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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

14 June 2024

Making proof corrections to a book brings unexpected joy to Malcolm Guite

NOT for the first time, the memory of my younger self has appeared in the nick of time to save the older man from weariness and ingratitude. In this instance, it was about correcting proofs.

When I was 19, and on the train to Cambridge to begin my life as a student there, I was awestruck to see a man beside me take a bundle of printed sheets out of his briefcase and begin to go through them, making peculiar hieroglyphic marks with a red pen in text and margin. I was awe-struck because I knew what he was doing: he was correcting proofs: the actual proof texts of a real book, a book that was going to appear in print, with the author’s name on the cover, and be sold for real money in actual bookshops! I was sitting next to a real-life author.

I was a boy who had been brought up surrounded by books whose authors were almost mythical beings to me; for I had never met one. But now I was going to a place where there was a good chance that I might, indeed, meet the real people behind the names on the book covers, and here I was already sitting next to one of them.

I tried not to stare too hard, or be too indiscreet, as I covertly read the sentences on his proof text. And then, of course, I dreamed my dream: I wondered whether, by some immense good fortune, I might ever become an author. Perhaps, I, too, might one day become that impossibly glamorous person correcting the proofs of his new book on the train.

And yet, when I got home from the United States this week, and found the proofs of the new expanded edition of Sounding the Seasons (Canterbury Press) waiting for me, I confess that I sighed, and even complained a little to myself, about how many tasks were awaiting me on my return, and how little time there was to complete them.

But, as soon as I took out the printed sheets and uncapped my pen to attend to them, my 19-year-old self appeared in his full vigour and upbraided me for my sighs. Far from being another exhausting task, this was, in fact, the moment of fulfilment.

The young man who had dreamed on the train came to me and bade me rejoice. Not only was I correcting the proofs of a real book of my own, as I had always longed to do, but I was correcting the proofs of a second and expanded edition.

The book had not only been published, but it had also made its way out into the world and found many readers, offered some beauty, done some good. Indeed, when I reflect on the 12 years since its first publication, on all the churches of so many different denominations that have woven my poems into their services, and all the individuals who have written to me to thank me for the help that my sonnets have given them, I am more than grateful: I am happily astonished.

I am also grateful and surprised that, notwithstanding the many more mundane tasks over which I sigh and fret, somehow, 40 additional sonnets have slipped from my pen to join the original 70 in that first edition. So, I pause in my proofreading and raise a glass to my younger self: the one who did the dreaming.

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