My biggest challenge revising the “Autumn” poem is the refrain element of the original draft (every second stanza is a couplet with internal and end rhyme). My sentimental side wants to retain this approach—to wrestle with it and test my poetic abilities; my imaginative side wants to be liberated from its constraints and explore the possibilities of regular rhyming couplets. Presently, I am developing lines for both—whichever produces the better stanzas will win in the end.
“Autumn”, I thought, would be a simple exercise involving a few adjustments here and there to improve it. How wrong I was.
Revising “Autumn”, I find myself treading a fine line between closely preserving the writing in the original composition and drastically altering it. I suspect I must choose one or the other, or risk a conflicting outcome.
I compose lyric poetry in the traditional style with verses presented in conventional stanzas, sets of lines neatly aligned to the left. This has served me well, thus far, as my poems are simple creations, but “Autumn”, which I am currently revising, is an outlier. The third and fourth lines of each of its quatrains are refrains. Reading the poem anew, they seemed to me lost in the verses. It was, in my view, necessary to split the stanzas into couplets to separate the refrains and so make their purpose clear.
I had another concern. In the refrain couplets, there is strong internal rhyme; having these rhyming words in the midst of the lines, I thought, was unfortunate—ideally, the rhyming words should be accentuated—and so I split the lines of each refrain couplet at their rhyming words, thereby turning the couplets into quatrains with shorter lines. The result was an alternating pattern of a couplet followed by a quatrain—pragmatic but visually jarring. I solved this by also splitting the non-refrain couplets.
Only, now I had a formidable column of stanzas uninviting to the reader’s eye; moreover, splitting the lines interrupted their flow in many instances in the non-refrain stanzas1. To solve the former, I staggered the stanzas, indenting the refrains (every second quatrain); but this only made things worse. The poem had become a precarious stack of stanzas one dared not recite lest one’s voice collapses it all—what is more, it was ugly. As for the latter, I saw no solution. I had to reconsider my approach.
I did so by deciding what was important, namely accentuating the refrains and maintaining the fluidity of the lines in a visually consistent and elegant design. This translated into eight couplets with the original line lengths and staggered (indented) refrains—an aesthetically pleasing arrangement in which form follows function. Though the layout is an anomaly—“Autumn” is the first and, thus far, only composition formatted in this way—it is a fitting distinction perhaps for the poem that started it all2.
“Cranes and Sheep” is complete! After many drafts, it is everything I hoped it would be. Above is the entirety of its evolution, from the initial sketch to the finished poem.
I now move on to “Autumn”, composed in 2012, the oldest poem in the collection (indeed, it was my first lyric poem proper1—how apt that Nature should be its theme).
At the time, there was no Forgotten Fields; I had no plans to produce an anthology of poems. “Autumn” was merely my heartfelt response to the loveliness of the season.
It exists as a highly finished draft given that I considered it a completed work, back then; but, as I noted some time ago, I believe I can improve upon it, seven years later.
- I wrote a little about the significance of “Autumn” in my poetic journey in the fourth instalment of my “Artist Questions” series.
Having made the major decisions for the “Cranes and Sheep” poem, I am refining the final draft.
This can involve something as small as choosing the best determiner in a line: are the cranes on “a hilltop” or “the hilltop”? The former is vague and wistful, the latter, specific and delimiting; which is most enhancing to the poetic theme?
Or something more significant, like choosing the most evocative verb from an array of possibilities: does the lamb “frisk”, “bound”, “bounce”, “pounce” or “romp” in the flock? The meanings are similar, but which one elevates the stanza?
As always, some combination of inclination, skill and flair will help me settle on this word or that.
This morning, a lesser peak of Steenbok Mountain aglow and at a distance, a small herd of (what I believe to be) Grey Rhebok.
An impasse ended
My recent “Cranes and Sheep” dilemma has been resolved in a triumph of clarity and symmetry. The compositional knots constraining me have been neatly untangled by a willingness to forego an idea to which I had clung, and I have achieved the aesthetic, structural and stylistic objectives I had originally envisaged for the poem, in a new way.
The conundrum centred around a set of lines of which I was particularly fond. They were integral to my conception of the poem, the focal points of the first two stanzas describing Blue Cranes against the heavens and Merino Sheep against the hills in two tableaux. The stanzas were to be static, contrasted with movement in the two that followed.
So established was this concept that everything was constructed about it, creating a compositional crossroads. It was only when I entertained the possibility that it might not be the best approach, that the solution became clear: introduce movement throughout the poem! It seems obvious now, but till that moment, such a change was inconceivable.
A final draft in sight
Once embraced, however, I could consider stanzas three and four from a new perspective. Yesterday, whilst mulling over their subject and style, suddenly—almost automatically—everything fell into place. Possessed by the Muse (or some other benevolent force), I encapsulated all the variations I had written for them previously into pithy stanzas!
I now have a draft that expresses the theme clearly, evocatively and concisely. I am thrilled with the outcome; it feels light, natural—“right”. Once I have descended from this ecstasy, I shall review it and see whether I have indeed such cause for celebration; but, I am confident. Thereafter, it will be a matter of refining the stanzas for the final work.
A lesson I learn repeatedly, but never fully grasp until I am at my wits’ end, is that a poem reaches a point where, like a stubborn youth, it refuses to be anything other than what it wishes to be—where it insists that you change, not it. It is then futile to attempt to bend it to your will, for it has taken on a life of its own. Success comes when you give in.
To accommodate a particular version of a set of lines in the “Cranes and Sheep” draft, I have, over the past few weeks, contorted its stanzas in every conceivable arrangement to no avail. This is one of the paradoxes of traditional poetry that one can write an excellent line that cannot be used (in the exact form one would like) within the poem for which it was conceived; either for reasons of context, clarity, structure or style, it must be foregone or significantly altered to achieve a coherent poem. The traditional poet’s notebooks are littered with word sequences that will never see the light of verse.