John Clare Looks Good in a Dishdash: Linking Clare to Middle Eastern Poetry

Article excerpt

I came to an appreciation for John Clare through a circuitous route. In the United States I earned a PhD in English literature with a focus on travel writing, so my attention was drawn to how people interact with and describe cultures new to them. I might have read some Clare poems, but I do not remember studying him. I then moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1995 to teach literature at a newly-built university, in fact it was the first private university on the Arabian Peninsula in which men and women were in the same classroom. After two years (in which I stuck close to the Norton Anthology), I returned to the United States. In 2005, I moved back to the Middle East, to Salalah, a town in Oman located on the Indian Ocean.

As one of two literature professors among eighteen teachers in the Languages and Translation Department, I am now responsible for a wide variety of classes, such as 'Introduction to Literature', 'Poetry', 'Drama', 'Victorian Literature', 'Culture in the Classroom', and 'Creative Writing'. As our students actively share class notes, I have to find new texts every time I teach a class. Thus I spend a fair amount of time each semester going through poetry anthologies to try to find new texts, which is how I discovered John Clare.

I found his poem 'Summer Morning' in an anthology and thought it was perfect for my students. And as they did, in fact, enjoy it, I looked Clare up in the little reference book The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English', then I searched for Clare on the internet. I was thrilled to find The John Clare Page2 which contained a selection of his poems. My town has one English language bookstore and my university (only seven years old) has a very small library, so all the literary books I have access to I either own or have ordered for the library3. To explain the context, Dhofar University is the only university in a large region; it is a ten-hour drive to the nearest large town with a university. In the town of Salalah live approximately 40,000 Omanis, with about 400 Western ex-pats, most of whom work at the port or are connected to the military base.

Dhofar University has 2,000 Omani students and about 25 non-Omani students. Men and women work in the same classrooms but do not interact with each other at all. Many of my students' parents never had the chance to have formal education and some are illiterate. About 30% of my students speak a non-written, local language as their first language; Arabic is their second language and English is therefore often their third. Omanis are incredibly pleasant people; it is a joy to live and teach here. As a single, Christian, American woman I have never been harassed or bothered in any way in six years. But I also have to respect the local culture and customs in the same way I teach literature. In simple terms, this means no sex, no drugs, no politics and no religion, which leads me back to the topic of John Clare.

The poetry class, required for all English language majors, is usually the only exposure students will have to poetry in English. The aim of the class is not to present students with the history of English poetry, or even to try to give the 'highlights', but to discuss twenty poems in order to demonstrate how poetry works in English. Given the fact that the students are working in a foreign language with a foreign teacher, I try to come up with poems which connect in some way to my students' lives. It can be challenging to find twenty new poems every semester which are acceptable within the linguistic and cultural constraints. Modern poetry is often inappropriate for my students and poetry from the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s often uses vocabulary which is too obscure.

After finding such a positive reaction to 'Summer Morning', I also taught 'I Hid My Love', 'An Invite, to Eternity', and 'July'. My students enjoy Clare's poems because what he describes often chimes with my students' world view. An important theory in teaching a foreign language is the 'affective filter', which means that learning is easier when a student feels less anxious and unsettled. …