Poetry, music and creativity: John Clare

Professor Simon Kӧvesi

Professor Simon Kӧvesi’s revisionary interpretation of the works of English Romantic poet John Clare has not only impacted on literary and academic circles, but has been the catalyst for bringing poetry to hard-to-reach audiences.

His project, Reading and Writing with John Clare, has inspired people from disadvantaged communities to explore the poetry of Clare and to engage in their own creative writing. Local libraries involved in the project were also able to connect with hard-to reach groups, creating a newfound sense of community.

As well as enriching public understanding of John Clare, Simon’s work has raised public awareness of working-class poetry through media including radio, podcasts, panel discussions, public events and an album of Clare’s words and music.

Revaluing the ‘Peasant Poet’

Hilton portrait of John Clare
Portrait of John Clare

John Clare was presented in 1820 as the new ‘peasant poet’ and English Robert Burns. Simon’s work on Clare unpicks the awkwardness in being a working-class writer, the patronising and belittling nature of much of the commentary on Clare’s work - even work that tries to praise him. Instead he offers a more robust, creatively dynamic and confident version of one of England’s greatest nature poets.

Drawing on his interpretation, Simon worked with four libraries in disadvantaged areas in England to deliver creative writing workshops focusing on Clare’s poetry and its relevance today to issues like poverty, environmental change, and rural work. 

During spring and summer 2019, sixteen free, day-long workshops were held at libraries in Peterborough, Bradford (and Keighley), Manchester, and Clapham in South London. Led by four of the UK’s leading poets who have a deep understanding of Clare, more than 90 participants were supported in writing their own work in response to John Clare’s poetry and themes. The workshops included all kinds of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Many described how the workshops ‘inspired’ and ‘motivated’ them, giving them confidence in using their own language to express themselves, as Clare had done.

The poems created in the workshops were published in a book The Meeting: Reading and Writing through John Clare, and are freely available online. For many participants, this was the first time they had published a poem. 

“I learned… about the joy of [Clare’s] poetry and how I can respond to that in my own writing… I was particularly struck by how accessible what we learned was. Poetry, politics, the arts felt very much for everyone.”

Workshop participant

Videos and podcasts

By Our Selves

In Our Time

John Clare: The Meeting

John Clare: The Meeting (Spotify)

Wider cultural reach

Simon’s interpretation of John Clare’s life and works has engaged with artists across film, theatre, and music, and this project spawned a collaborative partnership with acclaimed actor Toby Jones, a lifelong fan of Clare’s poetry. Directed by Simon, and as part of the workshop project, Toby recorded a selection of Clare poems at Oxford Brookes, now available on Spotify and iTunes. The two then collaborated on a theatrical production (which was not staged due to the pandemic).

They continued to work with composer Julian Philips and producer Kate Romano to make an album of new music and poetry readings, released by the contemporary classical record label NMC. The album is entitled Melodys of Earth and Sky and was released on 25 March 2022.

The independent feature film By Our Selves (2015), starring Toby Jones and his father Freddie Jones, and directed by award-winning filmmaker Andrew Kӧtting, portrays the 90-mile walk undertaken by Clare in 1841. Discussing his research, Simon makes an on-screen appearance in conversation with author Iain Sinclair, and then fights with a straw bear while dressed as a boxer. The film was commended at the 2015 Festival International de Cinéma de Marseille, where it won the International Competition and a Grand Prix Special Mention.

Simon has appeared on BBC Radio 3 and 4 talking about his work on Clare and other working-class writers, and continues to raise public awareness of the significance of the life and works of Clare through the editing of the annual John Clare Society Journal