At best, my own poems surprise me. But sometimes the process of writing takes me so completely by surprise it annihilates me.
I come to St Andrews on a wave of new poems. I have written nearly fifty sonnets since the start of the year. Each has been inevitable. Almost as easily as leaves to a tree. But that is because they are not my poems.
I was writing “a book” last year. I thought it was very good, something of a step sideways and up from the previous three Carcanet collections that made up a trilogy. Shortly before Christmas I was reading John Clare’s notebooks. A Gypsy called Wisdom Smith makes a brief appearance in Clare’s account of a day: ‘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’. This character, this Gypsy, leapt from the notebooks and into myself and started writing a sonnet. It worked well. I put it aside. I wrote it partly in Romani and forgot about it.
In the New Year, I returned to my writing shed and found Wisdom Smith waiting there like an impatient Daemon. I sat down to work, as did he; and he wrote two sonnets. The next day he wrote three. Since then he has kept me busy on every writing day. The truth is he is good at sonnets, and strong at dialogue; and his work is crisp, fresh and funny. After letting him take me over for two weeks I looked at his work, then I looked at my own book – the book I had thought was working. The truth: Wisdom Smith was a better poet than me. His work was more alive than the poems I had spent the previous year writing. It was not ‘literature’ as such - it was life. This was no ‘sideways and up’ movement in voice, but a forward advance. And he was leading me by the nose. And so I gave in and let him. After all, he is writing my book, not me; and I hope I can read you some of his poems on the 17th March. Maybe Wisdom Smith will turn up in St Andrews instead of me. Maybe I should just send him and have the weekend off.
All this sounds mad.
The idea of The Other is only a metaphor for a state of mind while writing. One of the troubles is that notion of The Other has been as theorised to death as the notion of The Author, leaving not only the author dead, but their famous Others stalking the earth like zombies. It is best to keep it simple, and say that many creative writers experience the sensation that somebody other than themselves is at work while writing. And characters, especially a character with the charisma and confidence of Wisdom Smith, will take over a book entirely. A character can write you out of the picture while making the picture. It is, after all, his work. And it always the work of the reader too. Who I hope to meet in person soon in St Andrews. Although who is going to turn up is going to be another big surprise.
Photograph by Jemimah Kuhfeld