Poet's Corner II: Trees
Updated: Mar 17
with Audrey Ardern-Jones
The inaugural Poet's Corner with Audrey Ardern-Jones with animal poems Snake by DH Lawrence and Audrey's Prize Day Antic was such a treat following the timely and much-needed celebration of Emily Wilding Davison with Audrey's moving reading of her poem Tattenham Corner.
For this second episode, Audrey has chosen two tree poems: The Maple Tree by John Clare (1793-1864) along with her delightfully colourful original illustration of three seasonal maple trees and Willow from her Doing The Rounds collection, published by Indigo Dreams. A strikingly atmospheric picture taken by Audrey of the much-loved willow tree at the bottom of her garden accompanies Willow, the poem it inspired.
You can hear the podcast of Audrey discussing and reading her poem choices by clicking on the link below.
The Maple Tree by John Clare
Image: Maple Trees an original illustration / Credit: Audrey Ardern-Jones
The Maple with its tassell flowers of green That turns to red, a stag horn shapèd seed Just spreading out its scallopped leaves is seen, Of yellowish hue yet beautifully green. Bark ribb'd like corderoy in seamy screed That farther up the stem is smoother seen, Where the white hemlock with white umbel flowers Up each spread stoven to the branches towers And mossy round the stoven spread dark green And blotched leaved orchis and the blue-bell flowers -
Thickly they grow and neath the leaves are seen. I love to see them gemm'd with morning hours. I love the lone green places where they be And the sweet clothing of the Maple tree.
Willow by Audrey Ardern-Jones
Picture: Willow in my Garden / Credit: Audrey Ardern-Jones
You’re like The Angel of the North, the way you
own the heavens, your arms sweep across
an empty pale grey sky. I love your light, the way
you startle air, shape gaps, and sway towards
the sun. You know the hurt of rain, the tenderness
of water. In twilight you’re a vision to behold,
a gilded icon as the sun slips behind you coppering
your edges. You’re a healer of the sick – the juice
from your sap, your bark soothes my headaches.
If I sleep with a wand made from your wood
I’ll dream of a pink moon and hear Celtic music
playing on harps. I love you clothed in catkins,
dressed in summer’s leaves, bare in the winter.
Most of all I love the way you look at me.
Listen to Audrey
Portrait: John Clare by William Hilton oil on canvas, 1820 / NPG 1469 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Audrey introduces the tree theme of this Poet's Corner by declaring herself to be, "A great lover of trees" and remarking on "the exponential, massive" growth of trees this year.
She starts by introducing and reading The Cherry Tree, a "beautiful" sonnet, by one of her favourite nineteenth century poets, John Clare. Audrey has always been drawn to Clare's work and finds the story of his life particularly moving.
John Clare was a farm labourer's son from a poor family, who had few chances in education. Yet his poems are widely read across the world. Clare suffered greatly with his mental health. As a nurse, Audrey has looked after many people suffering from depression and knows how tough that can be. Clare spent years in asylums - High Beech (1837-1841) then Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (1841 until his death in 1864).
Audrey reflects on how challenging that would have been for Clare with the sensitive nature "he must have had to be able to write these exquisite poems". Another reason Audrey admires and "absolutely love(s) his work". She encourages anyone unfamiliar with Clare to read his poetry. "You'll be staggered and stunned to see so many lovely poems and lots of nature poems!"
The blog Interesting Literature provides a beginner's introduction. "10 of the Best John Clare Poems Everyone Should Read" includes Clare's most famous poem, I Am, described by Audrey as "iconic in lots of ways". The selection was chosen by Dr Oliver Tearle, a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers' Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
The Quintessential Romantic Poet
A Poetry Foundation account describes John Clare as: “the quintessential Romantic poet,” according to William Howard writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. With an admiration of nature and an understanding of the oral tradition, but with little formal education, Clare penned numerous poems and prose pieces, many of which were only published posthumously. His works gorgeously illuminate the natural world and rural life, and depict his love for his wife Patty and for his childhood sweetheart Mary Joyce. Though his first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), was popular with readers and critics alike, Clare struggled professionally for much of his life. His work only became widely read some hundred years after his death.
Clare was born into a peasant family in the small English village of Helpston (Peterborough) in 1793 - John Clare Cottage. Despite his disadvantaged background—both of his parents were virtually illiterate—Clare did receive some formal schooling as a youth. He attended a day school for a few months every year until he was about twelve years old, and then he went to night school, studied informally with other boys in the area, and read in his spare time. Clare’s favorite books included Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler. During his school days Clare met fellow student Mary Joyce and embarked upon a romantic relationship with her. Although the two eventually separated and Clare married Patty Turner, Clare would devote much of his later poetry to Mary."
