Writing Without Power
It is strange that I wrote a book about the poet John Clare. I never read Clare in my college or graduate school poetry courses, and I don’t think I had even heard of him until after I received my PhD. This is despite having spent two years living in the UK – one of which I lived not much more than an hour away from Helpstone, Clare’s village.
Twenty years ago, I would have predicted that I would write about the conceptual, enigmatic French writers who continue to influence me, like Maurice Blanchot or Marguerite Duras, not Clare. Blanchot’s Writing of the Disaster (L’écriture du désastre) and Duras’s Destroy, She Said (Detruire, dit elle) are experiments at the intersection of philosophy and literature. They are explorations of writing without power and of a mode of working, thinking, living, and relating that resists arrogance and domination. These are quiet studies of survival in the second half of the twentieth century, and they reveal the possibility of thinking and writing at a moment when thinking and writing are forced into a position of precarity, rather than strength. While this description makes it sounds as if they are just focused on a late-twentieth-century condition, these fragmentary books reveal instead that precarity is far from new, but rather the condition of writing itself.
I initially was drawn to Clare because he seemed to share this experience of writing. This was not a struggle with writing, for Clare wrote more than a thousand poems, but a struggle as and through writing, a compulsion (although this sounds more diagnostic or pathological than I would like to suggest) to keep writing. Clare’s extensive writings in a local dialect describe the weeds, nests, birds, and rodents, that appear, like his language, as harbingers of a particular place and at the same time of persistent, even constitutive displacement. Clare’s poetry allowed me to rethink what belonging means and to navigate two contradictory trends in contemporary culture: the hypervaluation of the local and the native, particularly in production and consumption (here I think of that other category of books that influences me: those of Alice Waters and Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall) and the inevitability of the global, what Jacques Derrida would call “mondialization,” from the world-wide web to the emergence of new markets for food, oil, art, and everything in between. Clare in the 1820s, 30s, and 40s registered a version of this paradox when he discovered over and over that he could experience radical forms of displacement and non-belonging in his own home, when he discovered that he could become lost less than a mile from his cottage. In these poems and journal entries, Clare reveals an alternative to the cultures of cosmopolitanism, transparency, and localism that we now inhabit. He reveals the strangeness of that opposition and the strangeness that inheres even in the local.
One of the critics who has captured this paradox most beautifully is Geoffrey Hartman. As far as I know Hartman never wrote about Clare, although he wrote about his contemporary, John Keats, and about the poetry of place, above all, in Wordsworth’s Poetry. As I think about Reading with John Clare, I realize that it continues a conversation with Geoffrey Hartman’s criticism that I began in Romanticism after Auschwitz. This is a conversation about the place of poetry, its survival and its strangeness. And while the texts and ultimately the terms and the arguments that I follow meander and stray, I continue to discover that this conversation remains. It remains even at the moments when, like Clare’s experience of home, I don’t recognize it myself.
Sara Guyer is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her latest book is Reading with John Clare: Biopoetics, Sovereignty, Romanticism (Fordham University Press, 2015).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Marcel Grieder.