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February 26, 2005

Guest Author: Ann Townsend

by Ron Hogan

anntownsend.jpgAs I was looking through Ann Townsend's second collection of poems, The Coronary Garden, and some of the biographical materials that came with it, I was struck by a reference to the early 19th-century poet John Clare. (If you follow that link, by the way, you'll find a charming example of how a blog can be used to show appreciation for a poet.) The connection becomes even more explicit when you realized that Townsend's poem "Mouse's Nest," included in The Coronary Garden, is named after one of Clare's own sonnets (as she discusses in her essay). With that in mind, I asked if she would be willing to share what it was in his poems that attracted her, and this was her reply.

My John Clare
by Ann Townsend

In 1992, I dug and fenced my first real garden. My daughter was newborn, and all summer I carried her as I weeded and trimmed, learning her ways even as I learned the names of the plants, trees, and insects native to my part of the world. Perhaps that's why the poems of John Clare spoke to me so clearly that year. Clare, a contemporary of John Keats, was a country poet, a writer more than usually alert to the living world around him. One of my favorite poems is his sonnet "Mouse's Nest," with its vivid, visceral action:

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And progged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied something stirred
And turned again and hoped to catch a bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat
With all her young ones hanging at her teats
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood
When the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.

Cultivating a garden brought me in direct contact with the drama that lies just behind natureís simple beauty. My yard, a vast battlefield, was continually remedying birth with death. My garden, including the animals who fed upon it, existed in a state of flux, decay and loss contending with all that bloomed fast and furious.

Clare's poems, unflinching and yet tender, became touchstones for me as I watched my daughter grow, as my father sickened and died, and as my garden grew and prospered. A poet of devotion, he's as passionate and focused as Gerard Manley Hopkins or George Herbert, but unlike these poets, Clare is downright pagan in his reverence for trees, soil, streams, the secret places. I read his poems of praise and despair and believe that he and I see a similar place and love the same unlucky trees.

Last year I eagerly read Jonathan Bate's biography of Clare's life. It opened up his rural world to me and enlarged my understanding of his poetry. Several life details continue to touch me: After publication of his first book, after being hailed as England's new "peasant poet," he began to pay a price for his fame. Amateur poets and patrons of the arts flocked to meet him, gaped at his small cottage, marveled at his ability to write in such apparently impoverished surroundings. They gifted him with pound notes, barrels of oysters, poetry books, and they sent fan mail, often with postage unpaid, which obliged Clare to spend what little he had to retrieve them. He might lose a whole day's paid labor in the fields when a genteel visitor came to call.

His poems of nature emerge from the greatest political fact of his life, one that resonates for me today. During Clare's childhood, Englandís landscape was changed by the institution of a series of Enclosure Acts which closed off the communal open field system in favor of a more productive fenced-off farming system. As an adult, he was forbidden to walk the fields and woods once freely available to all. Ironically, Clare worked as a laborer in these same fields, digging posts, burning lime, and putting up the fences that marked the new boundaries of ownership. He is a poet of place, for whom loss of the land to enclosure policies divorced him from the source of his poems.

My husband, daughter and I live on a small farm in Ohio. Our garden has grown to more than 2000 square feet. Last year we planted a dozen new fruit trees in the orchard. All this work is a hopeful nod toward the future, a way to connect ourselves, body and mind, to the land. I am vastly more fortunate in my circumstances than Clare, of course. But like Clare, I am apprehensive about changes in the land. From my desk, I look out the window at fields and woods made plain by winter snow cover. But through a gap in the trees I see a splash of yellow. A backhoe is clearing and leveling the pasture next door, shaping what will become a neat two-acre plot for the extremely large house that will rise there in the spring. Forty more houses will follow. Our farmer neighbor, retired now and living far away, sold his eighty acres to a developer who advertises these former soybean fields and beech woods as "executive retreats." The freshly cut road is busy with SUVs and Hummers, and the vast, silent space of farmland and beech woods has departed. We no longer freely walk these woods; we no longer casually trespass. The coyotes, foxes, herons, owls, deer and all the rest have fled to an ever-shrinking island of remaining woods. Some don't survive the transition.

Clare's poems lament a loss of freedom, of solitude, of silence. He recognizes that enclosure separates him forever from a powerful source. The sympathy and sorrow in his poem "The Moors" is palpable: "as birds and trees and flowers without a name / all sighed when lawless law's enclosure came." I used these lines as the epigraph for The Coronary Garden, whose poems are, at least in part, love poems to this lovely and lost rural landscape.

The facts of my life: my daughter's hair, wet from its bath. The nest of mice I scoop from the stable's grain bin. What I love, I have to touch: this grounds me. Jonathan Bate's biography suggests that when Clare lost what grounded him, he hurried faster down the road toward anxiety and despair. Maybe this is too reductive. I don't know. Clare manifested signs of manic depression shortly after his first book of poems was published, was eventually institutionalized, and lived incarcerated for twenty-three years. During intermittent periods of lucidity, he continued writing poems, many of them stark and beautiful, including these lines from "I Am":

And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.


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