Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Proof-reading one's life

For the last week or so I have been reading and correcting the proofs of the forthcoming New and Collected Poems. It is - as I expect others who have done this would testify - a strange, disorientating, sometimes depressing, sometimes dizzying, experience. Everything comes back at you- time and self particularly. These are the voices you gave and made, emerging through a clouded mirror to form a compound yet recognisable shape that now appears: a half-familiar alien.

I remember talking to Peter Porter several years ago when he was putting together his first Collected Poems. I wondered how much he edited. He said he would not edit. What he had done, he had done. It was a pact with himself. You may not always like what you were but you should not deny it.

I, for my part, have taken out some poems that I thought - to use the common phrase - were not worth preserving. (Ah, but is any of this worth preserving? your demon whispers.) That was done before the proof stage.

And at proof stage?

I see how at certain stages, particularly in the middle, about the time of Metro (1988) and Bridge Passages (1991), where I am working my way through the Hungarian visits, impressions and memories, there are phrases I want violently to strike out. Just too much detail, too much the sound of material being wedged into too small a space. Private things, incidental things, the world falling about one's head as at some demolition one happens to be standing under.

And yet there are people who regard this as my most characteristic work. Maybe it is. Some of it appears in anthologies. Yes, but surely, those jammed-in verses like rush-hour trains with no sitting space might have been better regulated, run to a more precise timetable, added some seats. More air.

Maybe it's OK. Maybe it is just the oddity of the experience of meeting yourself, not as a figure passed in a mirror but as a figure emerging from one. And then there is the world the figure presents to you, a world that even as it falls about your head, forms itself into representations of all that was solid and spectral at the time and you couldn't quite tell which was what and what was which, but through which people moved like solid bodies. Your own solid body is in there somewhere.

Getting towards the end of proof-reading now. And seeing that I seem to advertising my own productions, I may as well go the whole hog and point to this, John Sears's study of the work, that I have not read and which may well surprise me. I rather hope it does.

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