Today starts a new chapter in the textbook (Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed., Kennedy). It’s called “Alternatives”. It will talk about revisions, translations, and parody.
I would like to concentrate on “revisions”, because nothing speaks to the writing process better than the process of revision. There are some schools of art that insist the first draft is best and is the only draft; everything else is a compromise, a weakening of the craft and the soul of the artist and the work. I can’t argue (how can one argue with such an egocentric point of view?), where I do believe that the rough draft contains the most “fire”, it may not be saying exactly what the writer meant to say or it may be too cryptic, too personal for any one outside of the artist’s brain to understand. But the crux of the argument is this: what do you the artist believe is the point of art? Is it simply to express yourself whether you have an audience or not? If so, then forget about revisions, just don’t expect anyone else to appreciate what you have put out. You might be alone in your vision. Perhaps you will be like Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson or Franz Kafka, misunderstood in their time, discovered geniuses later on. Or perhaps you’ll be the crazy guy who writes volumes about the cube at the center of the universe that controls the Illuminati and is ultimately the reason for the Kennedy assassination; you’ll probably never be discovered, but at least you got to have your say.
But is art only about individuality?
I’m of a different school of art. I believe that art is like science, philosophy and mathematics (applied, that is), it is for the Public Good and the public consumption, and is part of the on-going social dialogue. It should be used to point out flaws with the system, be a mirror of who we are, of what we are. It exists to add meaning to our lives. But most of all it is a communication. Communication is not a singular process (not even for the writer who never gets to see her audience) it is a back and forth between artist and audience. With that point of view of art, the artist MUST compromise just a bit in order to present a clear vision and in order to be understood. The art will never entirely belong to the artist (many an author has spoken about how a novel no longer belongs to him or her once it is published).
In the textbook, an example of this is Wordsworth’s re-working of his poem “The Thorn”. A critic had pointed out that he had given a poor description of an infant’s grave, that it was not expressive enough. The original line read: “I’ve measured it from side to side;/’Tis three feet long and two feet wide.” And even though the poet retorted that it read the way it was supposed to read, eventually, he decided that it really didn’t go far enough. The critic had changed his mind; a dialogue had occurred, someone in the public had added to the discussion of the poem. The new line read: “Though but of compass small, and bare/To thirsty suns and parching air.”
Yeats was chosen as the first poet for the “revisions” portion, because as the textbook puts it, he was a “merciless self-critic”, he endlessly revised. The final version of a poem often times did not even resemble the original. With the two poems I’m posting here, the first, published in 1890 barely resembles the the second, published in 1939.
I can say with absolute authority, that time changes the perspective of the artist. What ideas were originally important, turn out to minimal or simply a delusion of youth. I talked once with a friend about how Nietzsche had changed his philosophy over the years from a brash youth who believed only the daring should have any power to a more sedate ideal state, that perhaps rulers, instead of being brash and bold should be wise and careful. This was obviously the perspective of an older man who’d married and had children and understood a little more about the complexities of life (and regret).
Time changes your work.
In the earlier version of Yeat’s poem, he seems to be sympathetic to the old man, but not empathetic; he writes only what he thinks it might be like to be older. It is written in first person, but as if it was a character in his imagination. He uses objective examples of how the world views the old man (the others see him sitting by the fire, “the road-side trees keep murmuring/Ah, wherefore murmur ye”), but in the second version, the descriptions become very personal (“I spit into the face of Time”) as he now writes as an old man.
There are only a few similarities between the two: both are written in first person, both have reoccurring lines, and both have the old man sitting by the fire in the first stanza and both speak of faces in the second stanza. But even the differences between the similarities give the two poems much different contexts. “And the fret is on me,” is the repeating line in the first, a complaint of the old man that sounds to be more of a whine. “Ere Time transfigured me” is an explanation of what the old man feels he is going through, it is a lament, but one of observation not of self-pity. In the first poem, the old man is in a home near a hearth, in second he’s outside under a broken limb, he only sat next to a fire in his youth. Old age is comfortable in the first poem, in the second not so much. In the first poem, he speaks of remembrances of faces that are now gone, in the second he remembers the faces of beautiful women and is reminded how his face is no longer beautiful and the thought is hateful to him.
I like the second version of the poem better, because it is more detailed and specific. It speaks about what is real for the old man instead of about what others see in him. I can see his perspective more clearly in the second; he sees once again the radicals are up in arms in 1939, whereas in the first poem, he only has a vague notion of time having passed by with no notion of what that means in 1890. The second version is more sophisticated, it uses the broken tree to express the old man’s condition. The first version only skims over the details; the old man sees the green oak and poplar tree, but those are just a reminder of time having passed. I can see more depth in the second poem.
With that in mind, I think that I will have to disagree with those who think that art is simply self-expression. I see the second version of this poem and feel as if I have gained some illumination from it and it’s my sincerest belief that that is truly what art is for.
The Old Pensioner
by William Butler Yeats
I had a chair at every hearth,
When no one turned to see
With “Look at that old fellow there;
And who may he be?”
And therefore do I wander on,
And the fret is on me.
The road-side trees keep murmuring –
Ah, wherefore murmur ye
As in the old days long gone by,
Green oak and poplar tree!
And the fret is on me.
The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner
by William Butler Yeats
Although I shelter from the rain
Under a broken tree
My chair was nearest to the fire
In every company
That talked of love or politics,
Ere Time transfigured me.
Though lads are making pikes again
For some conspiracy,
And crazy rascals rage their fill
At human tyranny,
My contemplations are of Time
That has transfigured me.
There’s not a woman turns her face
Upon a broken tree,
And yet the beauties that I loved
Are in my memory;
I spit into the face of Time
That has transfigured me.