David Morley


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A shortened version of an interview about The Gypsy and the Poet with David Morley with Simon Kövesi for The John Clare Society Journal, Summer 2013 

Simon Kövesi: Could you tell me about the context for your conceiving of this new collection of poems, The Gypsy and the Poet 

David Morley: I was drawn to Clare through his use of his own voice and dialect in poems and notebooks, but also through the company he chose to keep: his friend, the Gypsy Wisdom Smith leapt out at me from the notebooks. 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, and there were various things about him which were very impressive. He could write a lot better than I could; he could write sonnets, which I’ve never really tried before; and he could see that the sonnet wasn’t just a form – there were forms within that form, that I’d never really thought about – for instance poems that were made from dynamic dialogue; poems that take longer, rangier lines; while some take the form of natural shapes. It was an escape from the literary. Wisdom Smith, knowing Clare as he did, and becoming me, as he did, at that point, allowed two aspects of my own developing character, two ways of becoming and being. I allowed myself to be taken over, and to trust in that transformation completely. 

SK: Was it a sort of Keatsian negative capability? No identity for the poet and another voice completely usurps you? 

DM: Completely, yes. I think understanding about negative capability is probably a good thing because otherwise it might seem like a form of madness. I knew that I was being annihilated every time I sat down to write but had no problem with it whatsoever because actually the results were quite clearly beyond me, in the ‘me’ sense of the ego – completely beyond my self. The other thing that I had ticking around in my mind is in Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’. He has that terrific and terrifying notion about waking in the night and asking if you really want to write, and if the answer comes back ‘in assent’, he says you should turn closer to nature and try as if nobody had ever tried before ‘to say what you see and feel and love and lose’. That phrase was talismanic to thinking and feeling about John Clare’s working habits, his friendships and his marriage, his “marriages” - that strange, sad relationship he had with his first love, who died, whose death he would not accept. 

SK: What was it about Wisdom Smith that made him such a dominant presence at the beginning and all the way through this project?  

DM: At one point Wisdom Smith makes this point to John Clare, where Clare is trying to write ‘The Gypsy’s Evening Blaze’ and Wisdom Smith is basically saying: ‘Don’t write about me’, or ‘If you must write, do it honestly’. The epigraph is from Clare’s notebook: As soon as I got here the Smiths gang of gipseys came and encampdnear 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! Two weeks of larking with Gypsies. In this book, Clare is always taking the hospitality provided by the Gypsy, and doesn’t really twig that the Gypsy is poor and has had to beg and work for food. Wisdom understands work at the level of the underclass, the absolute underclass of working. Clare is rare as a poet in that he reaches towards that understanding of work. Towards the end of ‘The Gypsy’s Evening Blaze’ Wisdom Smith says: ‘Take my baccy but do not write me down. / Gifts given and ungiven are like words /  forgiven and unforgiven. Word for word / they leave signs. I will not leave one boot mark’.

‘I will not leave one boot mark’. And yet, who’s writing these poems? One of the reasons there isn’t a huge amount of written Gypsy history is because Gypsies are hyper-aware of the dangers of writing things down and leaving signs. The holocaust of the Jews is fully-documented while the holocaust of a million Gypsies is less well-known, and that’s partly because, after the Second World War, Gypsies didn’t wish to speak about it or offer personal accounts because it’s a subject of huge horror and shame. The danger is you disappear yourselves by not speaking or writing about yourselves. What Wisdom is saying is that the written, not the spoken, word can be dangerous for his tribe, and for him.  

SK: Well I was going to ask you that, because in the dialogue the suspicion of writing or the resistance to it – though not superstition as Clare himself faced from his villagers, he said – your Wisdom Smith actually is quite suspicious of Clare selling himself, and the marketplace, and the rich man’s game, and fame and all that. So Wisdom Smith seems to be pushing against that kind of literary culture.  

DM: He’s pushing at the conscience of the poems, and the poet.  SK: When you first started talking about Wisdom Smith just now he was the voice of the poetry? 

DM: Yes. He had the confidence to write these things. It wasn’t Clare. Clare was always ‘glegging away’. These aspects of Clare – the glegging eye – the timidity – the desire to be liked – the desire to be a steeple-climber – the desire to be part of a community – the desire also to be respected by literary men, which is in these poems too – these are desires I have felt; these are aspects of my own character: the part of me which is more crushed, less confident, nervous of my betters. Yet. There’s another part of my personality which is very like Wisdom Smith’s: totally confident; able to move from place to place with astonishing speed; able to vanish almost entirely, like magic; and able to lead my tribes, and my people. And these two aspects of being me are also the aspects of my being a poet. I think that’s what allows me to balance words and worlds in these small songs, this ‘small singing’. 

This is the much shortened edited transcript of an interview, the full version of which is available in The John Clare Society Journal  32, 2013. 

These interviews are in the public domain.

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