Poet's Pick April 27
John Clare: "Badger Catchers"
Selected by G. C. Waldrep
National Poetry Month 2015

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G. C. Waldrep's Poetry Month Pick, April 27, 2015

"Badger Catchers"
by John Clare (1793-1864)

The dropping wind seemed whispering in affright
As if it felt the presence of midnight
While passing through the dismal deepening woods
Buried in night & awful solitudes

 

* G. C. Waldrep Comments:

The argument between those who view the fragment, considered as a unit of lyric composition, as “postmodern sentimentality,” versus those who argue it in fact maintains a higher standard of mimetic fidelity (because of the fragmented nature of human consciousness and experience), has become deeply, even enthrallingly boring.  (For ecstatic boredom I myself prefer obscure, detailed architectural guides—any volume in the Pevsner Buildings of England series will do—but to each his or her own.)

There’s another, tangentially related, more specialized argument, and that’s the one over whether the work of John Clare should be presented in its polished, edited form or in line with Clare’s actual manuscripts.  As it happens I prefer the rougher Clare, because his textures are more surprising, his transitions more electric.  But I also love his fragments, his false starts, his notes towards poems he never quite managed to write.  The stray quatrain “Badger Catchers” (from Clare’s Peterborough MSS A50 and A53) stays with me, I think precisely because it’s unfinished:  the “badger catchers” never actually appear in the text, which shifts radically from its title to a personified wind (and a potentially personified midnight, whose presence the wind senses), then to a participle (“passing”) that may refer to the wind but may also refer to the “badger catchers” themselves, last and only sighted in the title.  Without helpful punctuation or continuation, it’s not clear whether “while passing” refers backward to the wind, or else forward into the unwritten, the action of the badger catchers that remains the quatrain’s terra incognita.

I love the indeterminacy of that “while passing” and the question the quatrain leaves with the reader:  just who or what is “buried in night & awful solitudes”?  The wind?  The eponymous badger catchers?  John Clare, of course.  Something is passing through the world of the fragment like a ghost, but it’s not clear which one of these three actors it is.  I move among three possibilities, a ghost myself.

This is not, it seems to me, mere imprecision; it is an athletic vision the poem-as-fragment (or fragment-as-poem) affords.

One of the aspects of lyric composition I never cease to remind my students of is possibility:  the fact that for the poet, any line, any stanza could have gone anywhere.  What seems to be a fixed text from the reader’s point of view was anything but fixed for the poet, in the act of composition.  There’s a wild freedom here that the finished poem, as artifact, frequently glosses over.  Of course there’s another majesty entirely in a great, finished poem.  But I love this badger quatrain for the world it convokes around its edges.

The request that poems for this feature be published prior to 1923 and likewise discouraging modern translations restricts what we can choose quite a bit.  I also want to cite Mechthild of Magdeburg (c1208-c1282/94), the German mystic.  Her sole extant text, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, is in fact a collage, a scrapbook of works and fragments that shifts genres (especially between prose and verse) on nearly every page:  if William Carlos Williams had been a 13th-century German not-quite-nun, perhaps he would have composed something like this. Mechthild is the sort of poet who can address God by observing “You are so nicely honeycombed. / In you no one can rest but doves and nightingales,” and then, switching roles, have God address the human soul:  “You taste like a grape.”  Fair use won’t permit me to do more than quote fragments from Mechthild’s fragments (in translation by Frank Tobin), including this one:  “If this letter is too long, this is the reason:  I was on the meadow where I found flowers of all kinds.  This is a sweet lament:  Who dies of love shall be buried in God.”

You want to go and join them, don’t you?  Clare and Mechthild, who in their different ways, their different languages and centuries, have such better things to do (“on the meadow”) than argue, or even to write to you, dear reader, to finish that letter, that poem.  And whose work thus remains, to my reading at any rate, provocatively and enticingly incomplete.  Possibility draws the reader in as participant rather than audience.

As for me, I was going to plant irises today (that I’ve been forcing in my stone cottage), but my little garden is covered in fresh snow, winter’s last skin.  Instead I am contemplating a letter from State Farm Insurance, reminding me that I have not yet added coverage to my homeowners’ policy for “silverware/goldware” or for “furs.”  It’s very kind of them to imagine that I have such things.  I will imagine it too, for a little while:  a different possibility, a different incompletion.



About G. C. Waldrep:
G.C. Waldrep's most recent books are The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta, 2012), co-edited with Joshua Corey, and a chapbook, Susquehanna (Omnidawn, 2013). His book-length poem Testament will be out in May from BOA Editions, Ltd. Waldrep teaches at Bucknell University, edits the journal West Branch, and serves as Editor-at-Large for The Kenyon Review.


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