Thursday, January 10, 2008

In Dark Places - the revised draft

Click to enlarge

Now that we're well into January, I can no longer put off posting up my own effort at the Dark Places writing and revision exercise. You've probably all forgotten the original poem, and who can blame you, but there's a scribbled-on draft above and it can also be found on Raw Light here if you want a quick refresher.

The poem's earliest genesis
I began writing this poem by copying out a few lines from Ezra Pound, then attempting to continue in the same 'voice' and style but on a different theme. Cheating? Probably, but not something I'm too worried about. If a particular technique kickstarts a draft, why not use it?

It's not something I do very often, though I did write a poem called 'Thanatos' - published in PNR, and in my second collection - using this technique. I chose an incredibly powerful, almost raw poem by Ted Hughes as a template on that occasion, addressed to Sylvia Plath and entitled 'You Hated Spain'.

The Ezra Pound I used was a snippet of some ten or so lines from the middle of Canto II. It begins 'And, out of nothing, a breathing/hot breath on my ankles'. It's an extract that focuses on the senses above all: smell, taste, touch, sight and hearing. And this emphasis on physicality reminded me of a visit I'd made to the Pont Du Gard, some ten or twelve years ago, with a lover in tow whose star was about to dim for me.

I wanted to keep faith with Pound's use of the senses. So I used 'fish-scaled' and 'urine', thought about how the 'light' inside the aqueduct was blocked by people stepping across the openings above or coming towards us down the narrow tunnel. I remembered the 'rough' walls under our fingertips, the need to stoop. Plus the blinding heat and dust that struck me as I left the cool interior of the aqueduct itself at the far end.

It's the top level of the Pont Du Gard you walk through, which you always used to reach via a short scramble up a dusty hillside and a series of narrow and torturously steep steps. You can climb out onto the very top at intervals - a hazardous decision on a windy day, with no barriers between you and the sheer drop - and stare down at the river below, a marbled greenish-blue dotted with swimmers.

Letting my own voice out
By about the 10th line, I was finding it impossible to sustain that eliptical Poundian style for much longer. So I gave up and just let my mind wander wherever it wished. As you can see from the sudden expansion of the lines, the poem begins to change and develop at that point. Most importantly, the unexpected word 'we' makes an appearance, along with a past tense, both elucidating the narrative voice and giving the poem an emotional context it had originally resisted.

At about that stage, I deleted the lines from Pound that I'd used as a springboard, and gave the poem its own title, Pont Du Gard.

Technical Problems
Why are the 'hands' in line 13 'well-worn'? Surely the stone is worn, rather than the hands. Or was I transferring the epithet unconsciously, thinking of a 'well-worn' relationship, maybe one just about to snap? A clever enough answer, but I'm writing a poem here, not a dissertation.

I played with the line, and cut the too-obvious hands, throwing the primary beat backwards to make 'stone well-worn,/blackened with water'. This tightening of the metre also brings it into line with the earlier part of the poem. But at a later stage of the draft, I found this didn't work and had to change it again, as you can see.

My other basic revisions followed that tendency - i.e. to shorten the line and tighten the metre, removing elements in the second half of the poem which negate the mysterious and abrupt sense-explosions of the first ten or so lines.

I also considered eradicating the later references to 'we' on the same grounds.

Initially, the appearance of 'we' felt like a strong and useful progession to the specific from the general, but that may not be the case if the poem is the weaker for it. Perhaps the human presence, as I write in my marginal notes on the poem itself, anchors this rather ephemeral poem to reality. But it may also ruin it, by destroying its opening atmosphere of other-worldliness and making this feel too much like a 'holiday' poem.

But is it worth saving from the wastepaper bin?
I like this poem. Some of the phrases tug at me pleasingly. But I need to know more about its purpose before I can push on with more rigorous revisions or think about it as a finished piece.

Poems without purpose are like roses without a fragrance. They may look great in magazines, and even poetry collections, but no one remembers them as especially important, including the poet. And if we are at all serious about poetry, we want our poems to have purpose and to be remembered.

Purpose need not be overt in a poem; overt purpose is usually awkward and embarrassing, rather like going about naked in public or wearing too ostentatious an outfit for the occasion. The best sort of purpose is often secret, its deepest levels hidden even from the poet. But it must exist, and we must sense its existence as we read.

So what purpose does this poem have? Answers on a postcard.

The revised draft
Here's one possible redraft, but 'Pont Du Gard' needs far more work if it's to achieve any sort of poetic conviction:

Pont Du Gard
Stone hall for the shrunken,
black pit interior
fish-scaled with urine.
Grim shadows of men
blocking the light up ahead.
Broad squares of sun-flash,
rectangular access
to blind air and buffet.
Swimmers below
pale fins burning in water.
Sink back into darkness
at the next space, worn stone
blackened with water,
the rough runnels of history.
Filigree depths
where the heart struggles to rise.
Pinioned to single file
in the low-roofed
night haul of the Roman:
troll-trod, dwarf dominion.
Afterwards, hot dust and olives,
a dazzle of strangers
on the long road backwards.


Sorlil said...

Interesting process, thanks for 'baring all', I love seeing your scribbled draft!

Bo said...

This is interesting and powerful, in my opinion....but it reads as a fragment of experience, the 'thousand words' of the metaphorical painted picture. I agree that its purpose as a poem is not clear. But as always your control of rhythm and your ability to create powerful, sensuous images amazes! Who is the speaker?

Jane Holland said...

Thanks Sorlil, Bo.

Yes, displaying the actual written-on draft felt like a stroke of blogging genius! Pity the poem itself isn't quite on the same level.

As for the speaker, it must be me, I guess. This is about the third poem - all three fairly unsuccessful, I think - about the Pont Du Gard, which I've visited on many occasions. Clearly a place which strikes deep with me.

But it could as easily be Ezra Pound speaking - or rather Homer-Odysseus via Pound, as the original snippet was from his Homeric-style Cantos.

'Grim shadows of men/blocking the light up ahead' is probably the most significant part of the poem for me, in terms of hunting the purpose. I was with a woman at the time and, with hindsight, perhaps that's how it felt for me - a sinister pressure and an animosity towards the ever-present threat of the 'alternative'.

With this sort of imagery and setting, sexuality may be the right way to go in terms of interpretation. It would certainly explain my censoring of the word 'we' from the first draft. Too revealing to be comfortable?

Jane Holland said...

P.S. I've just spotted the clumsy repetition of 'water' in the poem, hitting the line-ending in such a way that it can't even be missed on a casual reading - ah yes, there's none so blind as the poet who wrote it - and think the first instance would be better off changed to something more apposite.

Already a third draft is beginning to form in my mind ...

Jane Holland said...

I could also experiment with removing the colon after Roman and rather daringly - for me! - running the sense on to 'troll-trod' as an enjambement, even though the two phrases were never originally intended to be read as one.

If it works, it would just smooth out that slight bump as we enter the last bend.