Saturday 7 January 2023

Origami and poetry

In "The Dark Horse" issue 46, Michael Longley says that this is one of his best poems -

Why shouldn't they make use of my failures,
Early versions, outlines, my granddaughters
Conjuring frogs and birds out of scrap paper
And laying my lost words on a swan's wing?

It's from his new book. The interviewer Matt Howard enjoyed it too. Longley goes on to say "as I've grown older, I think my sense of timing is better. I know that if I have to labour over a poem, it's not going to be any good" and agrees that "every mark on the page needs to be doing something of value in service of the poem." I note that

  • Origami is a familiar theme in poems - see for example allpoetry's origami page or "Reckless Paper Birds" by John McCullough. I wonder how original this poem is. I've used the making of paper planes in poetry and prose to indicate giving flight to failure or making light of sad things (bills, etc). A bin is the plane's most common destination.
  • Each line starts with an upper case letter. What are those marks on the page for? And what do the line-breaks do?
  • "they" in the first line turns out to be the granddaughters. Redundancy?
  • the "scrap paper" of line 3 is what's listed in line 2. Redundancy? HN pointed out that the girls just see the "scrap paper", not the poetry.
  • Why "early versions" (4 syllables!) rather than "drafts"? HN pointed out that versions, unlike drafts, can be valid and final.
  • Why "make use of" rather than "use"? Because there had to be 10 syllables per line? But why?
  • Sonically "lost" is useful (the "L" echoes the earlier "L", and "lost words" chimes with "swan's wing") but what does it mean?
  • Maybe the final line's an allusion or quotation - "laying words" sounds odd. You lay eggs or bricks. "layering words" would give the origami idea of folding and the idea of propagation.
  • Why "granddaughters" rather than "kids"? In the interview he says that the poem was inspired by his granddaughters' antics, but "granddaughters" is 3 syllables!

So playing devil's advocate, let's do some labouring and eliminate the putative redundancy, thereby removing nearly half(!) of the syllables -

Why shouldn't my kids conjure frogs and birds from my drafts, laying my lost words on a swan's wing?

How much worse is this version? Half as good?

  • If the original's bloat is only there for the sonics, I don't think it's worth keeping (though I'm rather cloth-eared)
  • In the original we might at first think "they" has a more general meaning - future generations, for example. And "my early versions" can be read as versions of himself rather than just poetry drafts. I think that's an interpretation worth preserving.
  • In the original, the line-breaks encourage the idea that "my granddaughters" belong to the list of failures, which seems odd.

The best version is somewhere between these two, I guess. Maybe he said it was a favourite to please his granddaughters.

No comments:

Post a Comment