Friday 16 July 2010


On his blog Jim Murdoch tells us how he spent 3.5 hours getting a sentence right (via Heinz beans, Gillian Anderson, etc). He ended up with "From now on, whenever I pick up or think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, I’ll think of a girl with red hair on a bus" but didn't think that would be the final version.

Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending to "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times and used to brag about it, but Gustave Flaubert's perhaps the most famous re-writer. His manuscripts have been scanned in. Have a look at the University of Rouen's collection

Nancy Rawlinson thinks of drafting as follows - first Write it out in order to know it, to understand it (whatever “it” is here: story, idea, feeling). Then write it again, with this new knowledge having been dredged up and placed, to some degree, at the front of the mind. These two documents might have very little in common. The first enables the second, and the second isn’t so much a rewrite as a re-imagining.

I recently read "The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else" (Michelene Wandor). It's about Creative Writing courses. She thinks that the traditional workshop must go, because it emphasises re-writing rather than writing. But I need to re-write. I try to keep earlier drafts because sometimes rewriting smooths away interesting quirks. In general though, if I write quickly I revert to self-parody - samey characters, plots, details, sentence-length - so my re-writes can be extensive. I individualise the characters, sneak in twists and hints, change the phrase order in sentences, go through checklists (the 5 senses; the start and end; etc). Sometimes I add or delete a character or scene, or change the PoV. I've been known to delete all but a paragraph, or join 2 pieces together. My financially most successful piece went through 19 years of re-writes. By the end of that it looked bruised and battered to me, a war veteran with an artificial leg, sewn-on arm and a dangerously damaged soul. I have a different, more benevolent attitude to a piece written in a fortnight and accepted by the first mag I sent it to. But do readers see any difference between the 2 pieces? I doubt it. There are many ways to end up with a good story. If you try a route you've not tried before there are bound to be more dead-ends and longeurs.

I tend to start with a handwritten draft. Once I have a few hundred words I type it in. There's sometimes a phase when I juggle things around (the example below is taken from that phase) and I frequently re-print drafts.

Sometimes (especially with poetry) I cut a draft up and re-order the pieces on a table. I rarely write at the keyboard. Gradually the piece takes shape, but not before changes small and large. Here's a later snapshot with multi-colour edits

George Watson in the Times Higher Education (July 2010) made these points

  • In a 1979 talk entitled "A Neglected Responsibility" [Larkin] called on British libraries to acquire and preserve poetic manuscripts, hopeful that a corrected draft might persuade the young that a poem is the end of a deliberative process rather than a spontaneous act.
  • Revision can disimprove, and a poet can bother to the point of being bothersome. Auden's publisher used to tell how hard it was to choke a new edition out of him when he was endlessly intent on revising; Wordsworth spent half a lifetime rewriting The Prelude without improving it

Saturday 3 July 2010

Italian Poetry

The rest of my family's bilingual, and I really should be better than I am at Italian. I have some Italian poetry books, and sometimes have magazine subscriptions. I've now created a Letteratura Italiana page to give me more practise. Here are some random observations about the Italian poety scene

  • Italians are more into dialect poetry
  • Whereas we have Larkin, they have people like Montale
  • Their scene isn't so different from ours, of course, though I don't think they have anything corresponding to our "Poetry Society"
  • Some publisher or other often publishes a poetry annual with essays, poems, trends, etc. It's useful.
  • Some of their singer-songwriters are decent poets

Sometimes my familiarity with poetry means that I can cope with an Italian poem better than many Italians can, but much of the time I miss a lot even if I understand the vocabulary - allusions to Dante (there are many) are the least of my problems.

"La nuova poesia modernista italiana", just out, by Giorgio Linguaglossa looks at the last 30 years of Italian poetry, looking for trends and developments, finding only styles of stagnation. I've not read the book, but it's provoked online discussion, much of which sounds familiar. Here are some quotes by various people (my defective translations)

  • The new poetry retreads the unsolved contradictions of the late 1900s
  • The new poetry tries to problematize that which was unproblematized by the imitative, acritical culture of post-experimentism and minimalism. But it's a problematization that doesn't take account of the defeat of poetic language by the narrative/declarative language of global media
  • In poetry nowadays, objects remain mute. Accumulating or minimalising them won't help
  • There should be a poetry moratorium so that poetry, currently in a state of liquifaction, has time to condense into a truer objective correlative. I'd like all poets to abstain from indiscriminate use of the generic metaphorical language that's invaded our methods of communication - newspapers especially
  • I know poets who offer me favours in exchange for favours, the favour in my case being that I publish them. I don't feel scandalised by this because there doesn't exist a world of poetry separate from the poetry community. But what does irritate me is when the same poets lecture me on poetry morals ... Regarding Luigi Manzi's suggested moratorium on publishing modern poetry books, frankly I think many publishers (me included) would be in favour