‘Glimpses of Lacan and Barthes in two poems by Gillian Clarke’.
Language is not a very predominant theme in the work of the Welsh poet and playwright, Gillian Clarke (born 1937). Her work  is rather domestic in style and content, and focuses largely on autobiographical experiences involving her own family, children and local people. The mother-child relationship; nature and the impact of industrialization on the Welsh landscape; birds, animals; growing up and growing old: these are some of the motifs that surface throughout her entire oeuvre. Frequently she touches upon the subject of education and writing poetry (for example in ‘Lunchtime lecture’ and ‘Pipistrelle’, respectively) and it is by way of these themes that issues concerning language come into play. Such is the case in ‘Clocks’ and ‘Miracle on Saint David’s Day’.
‘Clocks’ is a poem about learning, and it involves, like other poems by Clarke such as ‘Baby-sitting’ and ‘Catrin’, a mother-child relationship. In this particular case, the ‘mother’ is a ‘grandmother’ - Clarke herself - and the child, Cai, her grandson. The grandmother, on a country walk with the child, is picking dandelions, blowing their feathery seed-heads and trying to teach the child how to say words. This learning is referred to as the ‘power of naming’:
We walk the lanes to pick them.
'Ffwff-ffwffs'. He gives them the name
he gives to all flowers. 'Ffwff! Ffwff!'
I teach him to tell the time
by dandelion. 'One o'clock. Two.'
He blows me a field of gold
from the palm of his hand
and learns the power of naming.
The sun goes down in the sea
and the moon's translucent.
He's wary of waves and sand's
soft treachery underfoot.
'What does the sea say?' I ask.
'Ffwff! Ffwff!’ he answers, then turns
his face to the sky and points
to the full-blown moon."
The high-sounding phrase, ‘the power of naming’ has ironic overtones. Clarke seems to be referencing herself in tongue-and-cheek fashion as a literate adult - a writer, no less - who has studied the power of language and can pass on her love for language to the child who only speaks in onomatopoeic words, emitting the same sound for all flowers, and also for the moon: ‘Ffwff’. She tries to teach him the words for numbers (section one) and for the sound that the sea makes (section two). But the poem suggests that the child’s own primitive, onomatopoeic language is just as poetical, beautiful and meaningful as the official language, perhaps even more so. Additionally, it is inferred that the child has an exceptional degree of poetry in his soul, for he sees in the natural world associations which are not apparent. When the grandmother asks him what the sea says, he points to the moon. He sees connections which she did not see before: the small face of the dandelion, and the big white face of the moon. He seems to have a deep, synaesthetic relationship with natural phenomena, and in that sense, the child has a natural poetry and is, in a sense, more ‘knowledgeable’ than the clever adult who attempts to ‘teach’ him.
Although Clarke has never voiced any interest in linguistic theories in relationship to childhood development, it is tempting to offer a Lacanian interpretation of the issue of ‘naming’ described in this poem. What the young boy of the poem seems to be experiencing is, in the words of Lacan, the ‘Real’: a materiality of existence beyond language. What the grandmother is concerned with is the development of the subject, and the need to construct her grandson’s sense of ‘reality’ in and through language which in turn enables him to enter the Symbolic or Social Order. But this entry into the Social Order brings with it a loss of closeness to the pure materiality of existence which he currently experiences. This closeness can be felt in the references to the child’s sensory response to nature: the ‘sand's / soft treachery underfoot’. Indeed, there is a resonance to the poem which suggests that teaching and the superimposition of the official language will destroy the child’s natural relationship with his own special world, full of wonder. This world is summed up in the phrase ‘he blows me a field of gold from the palm of his hand’. A field of gold suggests treasure, an image which connotes the precious nature of the child’s state prior to his entry into the Symbolic Order. The full white moon which the child turns his face to also suggests the white page upon which there is no trace, as yet, of official language which will construct a different sense of reality from the one currently experienced – a reality that can only be understood in and through the official codes and structures. This language (‘la langue’ in Lacan) seems to be pitted against what Lacan would term the ‘lalangue’ of the child,  evident in his onomatopoeic ‘Ffwff! Ffwff’: a primary, biological ‘substrate’ type of language on top of which the official language comes to sit as an ordered superstructure; a language which does not communicate in the same way as the official language does, but whose oral articulation - ‘plus musique homophonique que langage articulé’ - provides great pleasure.
As a means of further distinguishing between the child’s ‘lalangue’ and the official ‘La Langue’, ‘Clocks’ touches upon another feature of postmodernist theories of language much discussed by Lacan. Lacan drew upon Saussure’s theory of language as a system that makes sense only within its own internal logic of differences: the word, "father," only makes sense in terms of those other terms it is defined with or against (mother, "me," law, the social, etc). In the same way, Clarke seems to suggest how the official language only functions by virtue of its differences from other related words and concepts: the title ‘Clocks’ refers directly to dandelion clocks i.e. the face of a flower, but equally it could refer to real clocks and time and the passing of time – the journey from youth (the child) to old age (the grandmother). The end of the poem juxtaposes the small, clock-like face of the dandelion with the huge clock-like face of the full moon (‘full-blown’) reminding us of things which wax and grow with time. Official language functions by differentiating one type of clock – the dandelion – from another – a real clock, or something that resembles a clock, like the face of the moon. However, it is interesting to note that the child’s ‘lalangue’ does not differentiate: for him the dandelion clock is the moon: they are both ‘Ffwff-ffwffs', and ‘Ffwff-ffwff’ is also the sound of the sea breaking on the sand. As Dominique Simonney explains, this ‘slipping’ of meaning is another trait of Lacan’s ‘lalangue’: ‘Lalangue est faite de signifiants (en cela elle participe de la structure du langage) et échoue à atteindre la chose qu’elle vise, renvoyant le sujet de signifiant en signifiant, en un glissement continuel de la signification’. The child’s linguistic world is therefore more expansive and panoptic than that of the adult: it is the richer world of poetry.
The power of poetical language is also the focus of ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’. Here, Clarke recounts her visit to a mental asylum to read poetry to the inmates. It was a sunny day and the garden outside was full of daffodils. Clarke describes four of the people in her audience and focuses upon one – a ‘big, mild man’ – whom no one had ever heard speak, ‘misery’ having made him ‘dumb’. He rocks himself while she reads her own poetry, but then unexpectedly rises to his feet and recites William Wordsworth’s ‘The Daffodils’, a poem he had, presumably, learned at school. This is the ‘miracle’ referred to in the title. The poem is a testament to the miraculous power of poetry and illustrates that the oral articulation of poetical language can induce a sense of euphoria as described by Barthes in Le Plaisir du texte.