by Todd R. Nelson
“A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” wrote W.H. Auden, seconding Paul Valéry. I think it’s an indirect paean to revising, multiple drafts, and the benefits of dissatisfaction. I imagine any of the poems Auden “abandoned” had gone through multiple drafts before appearing in print. A favorite poem of mine went through 88 drafts before Dylan Thomas decided “Fern Hill” could be considered finished.
And then there’s the famous draft of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” with excisions and notes by Ezra Pound, pulling it into its final state. Less is more, evidently. The draft exists to show us the sculpting and abandonment required. The poem we always remember during this month starts like this:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
What struggles did James Dickey go through to be able to finally say, “I work on a poem to get the worked on feel out of it”? How much did that statement cost him, in revisions and erasures? In other words, to remove the detectable footprints plodding from inception to completion, the offshoots and substitutions – the crossed-out words and phrases that thwart that polished surface presented in print – he had to be willing to cast and recast his thoughts and words. Isn’t this the acme of all good writing – the goal of drafting and redrafting, before satisfaction (or exhaustion or creative bankruptcy) cries, “Enough!”
Robert Frost said, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.”
The story of poems reminds me how much I miss even having drafts. Time was, I would compose all my writing on a typewriter. Any change forced evidence of the alteration. The offending word or sentence would be hammered out with a line of Xs. If it made it past composition to the stage of revision, there would be a piece of paper to work over – a wasteland! – with my favorite pencil. Then I would retype the draft, now number two, to have a clean sheet for a fresh reading. Writing had a past, present and future. As Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” begins: “Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.” So goes writing. It sounds like the metaphysics of eking out successive drafts. Drafts mean prior offences to assess. A draft means I can reconstruct the scene.
Here in the digital age, there is only the present version. You will never know what might have been in this column; I will only preserve what is. The laptop is my friend and my nemesis. It does not believe in drafts. One would need to print each updated version of a piece of writing, get it down on paper, make a hard copy, to establish a timeline and motive in the writing process. The draft archives our individual evolution of thought and expression.
I treasure the old drafts I filed away, like the drafts edited by my old teachers. “No ‘paragiraffing!’” exclaimed one, with a penciled neck in the margin suggesting how to economize on the number of sentences in my paragraphs. I learned how to do Dickey’s work by seeing Mr. Pratt’s rejection of my vocabulary and simplification of my syntax. But now that I write on a digital device, composition has no history. No Blackwing Palomino 602 – “Half the pressure, twice the speed” – in my handwriting to scratch up the paper with improvements.
Poet Billy Collins suggests that only this pencil will do for poetry composition. His 602s are white. This suggests his poems get to final draft the long, circuitous way – by hand. Perhaps he has a poem about the breadcrumbs he drops along the way –for the rescue party, or for his own ability to find the way home. I bet there’s no paragiraffing when he gets done. But there is no “done.”
The more I consider it, the more poetry itself seems like a draft of the world, for the world. Poem after poem, poet after poet, attempts to get the word and world right – to say it: the truth, the joy, the horror, the voluptuousness, the perplexity and possibility of the human condition; the light on the forsythia, the counter-current in the stream, the cry of the last wolverine.
Or, as local poet Philip Booth put it,
to speak some measure
of how we hear the music:
today if ever to
say the joy of trying
to say the joy.
At least, that’s this year’s draft, melting and trying as it goes, ready for abandonment.
Todd R. Nelson lives in Penobscot.