Photo by Yuyutsu Sharma
On 5th August 2018, the poet known as Jazzman John, birth name, John Robert Clarke, passed away, taking friends and fellow poets by complete surprise. Because I was in Paris at the time, no internet, this sad news first reached me a few days later from Yuyutsu Sharma, and, like Yuyu himself, and others who had known John, I felt literally knocked over with the shock. Yuyu described the feeling like this:
The ball of my breath froze in my throat as I heard my best friend, British Poet Jazzman John Robert Clarke has passed away in London, suddenly I have to sit down and rethink — how cruel can life be, after 5 years I was planning to finally meet him this year and work on his dream visit to New York City.
John, writer of the poetry collections: All the Way from Kathmandu: Selected Jazz Poems and Ghost on the Road, based on his love of jazz and the Beats, was renowned as a vibrant, talented performer on the London poetry circuit, and for sure, he will be, and is already, sadly missed, his future potential poems only to be guessed now instead of reading or hearing.
Life can be cruel, to deal us such blows. Not only was I faced with this loss, but a deep regret at my relative neglect of a nascent friendship that could have become still deeper, and richer had I made time, had I not been too preoccupied with the vicissitudes of a turbulent relationship to attend his birthday, or the pending lunch date we had pencilled in at the Café de Provence over the road from me, never ‘inked in’, no definite plan made. For sure, if I could make it happen this week, next week, as soon as possible, then I would because my life feels emptier without John.
Why hadn’t I found the time? I castigate myself, for not doing so, often reliving his kindness the day we had met there, the day he had delivered a box of books for me from New Delhi - several copies of the anthology, Eternal Snow, in which my long narrative poem, Parnassus to New York, had been published, a copy of David Austell’s Garuda, and Yuyutsu Sharma’s Quaking Cantos, a series of poems stimulated by the Nepalese earthquakes. I had looked forward to this delivery for days, perhaps a time when all was not so well in my life, a rift in the aforementioned relationship leaving me feeling quite isolated and desperate, then, to see any friend. My best friends have all moved to Hastings, miles away from my home on Drury Lane, and John walked into this void for me like an angel, a shaman, a companion, a man who may perhaps hold my hand.
Photo by Yuyutsu Sharma
I remember his wonderful stories over coffee that morning, his Dublin parentage evident in the detailed retellings of this raconteur, his kind offer to buy us lunch, the photographs we took together, delighted to read our poems from Yuyu’s Eternal Snow, a day that was up there with the happiest of days, like the first day we met, at Heathrow. That day, a few years ago, I was seeing Yuyu off to New York, the start of a journey of poetry readings and teaching, a meeting in a café in Queens Park over coffee and poetry books, a taxi ride to the airport together, the arrival of Jazzman John, at once as if placeless, timeless, Shamanic, defiant of fashion and context, with his anachronistic scarves and mirrored sequins, his vivid colours, velvets and longish hair, and yet so much a part of London. Quickly I began to absorb John’s encouraging words, delight in his cheerful banter, his anecdotes and stories enriched with all the wisdom distilled from a life evidently, and unusually, led with true integrity, curiosity and passion.
Curiosity led John to discover jazz, initially in the music collection of Greenwich library, during the years he lived in Greenwich from childhood to adolescence. Later I heard that he befriended Basie band played Eddie Lockjaw Davies who ran Minton’s in New York, and developed a life-long passion for jazz, and beat poetry, his concept and delivery of sound and rhythm always inspired by jazz and earning him the name, Jazzman John Clarke. The tribute from Y Tuesday, one of the poetry nights he frequented, reads:
for many I feel, it was John's live performance for which he will be most remembered.
On stage he seemed to be inhabited by the spirit of the San Francisco Jazz poets of the late 50's and early 60's, and few will forget his live rendition of "Messages from drunken blowfish.”
It is not only jazz that inspired John - a fusion of Dada, surrealism, psycho-geography, and Zen can be felt playing through his poetic word-play and syncopated rhythms. John loved diversity, the drawing together of styles and genres into the poetry venues he loved to attend, describing (in the Londonist): singers, musicians, dancers, poets and comedians rubbing shoulders with burlesque artists at live events. When you think about it Vaudeville and Dadaists were doing it long ago!
Meeting John, I sensed a pulling together of influences into his words, character and a persona that flowed seamlessly into his writing and his everyday demeanour, so one never really felt he had to put on a performance but he was the poet, the performer, through and through. Turning to John’s words in an interview for The Londonist about his sources of inspiration, John said:
My poetry amounts to the sum total of my inspiration… Currently, I draw enormous inspiration from the intimate juxtaposition of the multi-arts approach. Traditional routes tend to bore me rigid - I want to plough my own furrow, take chances, try to be different without being overly contrived, which I know from experience is easier said than done. For me inspiration can drop out of the sky and I find the source is infinite. Jeremy Reed (himself a prolific writer) once said that his source of inspiration was rather like switching on the electric light - it was always there.
In John’s company, I had the sense that he was always inspired. Every moment seemed it seemed as if strings of fairy lights were sparkling, his mind alive with stories of poets, musicians and club nights he had run, London an always rich seam of possibility for him in terms of performance, encounter and stimulus for his work. John threaded inspiration from journeys around London, with music and Eastern thought and psychology to create works that, in his hands, create a vibrant invitation to a way of thinking, a way of life, never vague or too abstracted but grounded in a sense of connection with other minds, an attitude so visible in the way that he interacted with me. The inspiration that saturates his work breathed through his life as a breeze through chimes. In this sense, there seems to be an indefinable spirituality in his work, which at the same time can be visceral, earthbound and sensual.
After my first meeting with John, which continued from Heathrow airport, a place suspended, that day, as if between ground and celestial spheres, into the underground as far as one of the central tube stations but I forget which, I wandered next to the River Thames, composing a narrative, Parnassus to New York, and that day I felt quite transported as if Yuyu and John were able to grant me some lightness that carried me out of whatever personal difficulty I was experiencing into a more poetic, liberated space. I get the sense that Jazzman John always wanted to ‘follow his own star.’ Not for him the life of a City banker which he pursued for some years, instead he wanted the freedom to wander, explore, write and make friends, a true bohemian and beat poet, and surely then an influence I will remember and treasure throughout my life, although the hours I have passed in his company were all too briefly, and unexpectedly ended this summertime.
London has lost unique voice and spirit, very much loved and missed. To keep that spirit alive, in my mind, I have been listening to his recorded poems on YouTube: Poems by the River, a selection of poems, some of which are set to an abstract sound collage, recorded at Enderby Studios in 2016 and displayed for the internet with a striking, psychedelic array of visuals and self portraiture. In Everlasting Contrast, John writes –
‘You are a sunshine stumbling across a rainy beach,
You are the anchor midway to lean upon…’
And I like to think of him like this, as lightness and weight, gravity and grace. I like to visualise him rather as an angel looking down, watching over me.
Angels control us, even when we cannot see or immediately recognise them. (Angels)
Victor Hugo said, Errer est Humain, flaner est Parisien. My lack of alacrity delaying another meeting with John I regard as a mistake but I will learn from this. I don’t think to wander is specifically Parisian, but the way of poets everywhere, and I am glad that in our wanderings our paths at least crossed.
Maria Heath Beckett was born in North Yorkshire and currently lives in London, UK. Maria is finishing two novels and a memoir and collating her first poetry collections. Her writing has been published in magazines and anthologies, such as Strands, Tumbleweed Hotel, and In the Company of Poets. She has also performed at many venues in London and Paris, and staged a short drama-poem at The Royal Court Theatre Upstairs.