Monday, 4 August 2014

Being English (Work In Progress and complete)

Very few poets spit out their poems fully formed, and I'm no exception. In fact, I'm probably the worst offender when it comes to writing absolute, complete garbage on the first draft and having to slowly sculpt it into shape in order to get it to read and sound the way I originally meant it to. I'm acquainted with one reasonably well-known poet who claims that he's able to let ideas ferment in his brain for a few days before placing a reasonably tight first draft on paper. That must be the final stage in the poet's evolution, and one I've yet to reach. The preceding stages, drawing solely from personal experience, are:

STAGE ONE: "I have written something! It's mine! And because I've written it, and I am a unique individual on this Planet of Earth, it is unique and therefore good and needs little or no changing, for doing so would interfere with the purity of the art!" - the teenage years (though some people never get past this point).

STAGE TWO: "I've written a poem, and it looks mostly good to me, but obviously it isn't. I know that now, because I've received rejection slips with helpful feedback which tell me where my flaws lie, and also I'm beginning to learn what my cringeworthy cliches usually tend to be, and this has the distinct smell of some of those. But how to make it right? And if I put the red line through large chunks of it, aren't I losing a lot of lines I actually like a great deal? And what the hell do I replace them with?" - this may rest unresolved. It usually does. The work gets scrapped.

STAGE THREE: "This poem is shit (or mediocre if I'm having a particularly good day). Most of the lines need to be struck through, but I can't quite visualise the shape yet, and it's going to need weeks of constant revisiting before I feel even halfway confident about it".

I've been on "Stage Three" for most of my adult life. I was rummaging around on my hard drive a few weeks back when I found some really early drafts of a poem entitled "Being English" which eventually got published in a small magazine. But to prove my point about the way I work, the first draft is absolute drivel which really wouldn't have been touched by anyone - borderline adolescent drivel, in fact, shocking for one so old. But I can remember sitting down in a kitchen in Melbourne and having a very definite idea of the mood and how I wanted to sound, and these initial formless ideas were the best I could get to very roughly expressing that at the time. I knew it wasn't a final piece of work, I just wanted to throw some ideas at the wall. Like this:

Everything is what it is.
I accept that.
I stay out of everyone’s shadow,
unplug the television from the
wall at night and
double lock the door,
treat laughter on the street
with fear and suspicion.
Watch car crashes on
video replay with morbid fascination.
Laugh at bounty-hunting
idiots on TV quiz shows,
pretend I’m above what I’m enjoying.
Turn my flesh mud-coloured,
my pale eyes into jack marbles in
chocolate on the first warm day.
Elevate past one-night stands and
meaningless affairs into
relationships and milestones,
fear the possibility of stalkers
whilst looking up a past
lover on the Internet for the
third time this year.
Live life through lists of lists of
absolute order.
Have a straight faced,
non-frowning coinslot mouth,
feed thrice daily,
weather the delays,
weather life,
do with making do.

It would be rude not to.

Cringeworthy. The final piece, on the other hand - arrived at after a year or so(!) - utilises very little of the first draft, choosing to use the unpromising beginnings as a springboard for other ideas. It's not me at my best, but it's a long way from its hopeless origins.

We no longer speak of these things –

the spiders we swallowed.

What our lines are or
where they came from.

The invisible elastic rope
that ties us to the
bedpost of the past.

The cheap ticking,
plastic toy that remains
descended on cheap
melted glue from our
ribs to our stomachs.

We simply unplug the
television from the
wall at night,
distrust sudden
shouts of cheer from the
cul-de-sac outside, and
tie our shoelaces
neatly and tightly
so the loops do not
catch and drag the
feet of others
rudely along our path.

We are immeasurably,
utterly sorry for
every state of affairs, but
nothing must change.

The army burst into our
houses and told us we
were strong enough not to
deviate from this given path.
Once they’d beaten us
sixty times and we didn’t
weep, we decided
it must be true.

And why am I showing you this? No reason in particular, really, but I suppose it's to remind myself, and maybe a handful of other people as well, that the process is often long-winded and bad ideas in themselves are nothing to be ashamed of. You can wallow in the mood and the feel like a hippo in hot mud (or a pig in shit, whichever you prefer) until as many as 85% of the first lines are struck through and replaced with something workable, then reordered. For this poem, some of the drafts have notes next to them like "Still not there" and "almost there - keep?" as I got to grips with what I wanted to say. The first draft is nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to tear up, just as the foundations of a house by themselves make a pretty laughable shelter. I just need to remind myself of this sometimes. 

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