Back to the Beginning – a review by Tim Edwards

Writers tend on the whole to revise earlier work for literary reasons: stylistic point, structural coherence, clarity of meaning.  The degree to which artistic revision has significance on a more personal level is probably a moot point, and will vary from writer to writer or according to occasion.  My feeling is that more often than not it has little significance.  However, certain writers, because of the seemingly more autobiographical or personal nature of their writing, might be said to engage in a form of tactical revisionism, whether for therapeutic or culturally strategic purposes.  The so-called ‘confessional’ poets may be a case in point.

The recent debate at Kings Place (‘Back to the Beginning’, Weds 18 October) addressed the question of revision/revisiting the past by focusing on the practice of two modern American poets, Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore, each of whom revised constantly – some would say obsessively – throughout their careers.  The evening consisted of a mixture of debate and readings (the latter undertaken with aplomb by actor Geoffrey Streatfeild), focusing on both literary revision and psychotherapeutic revisionism.  While each angle of approach was in many ways illuminating, I think that overall they tended to work in parallel rather than being integrated or mutually enlightening – little insight was gained, for instance, into precisely how a particular act of literary revision related to the wider therapeutic or psycho-social context where each writer was concerned.

It seemed significant that Susie Orbach’s otherwise highly interesting comments focused on the individual ‘stories’ or narratives that enable psychotherapeutic  activity and development to take place – this in the context of a discussion of two essentially lyric poets.  This is not to downplay the interest or significance of Orbach’s comments, simply to say that their relation to specific aspects of literary revision seemed at best oblique.  Her observations, for instance, on the crucial role that language plays in reformulating and thereby accommodating or moving beyond a traumatic past were acute, her points very well made; but they were observations on the therapeutic process, not on Lowell or Moore’s revisions.

Declan Ryan’s discussion of Lowell’s life and work came closer to integrating the two in his comments on the revisions Lowell made to certain poems and on his agonising at the pain he repeatedly caused to those around him, as if his obsessive formal revisions were an attempt to assuage guilt at the ‘messiness’ of his life, the pain caused to others.  Dr Fiona Green’s discussion of Marianne Moore’s poetry also acknowledged a certain congruence between the life and the work, Moore’s cultivation of an eccentric ‘archaic relic’ self-image (nicely illustrated with photographs projected onto a screen) perhaps informing the act of revision as a process of constructing a Self against which both life and work can be ‘read-off’ to mutual effect.

Orbach’s comments on language and the stories it enables appear fruitful in this respect, the therapeutic process – of finding the language to tell a hitherto untold personal ‘story’ – one of narrating a self into existence.  Patients need, she says, the space (psychological as well as physical) to do that.  Perhaps poets need this too, formal revision a way of creating that space – perhaps Lowell’s repeated acts of revision were an attempt to construct a self that could be lived with.

If formal revision is at one level the creation of an alternative identity – for the poem, for oneself as a writer – then perhaps an analogue exists in the therapeutic setting, where language plays a central role in the creation for oneself of a new existential dispensation.



© T.Edwards, 2017

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