John Clare's biographer Jonathan Bates calls him, "the greatest labouring-class poet England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self."
Clare's sense of alienation from his labouring roots he wrote so powerfully about is indicated in this musing: "I live here among the ignorant like a lost man in fact like one whom the rest seemes careless of having anything to do with—they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings and I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose."
Maple Tree Characteristics
The Maple Tree is one of John Clare's lesser known works. Audrey relates the maple tree has a number of characteristics beyond the shape of its leaves and its popular syrup. The tree symbolises balance, offering longevity, ferocity and intelligence. Maple trees adapt to many different soil types and climates in Japan, North America, Europe and around the world.
Audrey adds the maple tree can be celebrated for the shape of its seeds, "helicopter seeds" as they are known in England. Clare's poem highlights the tree's white hemlock and white umbel flowers and the "blotched leaved orchis".
Turning to her own poem, Willow, Audrey tells us her inspiration came from the striking willow in the picture of the end of her garden visible from her home of many years. "I absolutely love that tree!" confesses Audrey.
Like The Maple Tree, Willow is a sonnet. But unlike Clare, Audrey chose not to use iambic pentameter in her work. The link gives examples of iambic pentameter - a line of writing of ten syllables in a pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, or a short syllable followed by a long syllable - ranging from William Shakepeare's sonnet Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day to Taylor Swift's Shake it Off. Yes, you read that juxtaposition correctly!
Shall I | compARE | thee TO | a SUM | mers DAY?
da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM
I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, sha-ake
da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM
Turning back to the willow tree, Audrey says it is of course associated with cricket bats, the theme of The Hub's Test Match Special. Less familiarly it is linked with health benefits, the leaves and bark are ancient remedies for aches and fever.
Salicin, the active extract of willow bark, is metabolized into salicyclic acid in the human body and is a precursor of aspirin used for pain relief and as an anti-inflammatory for muscle and joint pain. The bark was said to protect against jealousy if placed outside of a dwelling.
The willow tree is known to have been sacred to the ancient Celts. Audrey is inspired by the thought of the willow tree being worshipped centuries ago, because: "It is beautiful, utterly gorgeous!"
YouTube video: 1 Hour of Relaxing Celtic Harp Music by Adrian von Ziegler
When the Hub asked Audrey if she would like to select some music for this Poet's Corner, she said: "If you can find some lovely harp music to play, that's what I would use to follow this session of poetry. That would be lovely to reflect on the beauty of the trees." Adrian von Ziegler's relaxing Celtic Harp Music hopefully fits the brief!
You can hear Audrey read her second Poet's Corner choices, The Maple Tree by John Clare and her own poem Willow, a poem "that matters a great deal to me" from her Doing The Rounds collection published by Indigo Dreams, by clicking on the link below.
A Poet with an Artist's Painterly Sensibility
Audrey Ardern-Jones at the summer 2021 unveiling of the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial in Epsom's market square where Audrey read her poem 'Tattenham Corner' about Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison's last moments / Credit: Audrey Ardern-Jones
“Ardern-Jones is a poet with an artist’s painterly sensibility, a musician’s fine ear, a nurse’s affinity for strangers and their plight. Poems for the ear, poems of language – Polish and Bemba, Portuguese and English. An intelligent, finely crafted poetry of curiosity and caring, of listening and loving, of humour and hope.” Paul Stephenson, an award winning poet and blogger, podcaster and co-curator of Poetry in Aldeburgh and teacher at the Poetry School, who interviews poets on their first collections.
Audrey Ardern-Jones spent her childhood in Africa (Lusaka, Zambia) where her English father and Polish mother were posted. She’s enjoyed a wonderful nursing career, specialising in cancer genetics. Audrey has always loved the Arts and founded The Poetry & Music Ensemble in 1984.
Her poems are widely published and have won prizes or been commended in international competitions. Currently, she is Artist in Residence at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and is an active supporter of poetry projects in her community of Epsom & Ewell.
Credit: Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd.
The publisher's link takes you to Doing The Rounds, Audrey's collection of poems. "This collection touches on the poet's childhood memories of living in Africa - her feelings of being in awe of so much and yet uncertain about many of the happenings. Most of her travel poems in India relate to incidents that have made her question herself - some of the poems about her Polish mother and her suffering post WW2 echo throughout the collection."