Poems by Jordan Smith

John Clare, His Early Poems

He wrote on scraps of paper his mother craved
For her own purposes, tedious, domestic,
Practical. He hid his drafts away;
Practice in penmanship or arithmetic,
He’d lie straight-faced if any such were found.
He spoke one once. He claimed it.  The room went round

With laughter. Later, he found a stratagem
That suited his desire be heard
Unmocked. He’d read his poems and say he’d found them
In an almanac. Then they thought them fine,
Though as he grew more deft, more sure in verse,
He found he liked best those that they thought worst.

And yet they cared and prayed. His mother talked
Of service, her highest hope for him, in livery
To a lord. He nodded as a horse will, balked
and bridled, pawed and stood his ground, quivered,
Feigned stupidity. Feckless and disheveled
He wrote to tell the truth and shame the devil.


John Clare at School with the Gypsies

Were it not for dread of winter cold,
He might have gone with them, whose talk
Was horses, lasses, dogs, who were less bold
Than rumor claimed and cannier, who balked
When questioned closely about God, or why
Their men had a crooked finger (sly,

They broke them to avoid the king’s levy
Of soldiers that would not claim a crippled man).
Their thefts were petty, their arts were mummery–
Beguiling, fortune telling. They could mend pans,
But not their slandered, squalid reputations.
One reverend judge suggested extirpation,

Hardly needed once the groves were cut,
The fields fenced, paths gated, commons turned
To private profit. They dwindle now like June
Flowers in a storm or ash trees burned to ash.
He should have gone too. His sadness was a riddle
They might have answered. They taught him how to fiddle.


Jordan Smith is the Edward E. Hale Jr. Professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, New York. These poems are excerpted from Clare’s Empire published by The Hydroelectric Press