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will be vanishingly small – no cupboards full of papers, no diaries, no journals – just final versions of published and unpublished poems.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,