In Focus: Jeremy Clarke

28 Oct 2010

The Literateur is delighted to present an interview with JEREMY CLARKE, whose poetry has a quiet beauty and simplicity without ever being simplistic.

He is a Londoner but has lived and worked in Canada, America, Europe, the Arctic and the Middle East. We question him about his new collection Devon Hymns, which was launched this month. The book, published by rufus books is exquisitely produced, with a cover by John Berger and drawings by Yves Berger.

You are a Londoner and you say in ‘Innocent’ that ‘My knowledge of rural working life begins and ends with a picture of a cow on a green background, stamped onto milk cartons’. How and why did you end up writing a book of poems on the Devonshire countryside?

I just ‘decided’ that I wanted to stop everything, and get out of the city into peace and quiet, with the vague idea that being in the country would somehow facilitate my creativity and allow me to think. Quite a clichéd idea really..! I’d never lived in the countryside before…Had never been to Devon before…I ‘picked’ Devon purely on its popular image of being a deep and lush and green paradise…So, no thought-out plan or anything, just a quasi heart-felt decision. Beautifully naive..!

from ‘Home’ in Devon Hymns

Was there anything in particular that made you suddenly decide to get out of the city for a while?

Leaving London was, in some ways, a kind of unconscious statement of intent. That I was, from now on, going to prioritise my writing. Leaving London was more about leaving old habits, other work, and various distractions that were simply keeping me from doing what I knew that I should be doing. Writing.

So, in that way, the place I went to was less important than the fact that I, simply, ‘went’. The place itself became the subject, simply because it was ‘the’ subject. Still, I worried about being able to say anything fresh about the ‘countryside’. An awful lot has been written about it, dating back to the year dot..! In the end I simply chose to try to relate my experience as someone ‘out of place’ in this strange ‘world’, and in so doing, hoped that it would both resonate with those living in an urban environment and appear ‘real’ to those who live on and work the land.

There is as you say a great deal of poetry about the countryside. Did you feel the shadow of any particular nature poets while you were writing in Devon? Do you think you will go back anytime soon? If so, would you go there with the intention of writing?

I didn’t ‘feel the shadow’ of anyone in particular…Just the sheer weight of all that had gone before..! [laughs] And no, I have no plans to return. Not as a permanent resident anyway. I loved it there, and whenever I visit and walk the lanes and fields, I feel a great sense of peace, and connection. But it’s not my ‘place’. I think, generally, the city is my place (and my subject). Although, no doubt, rural themes will reappear in my work – and in that way I suppose I’ll bring a ‘Devon’ back.

The poems of Devon Hymns are arranged showing the progression of the seasons. In ‘Holidays’ you write that ‘In the city, the rotation of seasons/ registers as temperature changes (the ubiquitous grey giving nothing away)’. Was it then the ‘visual signs’ of the passing of seasons, of time that is more evident in the country that most struck you during your sojourn there? Should the poems be read in order?

Well, one is governed by the seasons if you work the land. There are few ‘events’ that don’t require taking the weather into account. And of course, being surrounded by nature, one is constantly being presented with, reading the signs for, the seasons, the effects of weather. These things are so ‘physically’ present that one develops, if not an affection for them, an affinity with them. One feels connected to the cycles of the earth. Indeed its cycles, of course, govern both the work you do and when you do it.

Yes, the book is a chronological ‘journey’ through time. And is best read from start to finish. No doubt individual poems will stand out for people, depending on their tastes and preferences. ‘Bull’ seems a favourite for many people, for instance…Well, bulls are captivating creatures, aren’t they…

Did you become attached to the cows you worked with? How did the farmers act towards you? How did they react when they read your poems?

Ah, yes, the cows…There was an interesting way of keeping ‘track’ of the cows at the farm. They weren’t just numbered, as on other, perhaps larger, farms. They all had names. Each year’s ‘crop’ of calves was assigned a particular letter. (The system was simply one of moving through the alphabet). There would often be kitchen table discussions to decide what other names might be possible beginning with ‘G’, say. (Once all the more common ones had been selected).

Of course, for the Ministry of Agriculture, each cow had to be numbered (and ear-tagged with it), but in reality, and for all concerned with the farm, no. 3592 was really ‘Gloria’.

