Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Crazy crackd braind fellow"

Franz Wright begins his wry poem, "Publication Date" with this observation:

One of the few pleasures of writing
is the thought of one's books in the hands of a kindhearted
intelligent person somewhere. I can't remember what the others
are right now.

The British "peasant poet" John Clare (1793-1864; see end of previous post re: Britten Project) may or may not posthumously agree with Wright. But the two share a sensibility for the artist's tenuous foothold in life, his shifting relationship with the cosmos, and a conscience plagued by pendulum swings that range from mountain-top exhilaration to valley-of-death despair (we use the pallid diagnosis "bipolar disorder" today. "Manic-depressive" is a better descriptor of these competing poles of consciousness).

As he worked on his first book of poetry, Clare wrote in his autobiography, with portentous self-awareness:

I felt awkwardly situated and knew not which way to proceed.
I had a variety of minds about me and all of them unsettled.

Often compared to Robert Burns, both for cultivating a style of writing beholden to folk-song, & vernacular speech (as opposed to a learned "academic" style) and for falling victim to vice, Clare's first publisher wrote:

It is to be greatly feared that the man will be afflicted with insanity 
if his talent continues to be forced as it has been...
he has no other mode of easing the fever that oppresses him
after a tremendous fit of rhyming except by getting tipsy...
Then he is melancholy and completely hypochondriac.

Wright's poem continues with a similar temperamental sea-change:

I just noticed that it is my own private
National I Hate Myself and Want to Die Day
(which means the next day I will love my life
and want to live forever).

After achieving a burst of fame & notoriety as the rustic, peasant poet & uncultured genius, Clare presciently saw the writing on the wall (he had little formal education and worked as an agricultural labourer to support his parents and siblings):

I am sought after very much agen [sic] now...
some rather entertaining people and some d----d knowing fools--
but let me wait another year or two and the peep show will be over--
and my vanity if I have any will end
in its proper mortification to know that obscurity is happiness 
and that John Clare the thresher in the onset
and neglected rhymer in the end 
are the only two comfortable periods of his life.

Though largely self-taught as a writer and reader, Clare was an astute observer and critic, and the inimitably colorful language of his poetry and prose became a trademark (and puts him near the level of his Romantic contemporaries like Coleridge, Byron & Keats). Here is one such observation, replete with his characteristically idiosyncratic spelling & grammar:

Wordsworth defies all art and in all the lunatic Enthuseism of nature
he negligently sets down his thoughts from the tongue of his inspirer.

Clare also demonstrated his grasp of relations where business 
is concerned in self-effacing imagery to his publisher, 
while working on his second collection:

"I have been trying songs and want your judgment only either to
stop me or set me off again at full gallop which your disaproval
or applause has as much power to effect as if spoken by a majician--
the rod of criticism in your hand has as much power over your
poor sinful rhymer as the rod of Aaron in the land of Egypt.

Biblical references pepper Clare's writing and his shifting, 
doubt-ridden faith anticipates such eminent writers as Hardy. 
Both poets articulated their doubts about institutionalized religion 
while outlining creeds extolling the enduring presence of Nature.

Wright's poem comes from his latest book, "God's Silence" a masterful sequence of poems charting the journey of life and faith and the artist's struggle to find & create meaning in the midst of the ever-shifting seasons.  "Publication Date" continues:

The forecast calls
for a cold night in Boston all morning

and all afternoon. They say
tomorrow will be just like today,
only different. I'm in the cemetery now
at the edge of town, how did I get here?

By the time Clare was institutionalized for "madness" 
he must have asked the same question. 
He maintained a sense of self-awareness even as he 
struggled with his temperament:

I am in that muddy melancholy again--my ideas keep swimming 
and shiftingin sleepy drowziness from one thing to another--
this letter will denote the crazy crackd braind fellow it has left behind.

Clare's poetry is at its best when making connections between 
the world of nature and the lost innocence of humanity. 
Birds, flowers and trees represent the ineffable beauty of nature 
while simultaneously standing  for the indiscriminate transience 
of life. He would so identify with nature he would literally 
adapt the voices of birds in his writing. 

Presaging by more than a century the mystic French composer, 
Olivier Messiaen  (who eccentrically chronicled hundreds of bird-calls 
he then transcribed into his scores), Clare wrote:

Of stranger witching notes was heard
As if it was a stranger bird:
"Wew-wew wew-wew chur-chur chur-chur
Woo-it woo-it"--could this be her?
"Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew
Chew-rit chew-rit"--and ever new--

"Ever new" indeed does Clare's poetry still read nearly two hundred years after the publication of his first visionary book. 

Wright's enigmatic poem ends with the surreal image of another poet (Garcia Lorca) speaking-- through the medium of a sparrow--a message of comfort we can only assume would have spoken to Clare, and all the other "crazy crackd braind" folks out there, reading, writing, dreaming, playing and praying their way through the world:

A sparrow limps past on its little bone crutch saying
I am Federico Garcia Lorca
risen from the dead--
literature will lose, sunlight will win, don't worry.

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