John Clare, Wisdom Smith and Me
I’d finished a trilogy of books for Carcanet, and I had no idea what I was going to do next. What poet really does? I had been invited by New Networks for Nature, an alliance of creators whose work draws strongly on the natural environment, to perform at their annual gathering. My reading took place in Helpston Church. Afterwards, I sat down by John Clare’s grave and had a little chat with him.
Back home, I re-read Jonathan Bate’s biography then I read Clare’s Notebooks. Because Clare thinks nobody’s going to be reading them, he sounds more at ease with himself - a real, living voice surges through. He sows the earth for unwritten poems and even for an unpublished prose book about the natural history of Northamptonshire called Biographies of Birds and Flowers.
The Notebooks also show the presence of Gypsies in Clare’s life. I am partly Romani, I write in Romani dialect, and am alert to anything Gypsy. Clare liked Gypsies. He liked them at a time when it was acceptable for a clergyman to write in the local paper, “This atrosious tribe of wandering vagabonds ought to be made outlaws and exterminated from the earth”. Gypsies liked the poet back: ‘As soon as I got here the Smiths gang of gipseys came and encampd near the town and as I began to be a desent scraper we had a desent round of merriment for a fortnight’. A fortnight of merriment is not gained unless the Gypsies trusted this local poet - with his fiddle and pen – completely.
Clare also sought them out for stories, songs and tunes. And one character keeps cropping up in the Notebooks, a Gypsy called Wisdom Smith: ‘Finished planting my ariculas—went a botanising after ferns and orchises and caught a cold in the wet grass which has made me as bad as ever—got the tune of “highland Mary” from Wisdom Smith a gipsey and pricked another sweet tune without name as he fiddled it’. Wisdom was the catalyst. Next day, I went into my writing shed and found Wisdom Smith sitting in the chair, waiting for me, and I seemed to step into him, or he stepped into me. Some days I found John Clare waiting with his friend. This triple team could write a lot better than I could alone: they could turn sonnets and make them an outdoor form, an unenclosed space for singing the world into being. Clare’s example, with Wisdom Smith’s energy and – yes – his wisdom, forced me to make a step-change and write poems about the the life of love.
I allowed myself to be taken over and to trust in that transformation completely. Emmanual Levinas wrote how ‘I am most like myself when I am most like you’. It is true that once upon a time the action of writing used to take me over so completely it obliterated me. But, newly, sometimes painfully, I felt myself to be more myself than ever. Yet here I was, taken over by a gypsy and a poet. I felt as if I had lived three lifetimes, transcending the self and entering a near-constant state of negative capability that allowed me to escape the “literary” - and write from a wild love of the world and for life:
It is pleasant as I have done today to stand
... and notice the objects around us
‘There is nothing in books on this’, cries Clare.
‘I do not read, brother’, states Wisdom smiling,
‘for I will not bother with Mystery.
Worlds move underfoot. Where lives Poetry?
Look’, hums Wisdom Smith, ‘in the inner domes
of ghost orchids - how the buzzing rhymers
read light with their tongues; or in this anthill -
nameless draughtsmen crafting low rooms, drawing
no fame - except the ravening yaffle,
or fledgy starlings bathing in their crawl.
I see these worlds - lit worlds. I live by them’.
The wood-ants sting. John Clare shifts foot to foot:
‘I did not know you gave me any thought’.
‘This? All this - is nothing, John’, laughs Wisdom.