BACK IN the days when such things occasionally seemed to happen, I discovered a significant letter while browsing in a secondhand bookshop. It was tucked inside Jack Clemo's autobiography, Confessions of a Rebel, which I bought immediately, knowing little of Clemo but much admiring TF Powys, to whom the letter had been sent by Harold Raymond, a partner in the publishers Chatto and Windus.
The letter was dated 1946, and thanked Powys for writing to, and 'touching the heart of', a young Cornish writer whose first novel Chatto had taken on after it had been rejected by numerous publishers. 'The poor man has got into such a low state through frustration and under-feeding that he has actually gone partially deaf,' wrote Raymond, then added that it was a joy to read his letters now that his luck seemed to have turned. The novel, Wilding Graft, came out two years later, winning an Atlantic Award, and was followed in 1949 by the autobiography, establishing Clemo as a remarkable and original writer.
What I discovered from Confessions of a Rebel was that this kindly publisher's letter hadn't told the half of it. Not only was Clemo deaf, but at the age of six he had experienced an attack of blindness which induced 'the mental nightmare of inarticulate terrors and panics', changing him from 'a plump, jolly, pink-faced little fellow' to 'a thin, pasty-faced brat, dull-eyed, silent and morbid'. Then, at 13, after a reprieve, he was, as he put it, 'thrust afresh, with ripening apprehension, into the struggle with primeval darkness'.
His world of daily contacts contracted, and his life became intensely inward, a fusion of romantic imagination with a spiritual quest fired by the example of his mother, a Nonconformist whose strict faith and uncompromising dogma 'unfolded in her actions as spontaneously as a flower unfolds in the sunshine . . . Poetry, intellectual depth, sensitiveness - all were nourished in me by this intense personal religion in my mother'. From his father, a Cornish clay-kiln worker who was killed at sea in 1917, he considered himself to have inherited a reckless spirit without which 'God would never have challenged my faith with the border-line experience that made me a Calvinist'.
Staying on in their tiny granite cottage, shadowed by Bloomdale clay-pit which was to become a central metaphor in so much of his poetry, Clemo developed as a writer with his mother as amanuensis, and in 1951 he published his first collection, The Clay Verge. Set in a stark landscape, the poems explore the forces of nature and the workings of a hard-won grace. Their charged, evangelical language has a strenuous urgency, a mixture of austere beauty and an often remorseless emphasis on the 'striving flesh', the 'storm-flash of grace'.
In his second volume of autobiography, that sense of kinship with TF Powys - to whom he also dedicated a poem, 'A Kindred Battlefield' - is made explicit: 'He too had chosen the unworldly borderline, the terrible wrestle with God.' Dismissive of the temperate church- or chapel- goer - 'so civilised . . . so dextrous in control / Of the tricky signals' - and seeing himself as 'outside, a truant soul, / Deep in the Word, stung by the dirt / Of primal clues', Clemo was drawn to writers whose spiritual quest was rooted in the sensual. Among these were Browning, and DH Lawrence with whose family circumstance and background he had something in common. 'You were a child of the black pit,' he writes in 'The Two Beds', 'The grimy tunnellings where fuel and treasure / Are one.'
If religion was the fuel in Clemo's life, the treasure was certainly Ruth Peaty, whom he married in 1968. In The Marriage of a Rebel (1980) he wryly comments on how, at the outset of his writing career, he was regarded by many church-goers as 'apparently some uncouth village Fundamentalist with an unpleasant erotic streak', but his personal search for fulfilment, the 'mystical-erotic search' for a 'creed-embedded marriage' which ran through the volumes of poetry that followed the first (The Map of Clay, 1961, and Cactus on Carmel, 1967), was central in his life. The marriage was, perhaps not surprisingly, paralleled by the attraction to a softer landscape and eventually the couple moved to Ruth's home town of Weymouth, making that poem to Powys seem prophetic as well definitive: 'Chalk heart and clay heart share / A wilful strategy: / The strife you learned to bear / Breaks westward over me.'
Clemo was a true, if sometimes remorselessly austere, poet who continued to write distinctively up to and past his Selected Poems, which received a Poetry Book Society Recommendation in 1988. His last book, Approach to Murano (1993), full of a love for Italy to match his revered Browning, ended his writing career on a note of warmth and gratitude.
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