Clock-a-Clay, John Clare, more unrhyming rhyme, and being too content
First, let me say that there’s nothing that helps me understand poetry more, than working through it with my kids. I’m the kind of person who really doesn’t listen to the words in music, content with the rhythm, the instrumentation, the hook, and the occasional phrase that clings. I tend not to look for the “meaning” — either overt or hidden, in either music or poetry. However, my kids are all about meaning. They’re not big on art for art’s sake.
When we read a poem (currently, we’re working through this lovely volume), I read it through once, then I read it slowly again, stopping to explain any odd words or phrases, asking them what they think such-and-such line means, or what the poem itself is trying to express. We talk about the feeling of a poem, how highly structured (or not) it is. We count out syllables. We generally deconstruct it. Then, I usually read through it once more, having them keep their bodies still and eyes closed, so they (we!) can fully appreciate the beauty of the poem combined with our greater knowledge of it.
That has led me to ponder on the idea that, I think that, previously, I’ve been content with too little in poetry. I mean, in all of my history, I’ve read poetry in a simply face-value way… enjoying some, tossing off others. But, in investigating a poem (and the poet him/herself) lends greater appreciation for it. It’s rather like my current drive to identify flowers and birds: Knowing something more in-depth gives me more pleasure in that thing.
Today’s poem was John Clare’s lovely Clock-a-Clay. Among other things, we had to find out that a “clock-a-clay” (or clock o’ clay) is a ladybug (ladybird beetle). And, though I figured out that the cowslips mentioned are flowers, we were not familiar with what they looked like.
And… similar to Blake’s Tyger, Clare gives a hint to what language sounded like in early 19th century Northamptonshire, England, rhyming these two lines:
Bending at the wild wind’s breath,
Till I touch the grass beneath;
Clare’s life was, by and large, sad. He never quite fit in anywhere he was, being too erudite for the farm-folk, and too rustic for the citified. He became delusional, and spent the latter 2/5 of his life in a mental institution. My personal take on this is that his unstable mental state was brought about by general discontentedness combined with a “taste for ale,” as he euphemistically called his alcoholism, which seems all the more tragic to me, since he had seven children. It’s always startling to me how profound loveliness can come out of such messed-up circumstances.
Which, of course, leads me to appreciate his poetry even more.