I didn’t really get attached to any of them. (Maybe if they’d been a bull named ‘Jeremy’ I might have done!). Though there was an old Guernsey cow, in her dotage and kept almost as a pet, that we all knew, and treated with more care and attention than any of the others. (I’m trying to remember her name..!)

The farmer and I had a lovely relationship. He was the most patient and considerate of men. He was also thorough to the point of driving us all mad at times… [laughs] Mostly because it meant there was always a person or a meal waiting for him! He was a great ‘steward’ of the land. Cared deeply about his corner of the world, and was aware of both his place in it and his responsibility to it. I learned a lot from him. Both about the countryside and about being a better human being.

The farmer (and his wife) were rather moved when I finally presented them with a finished manuscript of Devon Hymns. I’m as pleased to have provided them with this record of their lives as I am to see it as a published book.

Although your poems are by no means undemanding, they are easily comprehensible – one is hardly ever confused as to what the poem may be “about”, as it were. I find this candid simplicity and unpretentiousness very compelling. Is this simplicity something you strive for? Does it come naturally?

It’s not so much ‘striving for simplicity’, more seeking the simple truth. And no, it doesn’t ‘come naturally’. The simple truth, for me, always seems buried in a block of mental granite! I do ‘see’ the simple truth and beauty of the everyday, but expressing it in a way that both resonates and has meaning, takes a great deal of time and attention. And in the end, of course, whatever one creates is always only an approximation of one’s original intention.

I’m acutely aware of how everything should ‘feel’ on the ear, taste in the mouth of the reader. Everything should ‘flow’, be seamless. Someone once said of my work (after I’d mentioned how hard I’d found creating it), ‘but it doesn’t look like it was difficult…It flows, like water…’ Well, if indeed it does, it’s because I spend a great deal of time trying to make it so…

John Berger’s cover and Yves Berger’s ink drawings in the book are very beautiful and apt but not exactly illustrations – that is, they do not just put into pictures exactly what you’ve written. Did they read the poems and then draw/paint or were they pre-existing pictures? How did this collaboration come about?

You’re right, the artworks are not ‘illustrations’. They obliquely relate to the text, and complement it in their own way and exist, of course, separately in their own right. And no, they were not ‘pre-existing’ artworks. Both John and Yves created them specifically for the book, each making their own interpretation and decisions on what they would do. I was not involved in those decisions, and let them do exactly as they liked. I simply, very gratefully, accepted them..!

The collaboration happened in a rather roundabout way. I had written to John previously a few times, and had earlier sent him a ‘homemade’ copy of Devon Hymns. In which I had glued and bound the manuscript into a book, and set-in pressed flowers and leaves and grasses throughout its pages. (John’s reply was: ‘you sent me a meadow!’). I made a few of these for friends. A very time consuming little project it was too..! [laughs]

Do you have any plans for another book?

Devon Hymns, despite it appearing now, was written quite some time ago. It is actually an excerpt of a much larger work entitled The Four Seasons of Solitude, which will be published by the same publisher (rufus books) in 2014.

I have since completed another work, a trilogy of outsider ‘voices’ called Hands From a Hidden Country, which offers the insights of a street sweeper, a homeless man, someone in a cell. Each character – a voice normally unheard and disregarded – offers us a new way of seeing and engaging with the world. The third in the trilogy (entitled ‘Praise’) has been produced as a pamphlet, and is being sold by St Pancras Old Church here in London. A line from the poem has been carved in stone (by the sculptor Emily Young) and stands at the entrance to the church.

Would you like to tell us a little about the Eton thing…?

Hmm, ‘the Eton thing’… [laughs] Yes, I am going to be poet in residence at Eton College (beginning in January).

There has never been a permanent poet in residence there before. Though there is, I’m told, a poetry society of some sort, organised by the boys themselves. I’m not a teacher, I’ll mainly be facilitating, if I can, the boys creativity, and offering my one small example of a way of working; a way of looking and considering the world. I’m looking forward to it.


Devon Hymns is available from Foyles, the London Review Bookshop, Any Amount of Books, and direct from the publisher:

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