Jack Clemo: The Blind And Deaf Cornish Poet
Reginald John (Jack) Clemo was born in Goonamarris, near St Austell in Cornwall on the 11th of March 1916. His father, also called Reginald was killed at sea during the First World War, so Jack was raised by his mother Eveline. The daughter of a preacher, she was deeply religious and her strong nonconformist views influenced her son and later his writing. At the age of five Jack had an attack of blindness, which left him quite withdrawn. He did learn to read and write, but apart from English and religious studies, he was not keen on school. After another episode of blindness at thirteen, Jack became even more inward looking, and he stopped going to school altogether.
Jack decided to concentrate on his writing, possibly inspired by meeting a girl called Evelyn at a local wedding. His first articles were for the local press, and publications included Netherton’s Almanack. He wrote numerous letters to Evelyn, but after she started to ignore him, Jack fell into despair and his health started to suffer. By his nineteenth birthday he had become partially deaf, and by the time he reached twenty he had virtually lost his hearing altogether. Although he had always been religious, he became even more so around this time.
Jack’s first novel “Wilding Graft” was published by Chatto and Windus in 1948. It went on to win the Atlantic Award for Literature, a Rockefeller prize that encouraged young writers. Set in the clay mining area of Cornwall during the second world war, it included romance, religion and gossiping villagers. This was followed in 1949 by “Confessions of a Rebel”, an autobiography. In 1951 two collections of poetry were published, “The Clay Verge" and “The Wintry Priesthood”, the latter winning a Festival of Britain prize. During this time Jack’s sight deteriorated further, and by 1955 he was blind.
Jack continued to write, concentrating mainly on poetry. His mother became his eyes and ears, and she communicated with him by tracing letters onto the palm of his hand. Two collections of his poems were published in the 1960s, “The Map of Clay" (1961) and “Cactus on Carmel" (1967). During this time a Dorset woman called Ruth Peaty wrote a letter to Jack, and after he replied they corresponded for some time, before finally meeting and eventually marrying in 1968.
In 1970 Jack was made a bard of the Cornish Gorsedd, and given the title “prydyth an pry" (poet of the clay). He continued writing poetry, and the 1970s saw the publication of two more collections, “The Echoing Tip" (1971) and “Broad Autumn" (1975). He also finished the second volume of his autobiography, “The Marriage of a Rebel” in 1980. By this time Jack Clemo was quite well known, and as well as being photographed by Tricia Porter, the BBC made a film about his life.
Up until the age of 68 Jack had always lived in Cornwall, but in 1984 he and his wife moved to Weymouth, Ruth’s home town. A few years later, they travelled to Italy, first to visit Venice in 1987 and then Florence in 1993. Jack’s last collections of poems included “A Different Drummer” (1986), “Selected Poems" (1988), “Banner Poems” (1989) and “Approach to Murano" (1993). He died in Weymouth on the 25th July 1994, aged 78.
Factors which influenced his writing
Jack Clemo, like a lot of writers, was influenced by his upbringing, his local area and the people around him.
He had a tough start to life, right from the very beginning; his father was killed while he was still a baby, and by the time he was five he had already experienced his first attack of blindness. Losing his sight and not knowing if it would return must have been terrifying as a young child. He was raised by his widowed mother in 1920s Cornwall, so he would have seen few luxuries. The house had no drainage, water or electricity, and even Jack described it as “grim looking” in his autobiography. Although he did not particularly like going to school, the reading and writing were probably a distraction to his bleak lifestyle, and the start of things to come.
Jack had another episode of blindness around the age of thirteen and then five or six years later he started to loose his hearing as well. One can only imagine what he felt like, and it is not surprising he became withdrawn. Leaving school would have meant more time on his own, or just with his mother, so Jack probably felt fairly isolated. Teenagers have enough to contend with growing up, so the added stress of medical issues may explain why he started looking to religion for answers.
Jack spent all his childhood and most of his adult life living in Cornwall, not far from St Austell. The area is dominated by quarries and waste heaps from the china clay industry. Kaolin, as it is known, was discovered in the area over 250 years ago, and has been mined ever since. Jack would have grown up seeing the waste heaps, some white like snow covered hills, and others green which had been reclaimed by nature. There would have been a number of open cast mines with lots of men and machines, together with the associated noises and smells produced by such an industry. Disused pits would have filled with water, and depending on the sediments and algae, could have been white, blue, or green in colour.
Being both deaf and blind by the age of 40, Jack must have found it difficult to find love. However, after corresponding with a woman from Dorset for some time, he did finally marry in 1968. Apart from his mother and a short romance with a local girl, Jack would not have had many interactions with women. His life after marrying Ruth must have given him companionship, comfort and intimacy that he had not experienced before.
One of his poems
“The Flooded Clay Pit” (copyright: Jack Clemo)
These white crags
Cup waves that rub more greedily
Now half-way up the chasm; you see
Doomed foliage hang like rags;
The whole clay-belly sags.
What scenes far
Beneath those waters; chimney pots
That used to smoke; brown rusty clots
Of wheels still oozing tar;
Lodge doors that rot ajar.
Those iron rails
Emerge lime claws cut short on the dump
Though once they bore the waggon’s thump:
Now only toads and snails
Creep round their loosed nails.
Those thin tips
Of massive pit-bed pillars — how
They strain to scab the pool’s face now,
Pressing like famished lips
Which dread the cold eclipse.