Humor: Discovering John Clare
So, maybe I’m doomed.
At least, it looks like Bill thought so.
Bill Holm was a decade older and, as a writer, infinitely more talented than I. He was a college professor, and I’d occasionally call him when confronted by some literary puzzle I should have solved in American Lit 101 — if I’d ever taken it.
One time I called him because I was frustrated reading the poetry of Wallace Stevens.
Wallace Stevens was a big cheese in the poetry world; he won a Pulitzer Prize about the same time I was born. I don’t know a lot about poetry, but every now and then, I have a spasm of self-improvement. During one of those bouts, I was reading Wallace Stevens.
The boy could write, no doubt about it, but what I didn’t understand was that nothing of his personal life seemed to be reflected in his writing. He made his living as an insurance company executive in Hartford, Connecticut, yet he wrote poems like Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.
Granted, I’ve never noticed much that’s poetic about the insurance biz, but as a guy who actually can’t write a word without bringing my personal life into it, I was puzzled.
I called Bill and he said, “Forget Wallace Stevens! He’s not your guy! John Clare, he’s your guy!”
I’d never heard of John Clare, so I looked him up.
Here’s the thing. John Clare grew up as a farmer in the early 1800s. Somehow he discovered that he had a way with words and that people would pay him money for the things he wrote. He sold some books, certain people gave him a round of applause, and he decided that writing would be a better way to provide for his family than being a farm laborer. It’s easy to understand why he felt that way. I spent several decades as a farm laborer, and although I enjoyed most of the work, I can tell you that as a writer I very seldom stare at my work boots at the end of the day and wonder how I’m going to bend over to unlace them.
It ended up being a tough road for John Clare. He didn’t make as much money as he hoped, and that money didn’t come in regular installments. He was lonely, because his neighbors, as he said in a letter, “…hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings…”
I know that feeling.
He had some fame, but mainly because the upper crust who supported him were amazed that a peasant could write at all. So they showed him off the way you’d show off a dancing pig.
I know that feeling, too.
Anyway, the end of the story is that John Clare died alone, broke, and alcoholic in an insane asylum.
I think Bill was telling me that I probably would have more in common with a farmer/writer in rural England than I would with an insurance executive/American Modernist poet in Connecticut. At least, I hope that’s what he was saying.
I told my wife the story and wondered if I was headed down the same road as John Clare.
She said, “I don’t think they have insane asylums anymore.”
Not exactly the answer I was hoping for.
Copyright 2016 Brent Olson