Helen Halliwell: "For my honors thesis, I asked questions about place, learning, language, and community: what could Clare’s poetry of acute attention to place tell us about belonging?"

Helen Halliwell, UC Berkeley English class of '23, received the Department Citation this past May, given each year to the top graduating senior in the estimation of the faculty.  In the essay below, Helen describes her archival work on her honors thesis in England and John Clare's poetry of "acute attention to place." 

October 19, 2023

Field Research, of a Kind 

by Helen Halliwell 

          Geoffrey Grigson, in the introduction to his edited collection of John Clare’s poetry (1950), wrote that “No one will find it very rewarding to visit ‘John Clare’s Country’ instead of visiting and revisiting John Clare’s poetry.” How embarrassing, then, to find myself in Helpston, Clare’s home village, not even a year after I was introduced to him. The first Clare poem I read was “The Yellowhammers Nest,” which begins with the invitation: “let us stoop / And seek his nest.” I accepted this invitation and followed all the way to Northamptonshire.

            For my honors thesis, I asked questions about place, learning, language, and community: what could Clare’s poetry of acute attention to place tell us about belonging? Clare oscillated between existences and communities. Popularized as the “Peasant Poet” by his publisher, he was indeed a farm-laborer, firmly rooted in his village, and thus differed from his contemporary, city-dwelling poets. Yet he was also separated from his own Helpston cohabitants not only for being literate, but a poet. Fellow pub-goers and rural laborers sometimes complained and feared that he would write poems about them. When I finished the paper, I imagined it as a piece of embroidery: neat, woven, and perhaps even elaborate on the face of it, but a peek behind revealed drifting, dangling threads. One of these unexplored threads was the question of attention. The following summer and fall, through the generosity of the SURF Program and UC Berkeley Supervised Independent Study program, I had the time and resources to pursue the unexplored.

            I began my summer research with questions about what kind of attention Clare was practicing in his initial natural observations and how those translated into verse. What did he give more attention to in his finished poems? What details changed over the course of drafts? Would there be marginal notes that gestured towards distractions? And how could this all lend itself to either a groundedness or, alternatively, an unsettledness in place?

           After a long and arduous journey by plane, tube, train, and bus in thirty-something degree Celsius heat that England is not equipped for, I found myself in the quiet, gray, polite archival room in Peterborough Library. Around me were a few elderly locals, scanning old city maps or researching genealogy. I sat, with the blur and rush of the past few days’ travel still in my brain and body, trying to decipher Clare’s handwriting when suddenly, doubt crept in: oh dear, what am I doing here? I expressed my concerns to my advisor, Kevis Goodman, who assured me, “One thing is always true: you need to keep yourself in your seat and keep reading.”

          I did as I was told and made the best use I could of the library’s hours, thumbing through Clare’s journals, taking note of almost anything and everything at first, trusting that what would be important to my writing would emerge after the fact. The words of psychoanalyst Karen Horney, which I’d come across in my Clare research, also rang through my head: "Unlimited receptivity requires a willingness to list and list, to accumulate as comprehensive a set of details as possible, from which significance will later emerge." I was practicing, then, not completely unlimited receptivity, but rather something that felt like it needed to pretend to be unlimitedly receptive, otherwise I’d miss something — and how could I know, in the beginning, what would be important later on?

          In those early summer evenings, I’d come back home to my walk-worn brother who’d been rambling around the countryside, sunburned, dirt-stained, nettle-stung, cider-quenched after following footpaths and desire paths and overgrown lanes. He spoke of the dry, golden fields, the scared sheep, the low land and the high sky. He mused on the instinct to whistle when walking alone for hours on end. Again, doubt (and perhaps jealousy) crept in: was I doing the wrong kind of research? Surely, to understand the motives, feelings, and mind of this poet of place, I should be out there.

          I persevered, and findings did come. Gradually, patterns emerged, and I began to understand what I might be looking for. The process felt like carving through wood or clay, brushing aside the (momentarily) irrelevant. One finding was that Clare reveled in a poetry of abundance — yes, on a line-by-line basis, in lists and litanies, but also in his poetic practice. Expecting to find worked-over drafts of poetry, whittled and condensed, I often found that he just wrote more poems, as if he thought in verse. The second finding was more of an observation that sparked a train of thinking, rather than a definitive theory, and this was his attention to location as seen in line rewrites. In his draft for “The Pettichaps Nest,” the first line underwent multiple iterations: “There goes a bird,” “A bird flew up,” “Just by the wooden brig a bird flew up.” Reading through these iterations, I felt that he was not only responding to an inner call for clarity and attention to place, but also to me, to my questions, to my eyes and view — “A bird!” says Clare, “Where?” we respond. In writing to prioritize place he not only sits the locationality of Helpston front and center, closely followed by its creaturely inhabitants, but introduces an invitational quality that opens his poems naturally, with ease, to an outside audience. And yet he is careful not to overly expose the nature or himself, because at the same time, in a paradoxical way, his invitation to stoop and seek is not to the world, but to you, only. And in that there is an intimate privacy in which he can divulge certain secrets of the natural world: look how small the nest is, look how she uses horse hair and mud, look at the pink speckled eggs and note how there are often five of them.

          I followed this invitation to Helpston and the Peterborough Library and discovered there, among his papers, something essential about Clare's character that I don’t think I can yet aptly describe. It is true what Raymond Williams says in his introduction to his collection of Clare, that Clare’s “way of seeing and writing — often writing as speaking” was “a state of being, a condition of existence.” In Clare’s countryside, beautiful as I believe it is, I learned that I cannot quite see the surroundings with Clare’s eyes, try as I might. The land has changed, and moreover, I am a tourist, not a local. I went back this summer and although I delighted in the swifts and their airy, spitfire flight; in the rain that seemed to blow out of the clouds onto my cheek; in the clapping wood-pigeon, I understood I could only come to know the Truth of Clare’s poetry by becoming intimately acquainted with my own locale, not his. Still, the lure of pilgrimage remains.