Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On Revision

The following quotations all appear in A Poet's Sourcebook (Autumn House, 2013), which includes complete versions of the Corso letter and my essay.

Suetonius, from The Life of Virgil

When Virgil was writing the Georgics, it is said to have been his custom to dictate each day a large number of verses which he had composed in the morning and then to spend the rest of the day in reducing them to a very small number, wittily remarking that he fashioned his poem after the manner of a she-bear, and gradually licked it into shape. In the case of the Aeneid, after writing a first draft in prose and dividing it into twelve books, he proceeded to turn into verse one part after another, taking them up just as he fancied, in no particular order. And that he might not check the flow of his thought, he left some things unfinished and, so to speak, bolstered others up with very slight words, which, as he jocosely used to say, were put in like props, to support the structure until the solid columns should arrive.

The Author to her Book

Anne Bradstreet

Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did’st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad expos’d to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call.
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight,
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I wash’d thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet.
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i’ th’ house I find.
In this array, ’mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam.
In Critics’ hands, beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known.
If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none;
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which caus’d her thus to send thee out of door. 

Emily Dickinson, Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862

Mr. Higginson,—Your kindness claimed earlier gratitude, but I was ill, and write to-day from my pillow. 
Thank you for the surgery; it was not so painful as I supposed. I bring you others, as you ask, though they might not differ. While my thought is undressed, I can make the distinction; but when I put them in the gown, they look alike and numb.

You asked how old I was? I made no verse, but one or two, until this winter, sir.
I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does of the burying ground, because I am afraid.

You inquire my books. For poets, I have Keats, and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. For prose, Mr. Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne, and the Revelations. I went to school, but in your manner of the phrase had no education. When a little girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality; but venturing too near, himself, he never returned. Soon after my tutor died, and for several years my lexicon was my only companion. Then I found one more, but he was not contented I be his scholar, so he left the land.

You ask my companions, Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself that my father bought me. They are better than beings because they know but do not tell; and the noise in the pool at noon excels my piano.

I have a brother and sister; my mother does not care for thought, and father, too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind. They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their “Father.”

But I fear my story fatigues you. I would like to learn. Could you tell me how to grow, or is it unconveyed, like melody or witchcraft?

You speak of Mr. Whitman, I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful.

I read Miss Prescott’s Circumstance, but it followed me in the dark, so I avoided her.

Two editors of journals came to my father’s house this winter, and asked me for my mind, and when I asked them “why” they said I was penurious, and they would use it for the world.

I could not weigh myself, myself. My size felt small to me. I read your chapters in the “Atlantic,” and experienced honor for you. I was sure you would not reject a confiding question.

Is this, sir, what you asked me to tell you?

Your friend,
E. Dickinson. 

Gregory Corso, from Letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1957
Let me know as soon as you get this, don’t keep me waiting, please, and when do you think book will finally get out? I mean this is the most I have to do with book, it’s all up to you now, Ode To Coit Tower as you can see is very inspired poem. God, but I always hated Dream and Poem On Death Again and H and Written 1956, they are such bad writings. I didn’t realize I sent them to you, you asked for everything, and remember I was bugged when I sent them to you, I didn’t care then, but I do care now, I live my life for poetry, and I’m willing to die for it, therefore I deserve only to have good poems published. Them fucking traditionalists ain’t gonna die for poetry so let them publish bad poems.

Dawn Potter, from Not Writing the Poem
Being in the zone is rather like writing under the influence of a writing-specific drug: every step of the task vibrates with meaning, and the work seems to take charge of itself. [John] Fowles said, “I know when I am writing well that I am writing with more than the sum of my acquired knowledge, skill, and experience; with something from outside myself.” When I’m in the zone, I still produce words and revise, produce words and revise; but somehow my decision making feels sharper and more incisive. I don’t plod through time, dragging at words like I’m yanking an obstinate goat up a mountain path. Weightless, I fly.
Yet being in the zone does not guarantee that what I produce is any good. As Auden pointed out, poets “cannot claim oracular immunity.” The writing trance may be an intoxication, but the art that results is not dependable. Auden’s example was Coleridge’s famous fragment “Kubla Khan,” composed, according to the author, during an opium dream in a “lonely farm-house.”
The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.
Despite historical precedent, one is not required to take laudanum or drink whiskey for breakfast in order to work in the writing zone. But drugs do add their own je ne sais quoi to the situation; and thus Coleridge’s opium-induced zone cannot really parallel my own non-opium-induced haze. Yet his description of the experience is nonetheless familiar. “All the images rose up before him as things”—yes, I, too, recognize those moments, breathtaking, yet also as simple as water, when the abstractions of thought assume a swift and automatic solidity.  “With a parallel production of the correspondent expressions,” the words for those images appear under my fingers—easily, exactly, “without any sensation or consciousness of effort.”
            But trouble always looms. Waking from his dream, Coleridge “instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At that moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock . . . and all the rest [of the dream poem] passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.”
            Oh, that aggravating person from Porlock! How well I know him. He has been sitting on the other side of my desk for about six months now, kicking the table leg, snapping his gum, and trying to interest me in political candidates and asphalt shingles. He is the anti-zone, and he interrupts every single word I write. Sometimes I manage to soldier on in spite of him, but sometimes I just give up and take him out for coffee. Coleridge, however, was unable to persevere against distraction. Daily life intruded on the trance, and “Kubla Khan” remains unfinished and unrevised. Though the author did publish the fragment, he did so only “at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity [Lord Byron], and, as far as the Author’s own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.”

