Monday, July 04, 2005

Dead lines

One of the things you have to get used to in industry is working to a fixed time frame. Someone makes a decision that the work will take two weeks, and then you have to do it to the best of your ability in that time. It's completely different to the world of the academic where the research continues until a solution is found, or until the money runs out...

It's also different to the world of the poet (most poets?) who will work on a poem for years until it finally finds a satisfying resolution. Although the lines of a poem typically run on one after another, there may be years separating them. I tend to think that when a poem is published, it no longer belongs to the poet and is no longer his/hers to tamper with. When poets break the rule of tampering with published poems, they are generally chided, and normally rightly.

Stephen Spender is a notorious example of a poet who did this. In his 'Collected Poems' published in 1985, he made endless minor changes to a body of work which had already been famous for fifty years. Some of the changes seemed to be senseless:

"When he lived, tall factory hooters never summoned him
Nor did restaurant plate-glass doors revolve to wave him in"

from 'Ultima Ratio Regum' was changed to:

"When he lived, tall factory hooters never summoned him
Nor did restaurant plate-glass windows revolve to let him in"

Not only is 'windows' a poorer metrical fit for this line, but it also makes little sense.

Spender also updated the openings of 'classic' poems, such as 'Polar Exploration':

"Our single purpose was to walk through snow
With faces swung to their prodigious North
Like compass needles. As clerks in whited banks
Leave bird-claw pen-prints columned on white paper,
On snow we added footprints."

Was changed to:

"Our single purpose was to walk through snow:
As clerks in whited banks with bird-claw pens
Leave tracks columned on paper,
To snow we added footprints."

In the updated version it seems he was trying to simplify the metaphor built around walking through snow by uniting the first line with the fourth and fifth. However, he failed to see that the strength in these lines lay in the tension between 'faces swung to their prodigious north' which give the sense of 'purpose', as opposed to the scratching 'bird-claw pen-prints' which serve to undermine it.

Other poems had their titles changed. The famous poem 'Rough' which starts:

"My parents kept me from children who were rough"

has its title changed to 'My Parents'. I think this is a weak title for a poem, but also, it shifts the emphasis of the poem, concerned with Spender's difficulty in connecting with the rough kids he admired, towards his parents. Instead of being a poem of reflection, it becomes a poem of blame.

There are lots of other examples. It seems he was concerned with expressing himself more clearly, but the result is that the poems became more prosaic, the spontaneity was written out. I guess, even in poetry, a time limit can sometimes be useful.


Jim Grozier said...

Interesting to find this, Jonathan, although a few years late! I just googled the first line of "Polar Explanation" and it led me to this. The reason is that I have me own blog now and wanted to quote the poem - actually a *third* version which I discovered about 40 years ago, and still prefer. It was in the Faber Book of Modern Verse (pub. 1965) and actually had a different title ("The North"). In fact I was convinced it was an update on a much weaker poem called "Polar Exploration" published in the Chatto Book of Modern Verse in 1956 - but was gobsmacked to find that the collected poems had reverted to the original title and weaker vocabulary - e.g. in the Faber version "compass needles" becomes "compass iron" - much better I think. (Note also that the penultimate line goes from "a raging eye" to "a staring eye" to "a cyclops eye"!) - Jim Grozier.

Jonathan Wonham said...

It's nice of you to leave a comment Jim. Yes, I'm not surprised there are other versions. A bit of a conundrum for editors I'm sure. Best wishes, Jonathan.