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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

11 October 2019

Malcolm Guite considers what it means to be ‘a wordsmith’

SOMEONE asked me recently whether I could tweak a paragraph that they had written introducing a project that we had both worked on. “I’m sure you can fix this,” they said. “After all, you are our wordsmith.”

Well, I “fixed” the piece as best I could, and sent it back, a little improved, I hope; but, afterwards, I found myself reflecting on that term “wordsmith”. In some ways, it’s very attractive — formed, I take it, on the analogy of blacksmith. (Or, perhaps, for some writers, a silver- or goldsmith, and — in the case of the more cryptic poets — a locksmith).

I like the idea that, just as the blacksmith labours in the forge and smithy, rendering the metals malleable in a furnace and beating them out with the ringing dint of hammer on anvil, so all those of us who work with words — all of us, journalists and preachers, as well as poets — are wordsmiths, labouring in the smithy of our word-processors and notebooks, hammering the malleable material of language itself into a serviceable shape.

Indeed, I’m not the only “wordsmith” to have been attracted to the smithying metaphor. It is explored with great subtlety and skill in Seamus Heaney’s famous early poem “The Forge”. From its celebrated opening line, “All I know is a door into the dark”, it goes on to describe the forge and smithy, to hear “the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring” and to see “the unpredictable fantail of sparks” witness “the hiss when a new shoe toughens into water”.

And then Heaney lifts us from these vivid particulars and begins to use words that suggest that a deeper mystery of creation is at work here, as the anvil “somewhere at the centre” becomes “an altar, Where he expends himself in shape and music”. By this point in the poem, we realise that the “shape and music” evoked here includes the art of poetry, and, at a deeper level, suggests that the one who forges the world for us also “expends himself” for us, and is to be met at an altar.

So, the image of the blacksmith behind the term “wordsmith” has a good pedigree. And yet, attractive as it is, there is something in me that hesitates to use it. I think what troubles me is the suggestion that, like the blacksmith hammering the horse’s shoe, the writer (or preacher) knows in advance the exact shape that their work needs to take, and can therefore hammer it into place with assurance, force, and mastery.

That may be true for some writers, but I find my own art to be more modest and tentative, more collaborative with its materials than dominant over them. Words, for me, are less like the hammered horseshoe and more like the horse itself: alive, frisky, strong, but a little unpredictable, only to be controlled, or managed, as part of a long-term relationship of trust and practice built up between rider and steed.

In some ways, as a poet, I aspire to be less of a blacksmith and more of a horse-whisperer: someone who can work with words, as it were, from the inside rather than hammer them from the outside. In fact, my first response to good poetry, when I’m reading it, is to speak it, breathe it, whisper it into being — this gets me into trouble in libraries and bookshops — hence the whispering.

So, I will leave the confident wordsmithing to others, and be content instead as a word-whisperer.

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