Making the Cut: John Greening on editing poems

1. John Greening high res (photographer Adrian Bullers)

 

John Greening

 

I often quote Basil Bunting’s advice to young poets, that you should ‘cut out every word you dare’. Bunting certainly practised what he preached in his own wonderfully economical work, and even applied it to others, quite fearlessly – to Shakespeare, for instance, whose sonnets he ‘improved’ (as a pastime while living on a boat) by deleting lines and phrases he considered inessential. But when I was myself a ‘young poet’, I don’t think Bunting’s remarks on the craft quite registered. I would probably have said that I’d learnt from his work, because I regularly listened to him reading Briggflatts in those distinctive Northumbrian tones. But in the 1970s I wasn’t yet ready to take advice from anyone – not Bunting, and definitely not George Bernard Shaw, who declared that if you find a line you like, you should cut it out. For many years I found this apparently simple editing process one of the most difficult things to manage. Although I would write twenty or thirty drafts of a poem, revise and revise, reshaping, rejigging, I was far too attached to what I had written to allow it to undergo major surgery.

 

As with many things in my creative life, it was Egypt that brought about a change. In late 1979 or early 1980 I had written a poem of some fifty lines which I regarded as something of a new departure. Most of my Egyptian poems were imagistic sketches, composed under the influence of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. But I had also been reading (goodness knows where I got hold of it so many hundred miles up the Nile) Louis MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Sequel’, not usually regarded as a very successful long poem, but a tour-de-force nevertheless and composed in exemplary terza rima. I had wanted to write something about the cracked obelisk which lay abandoned in the ancient granite quarry just outside Aswan (where my wife and I had been posted by Voluntary Service Overseas). Imagining how the Pharaoh must have reacted when he heard the news, I told the story in rolling aba bcb cdc pentameter rhymes: how he arrived in Aswan, confronted the workmen, and was informed about the fatal crack which had appeared in what would have been the biggest obelisk ever made. Read today it might be seen as a Trumpian allegory…

 

But that day it was as if the earth’s core
had pumped a deep black vein of evil up
out through the granite slab, and the men saw
the crack, as if they were watching a heart stop.

 

That is how the poem now ends, but originally there were three or more further stanzas. Nothing beside remains. I had the sense to cut them out, and I am still rather pleased with that half-rhymed final line.

 

I suppose we have no choice but to learn to part with things we love as we grow older, as that brilliant and intensely self-critical poet Elizabeth Bishop knew, and expressed so memorably in ‘One Art’. That poem is an object lesson in how to achieve the tricksy tumbling of terza rima, although hers is a villanelle, so it incorporates the complication of added repetitions. Not many poets are as tough on themselves as Bishop, and few have critical readers as helpful and keen-eyed as her beloved Robert Lowell. He, of course, was a poet who should have been encouraged to cut entire books (how many versions of Notebook are there?). For those of us less likely to appear on the cover of Time magazine, simply putting together a collection (especially a Selected) is a painful lesson in ‘one art’. A poem you cannot imagine parting with suddenly sounds far too similar in tone to another, or hinges on an image you are already using elsewhere. How different this poem now looks in its new context! It has to go.

 

The good thing about computers (though it can also be the bad thing) is how clinical they have made this editing process; all the writer has to do is decide whether to use ‘cut’ or ‘delete’. There’s something less irrevocable about this than the screwed-up sheet of paper in the basket, which all too quickly gets into the outside bin and has been removed forever to the recycling centre. And troubling memories of that little wheel-of-fate-shaped eraser, or the embalming power of correction fluid are safely contained beyond the bright screen . There is an ‘undo’ button. An archive. Limbo files. Backup. History. What also helps is the fact that the page glowing before our eyes is somehow impersonal, more like the work of A.N.Author. That was, I suppose, true of the typed foolscap I was correcting in Upper Egypt forty years ago. When J.D.Greening (as he was then) cut out those lines from ‘The Crack’ it may have been a typescript he wrote on, but more likely it involved putting a line of pencil through his own handwriting: and terrible though J.D.G.’s handwriting was and is, it has always been his own. Those squiggly m’s and s’s are begging their maker to spare them. No one has an emotional attachment to Times New Roman, though admittedly when working at the computer, I will sometimes edit out a passage or a whole poem, but (because I’m secretly fond of it) paste it at the bottom of the document as if I might come back to it. More often than not the words are quickly forgotten, like all those old gadgets and heirlooms and souvenirs and toys we thrilled over for a while then put in the garage, never to be retrieved, enduring what Robert Frost called the ‘slow smokeless burning of decay’.

