A Long-Dead Laborer-Poet Speaks Truth to Power in Our Own Time
This is a madhouse & I do not know your name"Dear Sir, I am in a Madhouse & quite forget your Name or who you are you must excuse me for I have nothing to commun[n]icate or tell of & why I am shut up I don't know I have nothing to say so I conclude..."
So wrote the poet John Clare in March 1860 to a Mr. James Hipkins who had inquired about the poet's health.
Clare was to spend the remainder of his life, four more years, in a mental institution.
When I read this message in the 1996 Oxford Book of Letters I instantly imagined somehow a sensitive soul writing from Washington, DC, envisioning it as a madhouse in which the names of Americans matter only as data for predators.
Clare, a laborer, was driven mad, if it may be said that we are driven mad, by circumstances in England that in some ways resemble our own. Industrialization and reckless land development were destroying his beloved countryside.
I am sure Clare saw the same corruption of communities and their leaders by the relentless drive to tear down the forests and pave the fields, the almost maniacal contempt for nature and conviction that everyone can be bought.
I am: yet what I am none cares or knows, wrote Clare in his most famous poem. Could this not be the very voice of forty-one million Americans now living below the poverty line, the voice of the one in seven Americans who receives food stamps, the voice of all those lovely minds that will never have the benefit of a college education?
Clare spoke in the clutches of industrialization to the very ills that overwhelm us now: developers who don't give a damn about anything, officialdom on the take, dog-eat-dog savagery dressed up as trickle-down economics, callousness disguised as individualism.
Clare, like all fine poets, adored silence, and here he acknowledges it. Too bad our politicians in the madhouses of their creations can't appreciate the uses of silence. But of course poets have that pesky commitment to truth to which most politicians are immune. W.H. Auden in his unforgettable elegy to W.B. Yeats said we should let "the Irish vessel lie emptied of its poetry." Lovely as are the words and thought, I've never been convinced Yeats was emptied of his poetry. But Clare was. He had seen more than he could bear, and I sometimes think that we as a people are near to that.
James Hipkins cared, but Clare was past caring. His mind was broken by what he had seen, all that was engulfed in the consensual silence of his time. He had broken that mean silence and been rewarded with madness. Or was it madness to say this is a madhouse, sir, and I do not know your name?
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia's Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller's Room, in 1999.
Del's book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal Latté's fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother's art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt's art: http://www.irenericepereira.com
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