Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The pros of prose

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’d been reading Neil Roberts’ fine biography of Peter Redgrove, A Lucid Dreamer. In it, he talks about the strict routine of drafting and revising poems that Redgrove developed later in his career, which often involved starting by writing a prose draft.

There’s an apparent risk in such a strategy, of the final poem appearing to be a prose piece chopped up into lines, although anyone who knows Redgrove’s work well (I’ve read a smattering of his collections in the past, and I’m now enjoying the Collected-that’s-actually-a-Selected) will rightly point out that it’s a charge you’d struggle to make stick with a writer as musical as him. For us lesser mortals, though, it’s a far more real danger.

But anyway, having reached rather an impasse in a number of poems I’ve been working on, I thought I’d try it. I started from scratch, got everything I had down into the prose drafts without stopping to worry too much about structure, narrative coherence or even consistency of tone, and then put them away for a few days.*

Having looked at them again over the last couple of days, my immediate response was that new ways into each poem seemed to have opened up - in all but one case, a far better opening line than the original presented itself from deep in the heart of the prose, while in the other, the opening line got changed almost beyond recognition. They're all still a long way from being finished, even now that I've written a verse draft of each too, but they all feel far livelier, and far more open to taking an unexpected turn (which for me is always the interesting part of writing a poem). Some might even stay as prose.

I'd guess this might have happened in large part because restarting them in prose helped break that attachment that the poet always has to the original kernel of the poem - no matter how many times you remind yourself that nothing is sacred, it's very hard during the revision process to ditch what can feel like the nuggets of inspiration that sparked the poem in the first place (they're not, of course, they're just the way you first chose to shape that inspiration).

Whether I'll carry on with this method I'm not sure, but if nothing else it's reminded me that getting out of old habits and trying something different in the writing process is always worth a go.

* I think Redgrove actually left his drafts much longer, and was very strict about not looking at them again until a certain time had passed. I'd like to develop that sort of patience.


Anonymous said...

I've seen those notebooks! There's an idea that the first one contains snippets and scratches which expand into a second where they receive some further work, often in prose forms, then a third where they get their line breaks, and a fourth for final versions. And the notebooks have to be full before they get raided for the next stage, with much incubation between - you need to be as fecund as he was to keep the belt moving, I think. There's more in an earlier Neil Roberts bit in Poetry Review, a clip of which here:

ROY said...

Interesting Matt. I recently read the excellent 'Now All Roads Lead to France' by Matthew Hollis and it seems Edward Thomas also wrote prose which he tranlated into poetry.

Alan Baker said...

Personally, I find writing prose to be liberating - it seems to free me from writerly self-consciousness, and the temptation to be too poetical. In my case, I often like to leave the prose as prose...

Tim Love said...

I think Browning, Poe, Goldsmith and Coleridge all did prose drafts of their poetry sometimes, and weren't averse to de-versing a troublesome section of a poem-in-progress, working on it and then re-versing it back into poetry.

When I'm in trouble with a draft, I sometimes print it, cut each stanza out, and shuffle them around. The final result might be prose (I too feel no requirement to re-cast it back to poetry) or even (though rarely) a 2-dimensional, splattered format.

Matt Merritt said...

I tend to agree, Alan, and I think some of the pieces I've been working on will certainly stay as prose. As much as anything, I think it was good simply to get away from imagining the structure and shape of a poem as I was writing it.

I like that idea, Tim, and it's similar to something I've done before. I suppose in may case, it's that I have a tendency to get stuck in a rut, where writing processes are concerned, whereas, as Andrew says, with Redgrove it became a strict method that entirely suited such a prolific writer.

I haven't read the Hollis book yet, Roy, but will certainly get hold of it. I know Thomas started out very much as a prose writer, but I've never read much about how the one fed into the other.

Cliff Yates said...

Apparently it was Robert Frost who suggested that Edward Thomas do that - it's so interesting. And so are these comments., and your original post, Matt. I've found the same (writing poems out of prose) - having not written many poems for ages, I found material in prose I'd written, particularly long emails to a good friend. I find prose liberating too - and the longer I write, the more I find this - it's as if there's sometimes too much at stake in writing poems, whereas I take prose less seriously and therefore end up writing something that turns into a poem that I wouldn't otherwise have written.

Anonymous said...

Yeats did the same as well, especially in the later work, "Sailing to Byzantium" et al. James Wood