Readersforum's Blog

January 25, 2012

The mystery of poetry editing: from TS Eliot to John Burnside

Filed under: Poetry — Tags: , , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 5:58 am

If one poet edits another, whose work is it? In the week that John Burnside won the T S Eliot Prize, Sameer Rahim investigates the unseen hands behind that most personal and mysterious of literary forms.


Alone on the verge of Hell, Dante is rescued by a fellow poet. When his hero Virgil appears before him he is star-struck: “You are my master, and indeed my author; / It is from you alone that I have taken / the exact style for which I have been honoured.” The Aeneid’s author generously guides him through the Commedia cajoling, correcting and encouraging him on his long poetic journey.

Every poet needs a Virgil. Wordsworth had Coleridge; Tennyson had Arthur Hallam; and Edward Thomas had Robert Frost. However, the best-preserved example of one poet editing another is Ezra Pound’s work on TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. The poem’s manuscript, first published in 1971 and now available on a snazzy iPad app, shows Pound’s boldness. On the first page of the second part, “A Game of Chess”, he wrote disapprovingly: “Too tum-pum at a stretch”; further down he complains a line is “too penty” – too regular a pentameter. Eliot redrafted the lines until he got an “OK” in the margin. Eliot acknowledged his friend’s role when he dedicated the 1925 edition to Pound, calling him Il miglior fabbro or “the better craftsman” – a phrase from Dante.

In the week that John Burnside won the TS Eliot Prize, it seems a fitting time to investigate how poet-editors (editors who are also poets) can shape the literary landscape. All the main poetry publishers – Faber, Picador, Jonathan Cape, Carcanet and Bloodaxe – have practising poets as editors, and a house’s tone and fortunes can be radically altered depending on the poet in charge of the poems of others.

Often seen as the most personal and mysterious of literary forms – and therefore least likely to be guided by an outside hand – poetry is, in fact, strikingly indebted to invisible creators. What, we might ask, are the effects and risks of this little-understood practice on the nation’s verse?

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December 8, 2011

John Banville on Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom: 'Shakespeare, more than Hume or Wittgenstein, remains the greatest of thinkers' Photograph: Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMA/Corbis

“Bloom writes: ‘I preach Bardolatry as the most benign of all religions'”

Harold Bloom delights in his surname. Describing it as “splendid”, he says it seems to him “the most literary of names”. There is, however, a price to be paid. When he teaches Ulysses, he tells us, he has to refer to its protagonist Leopold Bloom as Poldy, “since my name has been confiscated – for a time”. This happy excursus appears in The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (Yale, £25), in a chapter entitled “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction of the Romantic Self”, and is preliminary to, among numerous matters, a consideration of why the name Lucifer is not mentioned in Paradise Lost, and why Milton should have chosen not to give us in his great poem an account of Satan in his prelapsarian, luciferous state. Yes indeed, here we have the literary life de haut en bas.

In another splendid appellation, Bloom is Sterling professor of the humanities at Yale University. It is a most fitting seat for this great critic to occupy. He was born in New York City in 1930 into a Jewish family, and grew up speaking Yiddish and Hebrew before he learned English. He famously claims that at the age of 10 he discovered the poetry of Hart Crane at his local library in the Bronx, and at once determined to become a literary critic. Throughout his career he has continued to champion Crane, seeing him as the direct heir to Walt Whitman – Whitman being “not just the most American of poets but American poetry proper, our apotropaic champion against European culture” – and slayer of neo-Christian adversaries such as “the clerical TS Eliot” and the old New Critics, who were and are anathema to Bloom, unresting defender of the Romantic tradition. Other heroes of his are Shelley and Blake, Samuel Johnson and Walter Pater, Yeats, DH Lawrence and Joyce, and, among more recent figures, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery. more

September 27, 2011

Window cleaner steals literary greats’ letters from Booker judge

By Sanchez Manning

A treasure trove of gossip-laden letters written by some of the greatest literary figures of the past 100 years were stolen from a Man Booker Prize judge by his window cleaner.

Tyrone Somers, 41, of Clapham, South London, worked for Dr Rick Gekoski, a member of the judging panel for the 2005 Man Booker Prize and this year’s Man Booker International Prize. Yesterday he was jailed for 30 months after pleading guilty to theft.

The stolen documents included private correspondences by Kingsley Amis, TS Eliot, Cecil Beaton, Ted Hughes, Henry Moore, Gore Vidal and Virginia Woolf. Dr Gekoski, a US-born academic and rare bookseller, had given Mr Somers the keys to his north-west London home.

The handyman told police he entered the house on 23 July this year at around 5am intending to carry out maintenance work. However, once inside, he stole a binder full of historic papers, a laptop and £100 in cash.

Dr Gekoski admitted he was initially devastated by the theft, but he has since forgiven his former employee because after a few weeks Somers had a change of heart and returned the manuscripts to the police. more

February 13, 2011

The lost art of editing

The long, boozy lunches and smoke-filled parties are now part of publishing’s past, but has rigorous line-by-line editing of books been lost too, a casualty of the demands of sales and publicity?

A meeting of the board of directors at Faber, March 1944. From left to right TS Eliot, Morley Kennedy, Geoffrey Faber, WJ Crawley, Miss CB Sheldon and Richard de la Mare. Photograph: Picture Post/Felix Mann and Kurt Hutton/Getty Images

Alex Clark

Reach for the current issue of Private Eye and you will find “Bookworm”, the anonymous author of the magazine’s Books & Bookmen column, indulging his or her fondness for schadenfreude by rounding up the worst reviews of this season’s crop of new books. The writers mentioned will no doubt simply shrug – or perhaps grimace – to have readers’ attention drawn to less than ecstatic comments, especially when numerous glowing reviews are ignored. But “Bookworm” also has a few sharp words for those whose work is undertaken outside the glare of publicity: “it’s not only the authors who will and should wince on reading these words. The editors . . . are responsible as well, for being too indolent, timid or unobservant, if the reviewers are right. But will pain spur them to remember that editors are supposed to edit?”       …read more

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