This was the title of one of the workshops I attended last weekend during the Southwell Poetry Festival. I went to the workshop completely blank on John Clare. The only thing I hardly knew about him was that he was a poet from the Victorian era.
I walked into the workshop room, the Powerpoint was switched on, and a colourful portrait of the pale red-haired poet was projected on the wall. The presenter was standing next to it in a semi anxious waiting pose, looking at a half-empty room. I asked, ‘Is this John Clare?’ She smiled and said, ‘It is.’ I realised instantaneously that she thought I was talking about the portrait not the workshop, and I sat on the second nearest seat from where I stood, trying to deflect any unnecessary attention I brought upon myself by fondling with the survey card that was on my seat. A minute later a woman in her fifties walked into the room and sat next to me. ‘So you didn’t strain any muscles with your heavy lifting this morning.’ I was still self-absorbed in my embarrassment and for a second I didn’t get what she meant. Then I remembered my helping with the chairs in the workshop I attended earlier. She must have been there too. ‘Ahh! I see what you mean.’ She smiled and got out a sandwich from her handbag. ‘There is just not enough time between sessions.’ ‘No there isn’t’ I humoured her thinking that I didn’t know what to do with myself to waste the 45 minutes in-between. ‘Brilliant poet John Clare!’ She said, ‘Do you know that he wrote prose too.’ I shook my head.’Unfortunately most of it is inaccessible because someone called Eric Robinson has claimed copyright to it.’ She said before drawing her attention back to her sandwich.
Soon the room filled in, and the presenter closed the door and introduced herself as a poet and a member of the John Clare Trust and the rest was brilliance. The pictures she used of the village where he grew up, the stories she told of his struggles to get published and his mental issues brought the dead poet to life to me. Apparently he is viewed as the first British ecological poet and the father of environmentalism. One of the things she spoke of was how growing up as an agricultural labourer has shaped his work. Clare loved walking in the communal fields and often found inspiration there and the ban of access to these fields came as a big blow to him and the other agricultural labourers of the area. The ban was something he opposed strongly in his writings.
This piece of fact, along with what the lady sitting next to me had told me before the workshop started struck a major irony in my mind. Here is a poet who promoted communality and open access of property in his work and yet his own work after his death was copyrighted by a non-Clare who prevented the reprinting of it and public access to it. How outrageous Clare would have found such claims had he been still alive!