is his abiding emblem or motif, as his book and poem titles suggest. The list is extensive. We have The Clay Verge, The Map of Clay, Clay Cuts, The Clay Kiln (a novel), ‘Christ in the Clay-Pit’, ‘The Flooded Clay-Pit’, ‘The Clay-Pit Worker’, ‘Clay-Land Moods’, ‘The Clay Altar’, ‘Cactus in Clayscape’—and so on, all commensurable with ‘The dark and sullen mood’ of Christ on Calvary. This mineral landscape is his ‘holy ground’—‘the clay-springs’ of Christ’s body that mark ‘the rout of Nature’. Throughout the poetry we encounter compounds of the word ‘clay’, working like kennings almost in Anglo-Saxon poetry. We find such phrases as ‘clay-silt’, ‘clay-face’, ‘clay-tip’, ‘clay-land’ ‘clayworks’, ‘clay-mounds’, ‘clay-beds’, ‘clay-ravage’, ‘clay pools’, and so on, with the Rood centrally placed as ‘the living wood’ that stands upright in the wasteland of rods, pulleys, flanges, wheels, ballast, waggon-tracks, puddles, tunnels and pit-heads. It is here, at home, that the poet finds the vision which surmounts settled attitudes and complacency, a vision which overcomes what he regards as routine habit and empty ritual:

Yes, I might grow tired
Of slighting flowers all day long,
Of making my song
Of the mud in the kiln, of the wired
Poles on the clay-dump; but where
Should I find my personal pulse of prayer
If I turned from the broken, scarred
And unkempt land, the hard
Contours of dogma, colourless hills?

(‘from ‘Sufficiency’)

It is here then, in his familiar landscape, that he discovers the ‘new law’ of the Gospels, ‘the vigour of the new Day’, ‘faith’s new vein’, ‘the cup for the new wine’, ‘the fugitive ego cleared and baptised’:
I wait till lightnings, thunder-rasps have died
And God allows his terror-mood to lift
From off the senseless rift.

(from ‘’Clay-Land Moods’)

All of Clemo’s work is composed within ‘the thorn-shade’ of life—‘the thorn-tree’ standing as symbol for the Cross or the Rood, ‘the side of His own clay’ reminding him of Christ’s humanity. ‘The gritty symbols stay’ he writes, always faithful to his locale, ‘Beyond the lithe corn and the poppies’ blaze’. He sees Christ’s ‘kindred nakedness’ as at one with his native ‘clay country’ (much as William Langland did with the Malvern Hills, in Piers Plowman) and ‘the dark thorn-roots’ of the poet’s belief are mired with ‘the mass scrap’ of tangled wires, beams, rails and girders that make up the landscape of industrial life. It is here that Jack Clemo finds his faith—and his poetry. ‘It is a poetry’, he says, ‘of the earth’, written to ‘brave the dust’ of time.
As for poetic technique, Rowan Williams refers to ‘the tough and tense framework’ of Clemo’s verse (what Clemo himself calls his ‘ascetic contours’) and S.J. Lane writes about his ‘irregular odes’. To my mind his unrhymed poems are weaker than the formal ones. The rhymed poems possess a rich, tight music, a measured style and rhythm, which capture, I think, the right mood of austerity the poet strives for. Mike Rose-Steel is nearer the mark when he comments on ‘the stark and chiselled nature of the writing’, its ‘clear-grained, orderly design’. It is that ‘design’ that creates the tone of ‘knotted tenderness’ Luke Thompson finds in the poems:

I apprehend your mystery,
But the swell of my power is strong,
So complex, I am most aware
Of my own root and tide and temple, which belong
Somehow within your prayer.

You can search me, feel the brood
In the knit kingdoms which our love descries.
Let your hands follow each natural curve
Of my dream-bound womanhood:
The light in you will recognise
Those waking points where, from the nested nerve,
The white dove stirs and flies.

(from ‘Venus In Grace’)

Clemo’s poems are often like this, celebrating (rather surprisingly perhaps) the glory of married love—‘a reconciled passion’ as he calls it, ‘a coronal beyond the shock and the sundering’. The tone is much softer here, more tender, embodying a new life. He writes that ‘Faith’s ravaged fibre now revives/Where the blood thrives’ in a sexual awakening, a ‘Christ-sanctioned Aphrodite’ based on ‘the bedrock of nuptial sense’. It is ‘the altar that shapes a reconciliation’. ‘Oh darling, lead me safely through the world’ he writes:

My love’s pressure laps the rigid fear;
Our limbs tingle, drying in the sun;
Soon we shall climb the hill to the field-path.
But even there I shall carry
The unknown token, the question still will tease.

May the judging eagle’s verdict
Be merciful to my love.
May the kingly eye see the bowl and the balance
Held daily, the seditious toil
Rotting under the landslip, never my possession.

(from ‘Porth Beach’)

Late in life he wrote a number of poems (such as ‘Palazzo Rezzonico’ and ‘Heretic In Florence’) about a visit to Italy, which brought a new, lighter note to his work:
Italian skies, in a cold autumn,
Brood or sparkle above my hotel:
I sleep or sit with my wife at a table
While Southern light tones the canal close by,
And the carved laughing Arsenale lion…
My legs ache
After climbing tiers of steps to bridge-tops
That take a road, unsoiled by petrol or tyres,
Through the perennial classic bounty.
Renaissance palaces and the bones
Of St Mark are not offended
By the modern canal transport, for that too
Moves within the spell…

(from ‘Venice’)

To sum up: Jack Clemo’s poetry is opposed to ‘an age adrift and dark’, a poetry which counteracts the ‘current babble’, ‘the jarring circuit’, ‘the shrieked pop tune’ of the times. All around he sees ‘a shrivelled God and shrivelling morals’ and ‘expert hands’ that ‘Plaster neat labels on holy places,/Call the terrible search of God a neurosis’. Here we have the old pilgrim, the old Puritan Father (far removed from the easy-going Anglican liberal) reproving the psychologists and psychiatrists working within the Freudian (not the Jungian) tradition. ‘The striving gods retreat’, he says, and the already ‘cramped seams’ of faith diminish further beneath ‘the festering pagan skies’. His poetry may not be fashionable but I would maintain that it should not be ignored. It speaks to all of us who try to reconcile the metaphysical with the worldly, but do not have the commitment, conviction or artistry that Clemo possessed—and we should be thankful he was able to achieve what he did with the handicaps he had to overcome. The poetry is rich, inspirational and enduring:

Mine is a life which, youthward, was caught
In the cosmic coil, dragged deep
Through anguished currents, choked with questioning.
The sharks’ teeth, piercing the weedy tangle,
Stripped much, threatened all. Faith
Saved me—yes, but pent
On a clay edge barren in storm,
And, alone there, I mused starkly
On what the cruel coil meant
And what the hacking thunder taught.

(from ‘Emigrant’)

Against all the odds his lifelong search was for ‘unsplintered clarity, perfected vision’, and those, I believe, he achieved.

Sam Milne is a Trustee of Agenda and a regular contributor to the magazine.  He is an Aberdonian living in Surrey.  He has just finished writing a play on the Scottish communist, John Maclean, and has recently completed a translation of The Iliad in Scots, which is to be published next year.

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1 thought on “Sam Milne on the Poetry of Jack Clemo

  1. this world has certainly lost the purity, the clarity, the wholeness of the Christian God. but it seems that Jack Clemo, in his poetry, has concentrated more on the austerity rather than the grace, the generosity and the all-inclusive love of God. all the same Clemo’s poetry is inspirational.

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