Thursday, 7 February 2013

A Poem and its Editors

Kenneth Steven. A Song Among the Stones. Polygon.

This unusual story in verse deals with the little known (in UK) Papars, an early sect of Christian monks who sailed the northern seas around the 6th century. It is primarily about the sea and its moods, its way of taking over the lives of primitive sailors and of the sailors' need for landfall.
    Clearly I intend to praise this work, because I liked it enough to publish it in its entirety in Poetry Scotland (Issue 68, 2010). This previous publication is acknowledged, along with its original commissioning for BBC3.
    Since it is basically the same work I saw and liked after first seeing it in typescript, and it has now benefited from in-house editing at Polygon, I am going to say a little about editing.
    I don't usually edit the poems I select for Poetry Scotland. Poems are expected to arrive complete from the hand of the poet. Though one may see requirements, for competitions, that poems should be their writer's unaided work, this would normally go without saying.
    A poem that reaches a magazine editor in less than finished state would not be acceptable, except that people cannot always see whether their work is finished or not. So I do sometimes suggest alterations, if there are obvious improvements and I know the poet concerned will accept my suggestions constructively.
In the case of a confident and experienced writer like Kenneth Steven, my job would be only to arrange the poem on the page. This we did over a four-page single-sheet issue. Kenneth was sent a proof and he probably made one or two tiny amendments as he saw the poem's layout, and small queries may have arisen between us. I cannot remember.
    In many ways it was easier to see the structure of this poem spread across the broadsheet pages than it is in this very attractive little book, where page-turning separates parts of the poem from one another, so that perhaps the readers will be at sea, along with the monks of the story, until the conclusion is reached. And perhaps that's appropriate.
    Reading through the text of this book and pencilling the changes onto a copy of my version was an exhilarating experience, because much, much less than I was expecting to see, had been altered. This confirmed my original feeling that Steven had produced a tight and unified poem, worthy of publication as it stood.
    In the 375 line poem, barely a dozen lines have been altered, mostly in very minor ways, and another half dozen lines deleted or abbreviated. The punctuation, utterly minimal, has not been changed in substance or detail.
    The revision has been done with a careful eye. Pearls of rain become glistenings of rain, presumably because they weren't actual pearls, and the writing of the whole piece is descriptive, exact and sparse. The monk who stays solitary, on the rock, only needs to explain in one statement:
      I won't go with you. Tell them I stayed
      that I went further north, to what
      I cannot know.

His earlier line,

      I have no choice, I'm going on

is deleted.


      the woods splayed with yellow patches, thatched with birdsong,

(a line very typical of Kenneth Steven's nature poems) is reduced to

      the woods splayed with yellow patches,

– no doubt suggested because the poem achieves its effect without such extravagance of language in the detail.
    Apart from one or two changes of breaks in the lines, that's about it.
    It is good to see it so little altered, so much the same poem, because I appreciated the work very much when I published it. I did not see it as an unfinished draft. I have seen a great deal more of Kenneth Steven's work over the years, and I am glad this lovely poem was essentially complete when it first came my way. Polygon's editors have also passed their test: they have not gratuitously changed this very capable poet's work. Indeed they have heard the song among the stones as the poet relayed it to them and to myself and the reader.
    The poem has approximately thirty page-length sections, some being very small page lengths, even a couple of lines or one line in places, and some being more substantial. It has been turned into a full book, as justified by the strength of the text, by the addition of white paper and blank pages that go well with the sense of a voyage, being lost in the waves. Indeed it is the quality not the length of a text that makes a book.
    Full marks all round.

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