Versions and Revisions
Anyone who spends time leafing through old poetry anthologies or poking around in the poetry section of the library will eventually come across a well-known poem that appears to be different than he or she remembers it. The discrepancy may not be just a question of poor memory. Poems might seem to be fixed forever, but in fact quite different versions of the same poem may appear in print. The reasons are as various as the poems. “Sir Patrick Spens,” for example, is a popular ballad, performed by countless singers over many centuries. Each singer heard it performed, learned it, and then made his or her own version. Stanzas were sometimes misremembered or, when they didn't make sense to the singer, were altered. As years passed, details might have become obscure and been replaced by images or events closer to the experience of the contemporary audience. And, of course, some people might have thought that a version of the ballad they heard was too sad or too political, and given it a more upbeat or less pointed twist. At some point, a version was written down and printed, essentially becoming a snapshot of one moment in the poem's long evolution. Look at the four different versions of “Sir Patrick Spens” in the Historical Considerations section linked to the poem, and think about how their differences might be explained.
“Sir Patrick Spens” is a traditional ballad, its multiple versions written by many anonymous men and women. Marianne Moore, on the other hand, is the only author of “Poetry,” but her poem also appears in more than one version. Go to Moore's “Poetry” and look at the two other versions available in the Text History section. One is only very slightly different, while the other is radically changed. Why would the author of the poem make such drastic changes in one version? Why would she even bother to make the very slight changes in the other?
Now look at W. H. Auden's “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Like Moore, Auden has changed his poem, in this case leaving out several lines in later printed versions (see the Text History section for Auden to read the lines he later dropped from the poem). The lines contain strong political associations, which suggests that Auden wanted to alter the impact his poem might have on readers. How does this change affect the main subject of the poem, which, after all, is history's memory of W. B. Yeats?
Moore and Auden both replaced an apparently “finished” poem with a different version, after the original version had been published. Revision before publication is another matter, however. Without a published text, such revision often leaves no record behind for us to examine. Intensely focused revision that seeks to find precisely the right word or phrase may be as familiar to an attorney or an advertising copywriter as it is to a poet, but it is certainly part of the long process of writing and rewriting that finally ends in a published poem. Occasionally, the earlier drafts of a poem have been preserved, offering a unique insight into the process of artistic creation. Go first to the Text History section linked to Wilfred Owen's “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Look at the two draft versions of the poem, and particularly at the places where lines have been written down and then crossed out, or words tried out, then dropped and replaced by different words. What is behind these decisions? Why might certain choices have been made in the first place, then later rejected?
After examining the process that led to the final version of “Dulce et Decorum Est,” consider Langston Hughes. In connection with his poem “The Weary Blues,” there are three drafts of another of his poems (go to The Poet's Craft, then Poet's Life and Work). In this case, you can look at three different stages in the emergence of the poem. Could you characterize each stage in terms of the poet's development and refinement of his original conception?
1. As you read multiple versions of the poems in this section, which specific instances of revision seemed to be aimed at perfecting a poem, editing out what didn't work and finding something more effective? What else was at work in the revision process?
2. In what sense does popular music today exhibit something like the historical change (over time) and regional change (of place) that led to so many alternative versions of “Sir Patrick Spens” and other traditional ballads?
3. Having read many revisions or alternate versions of several poems, which change of a single word in one of the versions would you point to as having the greatest impact on the poem's meaning, its probable effect on readers, its aesthetic quality?
4. Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare all wrote long sonnet sequences. Are their sonnets all versions of a single poem?
5. One familiar way to create an alternative version of a poem is to write a parody of it. Choose a poem and do that. But then, after you have written a parody, write a second version that preserves what you take to be the aims of the original while at the same time refocusing it in some way, capturing a different sense of its meaning perhaps, or altering its emotional tone.