 

All this came back to me a couple of years ago when writing one of the longest poems I have ever tackled, ‘The Silence’, which makes up the last third of my new collection from Carcanet (and gives the book its overall title). It is not quite a narrative poem, but rather it’s a tessellated interpretation of Jean Sibelius’s creative life, imagining him during those final thirty years in his forest retreat at Järvenpää, Finland, unable to appease his own gnawing self-criticism and complete that long-awaited eighth symphony (although it’s perfectly possible, indeed, very likely, that he did finish it, and then burnt it in the green-tiled fireplace at Ainola). Sibelius’s Seventh (1924) had consisted of a single movement, a masterly compression of the essence of symphonic thought into just over twenty minutes. By contrast, his very first symphonic work, the Kullervo symphony from 1892 (he suppressed it but now it is a repertoire piece) had lasted almost three times as long. Here was an artist who learnt how to cut. But I had too much to say about Sibelius and his processes, and my own poem ended up at 1200 lines. It was far too long to be part of my next collection. I realised soon after completing it that I would have to take a leaf – many leaves – out of my subject’s book.

 

This proved more difficult than I expected. There were some obviously weaker passages which I wasn’t sorry to see go; and I found I could extract a couple of hundred lines without too much pain. But I simply couldn’t see any way of reducing the poem further – I was happy with the way it all worked, and that was that. Yet I knew it couldn’t work, not at such a length. Almost every day it seemed that I would sit in my ‘word house’ (the writing shed at the back of our terraced cottage) and go through the pages, sometimes reading the quatrains aloud, looking for ways of cutting. Where were Bunting and Shaw when I needed them?

 

In the end, just as I had decided that ‘The Silence’ must stay as it was, that I would have to try and publish it as a separate chapbook (muttering in self-justification about ‘heavenly length’ and how we all wish Bruckner hadn’t made those cuts his friends insisted on) something unexpected happened. One afternoon I was sitting staring at the printout, when I felt a kind of conviction come over me, the kind of surge of self-belief that you hear Olympians talking about. I was suddenly capable (although this was a negative capability) of moving back from my own words, hovering above them almost, and seeing what needed to be done. I found myself coolly cutting a clear way through the stanzas like a topee-wearing colonialist with his machete. What had happened? I had lost, I think, for an hour or two that passion which we are told is so essential to creativity, and had found the necessary disinterest (such a useful word, and so often misused). Slash, slash. Sibelius himself might have made something of the sound of creative destruction as he did in his last major work, Tapiola, when the wind stirs the forest to a fury of whirling semi-quavers, and again (before ‘the Silence’) in his incidental music for The Tempest. I worked the magic, with the satisfaction of one breaking his staff and drowning his book. The art of losing isn’t hard to master, it turns out.

 

John Greening

About John Greening

A Cholmondeley and Bridport winner, John Greening has been a TLS reviewer since the 1990s and is a judge for the Eric Gregory Awards. His recent books include 'To the War Poets' (Carcanet), editions of Blunden and Grigson, the collaboration 'Heath' (with Penelope Shuttle), an Egypt memoir and the anthologies, 'Accompanied Voices' and 'Ten Poems about Sheds'. His next full collection, 'The Silence', appears this June from Carcanet. He was recently resident artist at the Böll Cottage, Achill.