John MacKenna on Poet John Clare
“What was it that drew you to John Clare as a subject for a book?”
The place was Listowel Writers’ Week this year, the question one I’d been asked before. And the answer was the same. It was the poem I Am which drew me to Clare – that poem packed with the dreams of a man whose dreams had evaporated; that cry for freedom from a man incarcerated in a lunatic asylum; that hope for a future from a man whose hopes were few and far between; that longing for family from a man whose family had long ago disappeared.
Clare is a novel about the English poet John Clare. It’s not biography, though it does have biographical elements. When I began writing it, in the autumn and winter of 1992 I was living in a cottage on the edge of a wood in Co Kildare. I wanted to write the story of a man whose actions had put him beyond the reach of his family and friends and I wanted to tell it through the eyes and words of the women whose lives he had entered and left. So I chose four women – his sister; his wife; his patroness and his daughter – and I allowed them the freedom to tell their versions of his story.
Initially the sections were written on a tape-recorder, spoken as I wandered the woods and fields around the village of Kilkea. I wanted to find these women’s voices and I found them in the fields. Then they were transcribed, edited, polished and put away. Over the months the four stories emerged – sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory, always true to the vision of the character telling the story. What I ended up with was a documentary – versions of a life. What I was missing was the voice of the character at the centre, the voice of John Clare.
That came in a closing section, an imagined letter written by the poet two weeks before his death in May 1864. Once I had that, I knew I was done with the story. The last voice had echoed and the tale – or all of it that the characters were willing to tell – was told.
The novel was published by Blackstaff in 1993 and very well reviewed. Sales were good, too. And then it disappeared as books so often do. Two years ago my agent, Jonathan Williams, suggested it should be republished and, this year being the 150th anniversary of Clare’s death, we approached New Island, who are also bringing out my new novel in the autumn. Eoin Purcell said yes and here we are.
Of course, I’m delighted to see the book back on the shelves and I was delighted to read it as the Book on One but, most of all, I’m delighted that John Clare is, again, at the centre of some interest. The novel is my homage to a wonderful writer. His poems, however, are the words I most hope to see read and reread.
Clare was a radical – he opposed the enclosure of common lands by landlords; he opposed badger-baiting; he stood for the rights and responsibilities of the small man. He was taken up, used and dropped by the aristocracy who tried to make him what he wasn’t and tried to lure him with money and promises into betraying the things he believed. But Clare never budged. He stood by the things he cherished and his principles were not for sale. In the end, this stand cost him his livelihood and his health but it made him the man who could write poems like I Am.
Clare uses multiple perspectives and first person narratives to reveal the mind of a man who descended into madness in his middle age. The novel deals with the man before and after the beginning of his illness.
Clare is in all good bookshops or available online from New Island here.
(c) John MacKenna
John MacKenna is the author of sixteen books – novels; short-story collections; memoir; biography and poetry. Clare was published by New Island Books in their Irish Classics series and his new novel, Joseph, will be published by New Island this autumn. His next collection of poems will appear in 2015 and he is currently working on a play. Among the awards he has won are the Irish Times Literary Award; the Hennessy Award; the C Day Lewis Award and a Jacobs Award for his radio documentaries on Leonard Cohen.