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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