            Despite the poet’s disclaimer, the fragment is, in truth, a wondrous piece of work; yet as Auden noted, “Coleridge was not being falsely modest. He saw, I think, as a reader can see, that even the fragment that exists is disjointed and would have had to be worked on if he ever completed the poem, and his critical conscience felt on its honor to admit this.” In other words, “Kubla Khan” is a lovely scrap, but it could have been a polished work of art if the poet had been able to step outside the trance zone into the lumpish everyday world of banging words together and taking them apart, banging words together and taking them apart—a quotidian job that is rather like trying to assemble a mechanical device that seems to be missing various indispensable gears. There’s nothing particularly joyous or intoxicating about the project, but it’s the job that gets the work done—and a job that Coleridge knew very well he had once been able to do.


Christopher said...

“The world of revision” indeed – and now I’m feeling “uneasy” too – that was your word, Dawn, when I tried to explained why “Accident Report” was what it was and begged you to leave it alone. [June 10, 2013 at 11:19 AM]

But I doubt you read my comments, just saw the word “revision” and got ready for today.

Like Dawn Potter scripted by Vladimir Nabokov, or the John Fowles of The Magus [revised version].

It’s like wrestling with the walrus and the carpenter, talking to you, or to a woman. The quantity of sand has nothing to do with it, just either eating the oysters on the spot or prolonging the argument about them for so long everybody forgets what it was about and just feels it’s time for dessert. Either that or sleep on the couch downstairs.

I’d love a first hand response from time to time, dear Dawn. Of course it’s your blog, and who am I to presume. But nevertheless.


Christopher said...

In a sense the disagreement is not really about "revision" at all, it seems to me. What I'm complaining about is your word "intent." "My intent was to imply that the "you" is male. But if that isn't coming through, I need to do more work." [ 8:09 AM on Jun 9, 2013]

Right after you said that I went to some pains to show you why I felt the poem was feminine, not just in its narrative voice but in the imagery, the tone, the legendary ingredients, the "curve" even (as I found out later -- that was too deep for me at the start though Mary Hennessey got it immediately!).

I'd love to know why you think the narrator (driver???) in the poem ought to be male, or what you intended when you made that initial decision. Is something lost if he isn't, is the poem not what you intended it to be about, is it deficient in some way, or not fully realized?

This really confuses me, and I'd love you to say something specific in response. You made the claim, not me, after all -- because for me (and I suspect for Carlene too) it doesn't really matter, any more than it matters in most fairy-tales. It's the reader's gender that matters, it's the psyche of the dreamer of a story that celebrates its myth.

And just as a little postscript on that, I love The Magus, and indeed read it for the first time in 1979 while wintering on the very island where it takes place without knowing it (honest ingenuity on that!). The reason it doesn't work, I think, is that the narrator is too wound up in the gender of the writer, the author was so young at the time, and he thought that was important. Indeed, John Fowles only became a great writer when he found out how to write like a woman.

So there!


Christopher said...

Ah ha, I think I've got it. There's an actual event behind the poem. The driver was, in fact, a real man and he gave you a report on what happened and you were trying to be faithful to his account. And perhaps you still feel you owe that to him, that it's his history, after all, and who are you, a mere woman, to presume?

Well there you go, just what I meant -- like John Fowles trying to be true to his dick. He was much too young to understand the French Lieutenant's woman who hadn't yet arrived on his breakwater thrusting out to sea.

Dawn Potter said...

Christopher, it's time for you to stop this. Please. You are twisting my posts, comments, and silences to suit your own concerns, and you are becoming offensive.

Christopher said...

Very sorry, Dawn. I will stop.

Please forgive me for having been clumsy.