‘poetry is not everything…everything is poetry’

The Gypsy and the Poet, David Morley, Carcanet, £9.95
reviewed by Pippa Little

morley gypsy and poet
This remarkable and beautiful book reveals itself slowly in layerings and inter-weavings much as its language assumes natural forms of bird’s nest and hedgerow. At its heart is the evocation of a friendship between the poet John Clare and Wisdom Smith whose bare title of Gypsy does not do him, or his many skills and powers justice enough.

Carefully and painstakingly crafted, the collection opens with ‘The Invisible Gift’, a spellbinding evocation of poetry as act of creation rooted in nature and the senses, bringing alive its “small singing” in the face of “…all/the hungers of the world” and finishes with the eponymous poem which asserts human connection and continuity as a source of hope: “I call out to my child, and he is everywhere, and she is everyone.”

‘The Gypsy’ and ‘The Poet’ sequences are separated by a central section, ‘World’s Eye’, which works to re-calibrate focus on the main theme, rather as a birdwatcher might adjust his binoculars to look differently from new angles and distances. Through birds and birdsong the poet asks unexpected things of language in ways reminiscent of GM Hopkins. One extremely lovely poem, ‘Pallid Swift’, will never leave me.

The core of the collection is the charting of the relationship between poet and Gypsy as a powerful, difficult, loving friendship between two different creativities, not just between Clare’s sensitive, insecure, diffident spirit and Wisdom’s more robust, down-to-earth shaman but also between two world-views separated through metaphor of language: Wisdom Smith’s Romani which, like birdsong, seems always foreign, even untranslatable, counterpoints Clare’s visionary poetic continuously straining to transform thought into thing itself and vice versa.

Though ‘broken’, Wisdom’s emerges the stronger, able to puncture Clare’s more high-faluting Romanticism and see through its ultimately self-destructive desire for fame and recognition. Clare is drawn to the Gypsy way of life it seems because he idealises its freedom: Morley, through Wisdom, is blunt about its unpoetic deprivations and hardships. Wisdom’s language, encompassing his philosophy and identity, is the stronger for being grounded in an older tradition that does not adhere to ephemeral values. Clare is all insecurities: poetic, sexual, social – for example he builds walls and hedges, takes part in the enclosing of the land in order to survive, though he detests himself for doing so. Both are woven tight within the constraints of their lives like wild birds trapped in a net.

“John, I know no man no more half-in or half-out of your race” Wisdom tells Clare: though he lives beyond society as an ‘outsider’, Wisdom Smith appears far more secure in his own community than Clare will ever be in his.

When they are closest it is at a childlike, visceral, almost pre-verbal level. Both are passionate about the natural world, both are asking profound questions about their places in it and what it means to be alive. Morley charts how the friendship changes through the book, encompassing moments of menace, quarrels, reconciliation, misunderstanding between them and their eventual drift apart. It is a very enclosed, private, singular friendship: other Gypsies, John’s family, his Patron, none impinge directly on the time the two men spend together, talking, eating, working, thinking aloud, arguing. And the shadow of Clare’s oncoming madness darkens the final poems.

They are more than just two, however: the ‘real’ poet, Morley himself, is always present in his absence, creating a kind of floating triangular structure of Morley/Clare/Wisdom Smith in which they are all selves in constant transit in relation to one another, always fluid in identity. Who is alter-ego to whom? Morley is a poet of Romani origin and this situates his writing in a most interesting space where contradictions sprout richly and are allowed their significance even as aesthetic control is applied. In ‘Hedge Layers’ the analogy is clear when Wisdom Smith tells Clare: “The hedges of hawthorn yearn to become trees…/…/A pleacher reaches for its root through bark and sapwood/which is all in our cut and angle..” The great power of this book is to be able to embrace and hold contrasting truths:

‘Poetry is not everything. You know that, John,’ smiles the Gypsy.
‘You are wrong,’ dances Clare. ‘Everything. everything is poetry.’


The more I read this mysterious and beguiling book the more I find in it, most of all the image of the bird’s nest which becomes John Clare’s hat, the brim of which he leaned on when writing poems.

Pippa Little

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