For some Allen Ginsberg, at the heart of the last century, is the man who started it all. He was the one who made poetry thrilling, who made it vital, who made it something that the young wanted to engage with, who used it as a weapon of resistance that had authorities rushing to investigate and ban him. The man who made poetry so bloody appealing and who made it so easy to get on board. For others he was simply a bearded, balding hippie who smoked too much dope and took himself far too seriously. Not me, not Bob Dylan, nor a host of others. For us Ginsberg set the motor running.
He invented things. Breath length. A long verse line that went on for as long as there was breath inside the poet to read it. Once the breath ran out so, too, did the line. A poetry that filled the page. Then there was first words, best words. Get it down as fast as it arrives and in the order that it comes. Hold back from rewriting, the spontaneity and energy might dissipate. That led to a whole raft of followers churning out their first thoughts and leaving them as they were, unamended, unmoulded, sitting there in their ragged and unfixed glory. Easy poesy. Too much really. But the Beats were into spontaneous bop prosody, ways of making their thoughts align with the horn solos of the bebop jazzmen they so admired.
Yet despite Ginsberg’s teachings it’s my belief that rewriting is about as essential as coming up with the words in the first place. Nothing ever arrives complete. Everything needs some consideration. How much is what poetry is about.
First words, bets words, one side of the argument. “On the other is the belief that intuition provides only so much raw material, which the revision process shapes, much as a sculptor shapes his stone. Baudelaire mocked those writers who “make a parade of negligence, aiming at a masterpiece with their eyes shut, full of confidence in disorder, and expecting letters thrown up at the ceiling to fall down again as a poem on the floor.””” That’s from Stephen Dobyns’ Best Words, Best Order: essays on poetry. Like Baudelaire Dobyns is no slouch when it comes to verse. And here I think he’s got it right.
For me I’ll go through any number of changes. Leave the thing lying and then sneak up on it and see how it looks. Inevitably something not spotted before will now need fixing. But there’s a limit. Robert Graves made a virtue of rewriting and there are tales, apocryphal no doubt, of him making fifty drafts and even then not feeling he’d made the poem work.
Readings help. You try the thing out in the air and suddenly it starts sounding so different from how did back there on the page. Bits don’t gel, don’t slide, go on for far too long. You take the text home and you change it ready for next time. And next time if the bumps are still in place you take it home and change it again.
If you have a look at Ginsberg’s original manuscript for his masterwork, Howl, you’ll see that he’s made any number of changes himself. Howl did not arrive in the night, fully formed, even if that’s the myth some like to promote. It was the result of concentrated effort and a considerable amount of editing.
First thoughts, best thoughts. It’s a great idea. But for poetry first words, best words – maybe ultimately not.