Drafts and archives

An interesting conversation with a friend at StAnza about a poet’s archive started me thinking, not for the first time, about archiving in the digital writing age. T.S. Eliot’s drafts of The Waste Land, with his marginal comments, crossings-out and addings-in, and with Ezra Pound’s heavy editing marks, are preserved, because they were set down on paper.

These days, my first drafts are on paper, but I then transcribe them onto the computer, carrying out a first edit as I do so. Then I throw away the paper draft, which has served its purpose, which was to get the ideas into words. After the first digital version is done I may change it frequently or occasionally, but I don’t preserve the intermediate edits. What is left is the finished poem, the final version. That’s what I want to remain, what I am content to be judged by, printed in books or magazines, or as items in a print-out folder.

To hold on to early drafts and versions would, I feel, be an attachment that could weigh me down, prevent me from moving on. Maybe it’s a Zen thing, maybe others feel differently, but that’s me. So in the unlikely event that a future student of literature wants to examine my history, the archive will be vanishingly small – no cupboards full of papers, no diaries, no journals – just final versions of published and unpublished poems. I like to live lightly on the earth.

I began writing in around 1961. My early work, in notebooks and loose sheets, moved with me to Bathgate when I married and set up home in 1966. When I moved to Mid Calder in 1976 the papers, in a black bin bag, inadvertently went the way of all bin bags. I haven’t had a moment’s regret about that, then or since. If a situation can’t be remedied, it’s pointless to dwell on it.

Here’s a new fragment I wrote in St Andrews:

I’m reading from a page
where the words disappear
as I say them aloud,
so novel becomes story,
becomes poem, a haiku,
a silence.

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About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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2 Responses to Drafts and archives

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    I, too, have very little in the way of drafts. I have the first draft of my first novel kicking around somewhere but apart from a few notepads with some handwritten poems in them there’s nothing. Mostly these days I work straight onto a computer even if I wake up in the middle of the night because there’s always one a few feet away. That said I still have a piece of paper and a pencil beside my bed. Also my approach to poetry has changed a great deal since I first started (about 1972) when I used to hang onto poems for months adding in that proverbial comma and taking it back out again. I came to realise that perfection is not the goal. The poem only needs to be good enough to enable the reader to do his or her job. I do like to see early drafts by others though. I have a particularly good book on Beckett where the author goes through some of his plays and lets us see how he refined the texts. It shows that he needed to work to get as good as he was. I’ve just finished reviewing a book on creativity and one of the examples was Beethoven, the archetypal genius, who would try dozens upon dozens of variations in a phrase before picking just the right one. Strangely enough I do that more with the prose than the poetry but I suspect that the prose emanates from the left hemisphere whereas the poetry comes from the right following a thirty second burst of alpha waves which apparently is all inspiration boils down to. Liked your wee fragment by the way.

  2. Tim Love says:

    I don’t in general keep drafts nowadays. I don’t even keep old back-ups. The British Library is archiving some blogs though.

    Last spring I had a brilliant idea for a 250-word Flash. I kept each draft so that when it won the 2011 Bridport Flash Prize I’d be able to chart its development. I still have the drafts. I guess my Bridport entry got lost in the post.

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