Clay - the Pits and in Prose

ART HISTORY  |  ART & WRITING  |  CLAY FORM(E)S

clay cuts

Looking at literature pertaining to the word itself, images of its shaping and formative spaces. Clay.

BY NATHALIE VIRULY

Earth feels warm as a word. Perhaps it’s something to do with the lava running beneath the crust or a mother. Maybe it’s the mere pairing of vowels. It’s something wholesome and hard. But clay pivots on coolness. It somehow feels different. It’s cold, drudged, dead, sticky, wet,  in a vacuum of possibility and dirt.

 

Billy Mills best describes clay as “that from which the first man was made, or the ground in which nothing grows … clay has associations with both creation and decay”. The resultant symbolism thrives in literature. The likes of Wilde, Blake, Byron and even Bukowski, mention the stuff – for both its biblical and carnal implications. Our origin, brittleness and earthly ties, therefore seem to present in clay, as does our death, written to make dust of us – a particle reincarnation – as per gospel. Human life, its markers, are found in the poetics of clay. Kaolin. Cain and Abel. 

 

Poet John Masefield refers to “the red of Adam’s clay”, while Patrick Kavanagh depicts clay as a caught and listless spirit,  “clay is the word and clay is the flesh … No hope. No lust. The hungry fiend screams the apocalypse of clay”. Similarly,  James Joyce likens an unmarried woman’s “empty life”, neither living nor dying, to an omen of clay in while Fredrick Manning writes about the trenches of warfare as “endless lanes sunken in the clay”, as ventricles of massacre alongside wild flowers. And Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71: No longer mourn for me when I am dead, talks of being  “compounded” with clay in death, while Ken Morrice’s depicts red clay tainted with the blood of swelling wartime graves.

Oscar Wilde

Napoleon Sarony (1821–1896)  |  Oscar Wilde  |  1882

“that from which the first man was made, or the ground in which nothing grows … clay has associations with both creation and decay” (Billy Mills)

Jack Clemo by Heather Spears

Heather Spears  |  Portrait of Jack Clemo

 

Beyond metaphor, there are those who write for the potters – of texture and tangibility. 

Jack Clemo for one confronted the reality of the china-clay quarry where he lived and died in the city of Cornwall. His works, “The Flooded Clay-Pit”, “The Excavator”, “Christ in the Clay-Pit,” and “The Clay-Tip Worker”, written while both blind and deaf, speak of the destruction related to the soft form’s extraction, sludge, and transformation.   

“Praise God, the earth is maimed, 

And there will be no daisies in that field

Next spring . . .

One patch of Poetry reclaimed By Dogma: one more triumph for

our Lord.” (Clemo, Clay-Tip Worker, 1951) 

Clay has malleable forms and meanings. Maybe as a word, flesh, fashioning or sludge. It’s also the name of the poet, Willy Clay. It’s nature and nonsense. Something that links time and construct, concrete with pressure.  

LIST OF WORKS CITED: 

Oscar Wilde – Humanitad (1881)

William Blake – The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)

Lord George Byron – Lara (1814)

Charles Bukowski – The most beautiful woman in town (1983)

John Masefield – The Everlasting Mercy (1911)

Patrick Kavanagh – The Great Hunger ( 1942)

James Joyce – Clay (1914)

Fredrick Manning – The Trenches (1917)

William Shakespeare – Sonnet 71: No longer mourn for me when I am dead (1609)

Ken Morrice – Nigg ( 1991)

Jack Clemo – The Clay Verge (1951) ( including poems such as The Flooded Clay-Pit, The Excavator, Christ in the Clay-Pit, The Clay-Tip Worker)

REFERENCES: 

Billy Mills, 2016, Poster poems: clay – The Guardian

Iwan Russell-Jones, 2017, Jack Clemo: Poet of the Ravaged Clay. CRUX. Vol 53, No4

Joyce pictured in 1931 with Nora Barnacle after their wedding in London. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Joyce pictured in 1931 with Nora Barnacle after their wedding in London  |  Popperfoto/Getty Images

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