About Clive Wilmer
Clive Wilmer’s first collection of poems, The Dwelling-Place (Carcanet, 1977), opens with an epigraph from John Ruskin’s Val d’Arno, which begins: “A man’s religion is the form of mental rest, or dwelling-place, which, partly, his fathers have gained or built for him, and partly, by due reverence to former custom, he has built for himself”. These indicators – of religion, meditation and reverence, of construction, tradition and respectful innovation – hold well across Wilmer’s long and varied investment in poetry. Wilmer describes Ruskin as “overwhelmingly the most important influence” on his life. The associations pervade both his poetry and his professional activities: Wilmer is the 14th Master of The Guild of St George, a national charity ‘for arts, craft and the rural economy’ founded by Ruskin in 1871.
Wilmer has lived and worked in Cambridge for much of his life. His poetry draws its intellectual and geographical backbone from the city and from architecture in general, but also from civic life, engaging with principles drawn from Ruskin and religion. Aspects of Cambridge feature across Wilmer’s dozen pamphlets and books, in such poems as ‘On the Demolition of the “Kite” District’, a part of central Cambridge torn down in 1980. Going beyond the urban limits, ‘Civitas’ invokes “the rain-soaked Cambridge fens” to offer readers “intimations of a world from which human clutter and suffering have been gently effaced” (Jem Poster).
His most recent collection, a short series of prose poems titled Urban Pastorals (Worple, 2014), continues the theme of civic, urban spaces focusing on South London and its network of Commons. An earlier Worple title, Stigmata, appeared in 2005. Carcanet Press have published two substantial collections of his work, 1995’s Selected Poems and his New and Collected Poems in 2012, which gather together his many other collections and pamphlets. On the latter’s substantial offering, Hilary Davies wrote, “Such work places Wilmer justifiably in the best tradition of British metaphysical poetry… Poetry is, for Wilmer, the one key which remains in his possession to restore wholeness to a broken world”.
Despite his long association with the city and the University of Cambridge, Wilmer has worked primarily as a freelance writer and teacher, with honorary posts at various colleges and institutions and many activities in the wider world of poetry. In 2004 he was made a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, and became an Emeritus Fellow in 2012. He is also an award-winning translator, primarily of Hungarian poetry, having received the Endre Ady Translation Prize in 1998 and the Pro Cultura Hungarica medal, 2005. From 1989-1992 Wilmer was one of the key interviewers for BBC Radio 3’s Poet of the Month series. Most of these interviews were published in Poets Talking (Carcanet, 1994).
He has also edited works by William Morris and John Ruskin for Penguin Books. His latest editorial project is an annotated edition of Thom Gunn’s Selected Poems (forthcoming from Faber). Wilmer has often aligned his poetic practice with Gunn’s, whose poetry, Wilmer once wrote, “has meant more to me than that of any of our contemporaries” (Poets Talking).The elegiac mode of Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats is palpable in Wilmer’s work from the 1990s onwards. The respect was mutual and Gunn praised Wilmer’s writing “for its unfaltering clarity, for its delicacy of execution and weightiness of statement and for its faithfulness to subject matter, without attitudinising or lies.”
In his reworkings of Biblical episodes and psalms, Wilmer’s poetry emphasises storytelling, parables and the human voice behind these stories. While often beginning with historical moments, temporal concerns give way to precisely sketched truths about human experience. As William Wootten wrote in his review of The Mystery of Things (Carcanet, 2008) Wilmer’s “best lyrics have always been like objects whose existence is independent of … the time of their making.”
In its more traditionally formal moments, such as the unrhymed ‘Antiphonal Sonnets’ from Devotions (Carcanet, 1982), Wilmer’s poetry offers a clear narrative path along which language acts as a medium for morality. Following his poetry from collection to collection readers will find increasing experiments with form. ‘The Holy of Holies’, one of the poems recorded for the Poetry Archive, begins in medias res with, “then broke in and found nothing”. As Wilmer states in his introduction for the Poetry Archive, the poem “takes two stories and treats each of them as a metaphor for the other.” These poetic stories, taken as a whole, reveal human nature.
Readers of Wilmer’s poetry will encounter the marks of research and deep thought, of intellectual exchanges across music and language, theology and literature. There are also reflections on family life, on ageing, such as in ‘The old men at the swimming pool’, and on the craft of poetry, such as in his short epigram, ‘The Goldsmith’, which introduces Wilmer’s recording for the Poetry Archive.
Listeners will find a palpably inquisitive tone in his readings. The poems are driven by historical investigation, each human voice brought to life to refresh past events and bring a moral sense to how we live now. As Francis O’Gorman wrote of his New and Collected Poems, Wilmer’s poetry has a “distinctive religious temper” and “ruminates on often fragile revelations, which engage the head as well as the heart.” Even in the more imaginative moments, such as ‘Bottom’s Dream,’ audiences will find the poet leading them through his process of learning how to love and live for today.
Clive Wilmer's recording was made on November 13th 2015 at The Soundhouse, London. The producer was Richard Carrington