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.