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Revisions at the Heart of Understanding Texts


This past week the state of Maryland unveiled a handwritten copy of George Washington's speech resigning from the Continental Army in 1783. Originally Washington wrote that this was his final farewell. But then apparently he thought better of closing that door and crossed out the word final. Five years later, he became president. The early draft of a less historic, but for some of us no less important document is also in the news this week. "The Cat in the Hat" is turning 50 and a new annotated version examines Dr. Seuss's edits and additions for clues to the enduring genius of that story.

All of which led us to wonder how much can you learn about someone's writing by reading the versions they never intended to publish? Joining me from Dallas is Willard Spiegelman, a professor of English at Southern Methodist University. Willard Spiegelman, welcome to the program.

Professor WILLARD SPIEGELMAN (Southern Methodist University): Thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: Now, you've chosen some examples from the world of poetry where early manuscripts sort of show us the evolution of some of our best known poets. Can you tell us briefly about the very, very long manuscript of T.S. Elliot's "The Waste Land"?

Prof. SPIEGELMAN: We know that the manuscript of "The Waste Land" was originally a much longer poem than what we have now. T.S. Elliot sent it to his friend Ezra Pound, who slashed and ripped his way through it, saying get rid of this, you don't do this well, change that, etc. And Elliot took most of Pound's suggestions to heart. And when the poem was published, it was a greatly reduced version of the original poem. The manuscript was thought lost for many years and then it showed up about 35 years ago and it has been reproduced, republished in facsimile. You can see on it all of the kinds of suggestions that Pound made in the margins.

ROBERTS: Well, I actually have a copy of that facsimile in front of me and some of Pound's comments are just unintelligible. I mean illegible, but unintelligible. At one point he says, too tumpum(ph) at a stretch. At one point his comments are in French. And in some ways it's almost a narrative of Elliot's relationship with Pound.

Prof. SPIEGELMAN: That's right. And of course they were friends, they were competitors; they had a relationship that was fraught the way any relationship between two geniuses might be fraught. And I think among other things, Pound was very envious of Elliot's achievement here. So on the one hand he's patting him on the back, congratulating him. On the other hand, he says at one point in the margins, I'm just filled with jealousies.

ROBERTS: It's a little bit of the student outpacing the teacher.

Prof. SPIEGELMAN: That's right.

ROBERTS: You've brought along Elizabeth Bishop's famous poem, "One Art." It's just 19 lines, so I will ask you to read that one for us.

Prof. SPIEGELMAN: Sure. This is a poem that was written in 1975 and then Bishop herself died in 1979. The poem is 19 lines long. It's a villanelle. It's a French form. And a villanelle is both very easy and very difficult to do well because the first and the third lines are repeated at prescribed intervals throughout the poem. It's a poem about loss.

The art of losing isn't hard to master. So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn't hard to master. Then practice losing farther, losing faster, places and names and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster. I lost my mother's watch, and look, my last or next to last of three loved houses went. The art of losing isn't hard to master. I lost two cities, lovely ones, and vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster. Even losing you, the joking voice, a gesture I love, I shan't have lied. It's evident the art of losing's not too hard to master, though it may look like, write it, like disaster.

ROBERTS: You know, it's such a lovely poem and it feels so finely crafted. How many drafts have you seen?

Prof. SPIEGELMAN: I'm looking at a facsimile; this is from the book that was published last summer called, "Edgar Allen Poe and the Juke Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments." It was a controversial book because many people thought that what Elizabeth Bishop did not want to have published should not have been published. But one of the things that everyone agrees upon is that one of the nice things in the book is the fact that all 15 drafts of "One Art" are published here. And the most interesting thing, or one of the most interesting things about the poem for me is that it begins not as a villanelle, but just as a kind of, I don't know, a little discussion of losing things. The first one, draft one, let me just read you the beginning of this. This is typed.

How to lose things, question mark. The gift of losing things, question mark. One might begin by losing one's reading glasses, oh, two or three times a day, or one's favorite pen.

Then, in caps, the art of losing things. And it goes on and on down to the very end, at which point she introduces what is really, I think, the biographical circumstance that is the beginning of the poem; that is, the loss of a lover. And then she goes on for many drafts and she's working out the rhyme scheme of the poem and the lines. And she doesn't really come back to the personal loss until much later; that is, the thing that was the beginning of the poem, the inception of the poem, was the thing that was hardest for her to get down on paper. So it's not until much later in the 15 drafts that you start seeing her work out the articulation of the loss of the loved object herself.

ROBERTS: Do you think that those earlier versions should have been published? Do you gain some understanding of Elizabeth Bishop or this poem from being able to see them?

Prof. SPIEGELMAN: Certainly. What you see in anything like this is the way a writer, a writer of genius, comes to the creative process and to the realization of an intention that may have been only embryonic or half-baked to start with. That is one of the things we know is that writing is a process and it's always undergoing changes.

ROBERTS: Do you think in an age when people write on computers and we don't necessarily see those crossed off drafts, that we're losing something?

Prof. SPIEGELMAN: You would have to ask the writers about this. I bet there are writers out there now who are saving every scrap, and instead of using the delete function when writing, will print things out or else leave visible traces, material traces, of the words that they had originally put in. By and large, I suspect ordinary writers, like me, like you, if we're writing something, we use the delete function. We get rid of a word or we use cut and paste and we transpose things. And what we have is a final product that we're happy with. But for a great writer, I think what we're also interested in, in addition to the product, is the process by which that product was achieved. And the best way to see that is to look in an old fashioned way at manuscripts to see what was crossed out, what was left in, what was added and when. That's why medieval manuscripts, or any kind of manuscript is an interesting phenomenon and becomes part of a poem's, if not meaning, at least part of a work's history.

ROBERTS: Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. SPIEGELMAN: Thank you for asking me.

ROBERTS: We've all seen scratched in the margins of books bits of other people's personal histories. Or perhaps you've even left a mark of your own. Here's what poet Billy Collins had to say about marginalia.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own and reached for a pen, if only to show we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages. We pressed a thought into the wayside, planted an impression along the verge.

We want to hear your stories of the impressions and memories you've found in the margins. To share them, go to our Web site, npr.org, click on Contact Us, and select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Be sure to tell us where you live and how to pronounce your name. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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