Wednesday 13 July 2011

Redrafting. Elizabeth Bishop and ‘One Art’

When John Ashbery reviewed Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems, he called her “a writer’s writer’s writer”.  Her famous attention to redrafting could be one reason.  Redrafting is difficult.  It can be depressing and frustrating, if the poem won’t take off; if it won’t find, say, its form or its ending.  This can lead to doubts about whether any poem will ever take off again.  And time spent on redrafting can seem utterly pointless and solipsistic – moving the deckchairs / commas around on a nano-Titanic.  The opposite of what poetry ought to be about. 

Elizabeth Bishop’s example is both inspiring – who wouldn’t work on a poem for 20 years if it turned out as good as ‘The Moose’ – and depressing, when one lacks any hope of such an outcome. 

Here is a spine-stiffening quote from the American poet Richard Tillinghast:

The willingness, the ardent desire even, to revise separates the poet from the person who sees poetry as therapy or self-expression.  To revise is to improve, and I suspect that the desire to improve hints at a longing for perfection, which shows how related the formal and spiritual sides of poetry are.  The impulse to improve is also a sign of humility.. learning how to be worth one’s salt as a writer.

And one of a different sort from Ted Hughes, which I think is relevant to revision:

The progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system.

And a lovely one from Michael Longley:

Technique is important.  I think that if most people who called themselves poets were tightrope-walkers they’d be dead.

A tightrope-walker needs to practice; the famous ten thousand hours, or ten years.  Nurture over nature. 

Magazine editors and poetry tutors tend to say that many poems they see aren’t finished.  The writer hasn’t gone the extra mile, or ten thousand miles.    

Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle ‘One Art’ went through 17 drafts but was written in a couple of weeks, unusually fast for her.  The drafts, which are typed, are in her archive at Vassar College, where she studied.   They don’t seem to be online now, though I must have read some of them online in the past, when I typed out the whole of the first draft and some later bits; maybe there’s a copyright issue.  There are some photos here.  A book edited by Alice Quinn called Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop contains the drafts of ‘One Art’.  There's a good review of it here.  The book has attracted criticism on the grounds that Bishop would not have wanted her drafts published.
Elizabeth Bishop (from the MAPS)
Extracts from the ‘One Art’ drafts are quoted in a very interesting article by Brett Candlish Millier at the Modern American Poetry Site (which has lots of good stuff).  The first draft isn’t a villanelle and is partly in note form, but it’s already a list of things lost from small to great and the poem’s tone is already identifiable – that blithe, bright tone that has desperation and disaster lurking behind it.  This draft could almost be a runaway monologue for a character in a play.  It is called ‘How to Lose Things’ or ‘The Gift of Losing Things’.  It starts:

        The thing to do is to begin by ‘mislaying’…
keys, reading-glasses, fountain pens
– these are almost too easy to be mentioned…

and then:

– This is by way of introduction.  I really
want to introduce myself – I am such a
fantastic lly good at losing things…

The list expands to include houses, towns etc and

        a good sized bay,
a good piece of one continent, another continent,
the whole damned thing!

One might think this would have prepared me
for losing one average sized not especially exceptionally
beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person
except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally
                                beautiful and the hands looked
                                intelligent) the fine hands
but it doesn’t seem to have, at all…
According to Millier there are rhymes for the villanelle written in the margins of the first draft, so Bishop must have heard a villanelle coming by then.  The second draft is already a villanelle, with the first line in its final form, and this and the next few drafts sort out the earlier stanzas, the list of things lost and the rhymes.  Then further drafts address the final stanza, and work towards a way of both controlling the emotion and breaking that control:

The art of losing’s not so hard to master           [draft 5]
But won’t help in think of that disaster
No – I am lying –

All that I write is false, it’s evident                  [draft 9]
The art of losing
isn’t hard to master
oh no
[anything] at all anything but one’s love (Say it:

So many things seem really to be meant           [draft 13]

And losing you now (a special voice, a gesture)
doesn’t mean I’ve lied.  It’s evident
the loss of love is possible to master,
even if it looks like (Write it!) like disaster. 

There are more versions of the last stanza in Millier’s article. 

‘One Art’ meets this poem test, set by Bishop in a 1962 letter to Robert Lowell:

If after I read a poem, the world looks like that poem for 24 hours or so, I’m sure it’s a good one.

Reading the drafts could have the magic-removing effect of being shown how a conjuring trick works.  Instead, understanding the difficulty of composition only adds to the admiration I feel for ‘One Art’.  Villanelles are very hard to write and have to be perfect to earn their keep, the poetry equivalent of tightrope-walking from skyscraper to skyscraper.   

Note: the Richard Tillinghast quote is from an essay called ‘Notes on Revision’.  The Michael Longley quote is in The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations.  I can’t find the source of the Ted Hughes quote, though it’s in books (and all over the internet, with slight variations).  The quote from Bishop’s letter is in One Art, the Giroux-edited selected letters.  Her letters are wonderful. 

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