23 February 2012

A lesson in line breaks

The written poem: Semiotic Conventions from Old to Modern English by Rosemary Huisman uses a poem of mine, "For Z, under house arrest in Johannesburg 1988" to exemplify "graphic iconicity" and now I think I know what that might mean through an error I made when including the poem a decade later in a collection of mine.

The poem deals with the personal horror that I imagined someone might go through in political detention through house-arrest in the apartheid years. "Banning orders" were imposed on people to silence them and were one of the ways the then nationalist government sought to suppress the anti-apartheid movement within South Africa.

Here's how the poem appears in both Huisman's book, and how it had originally appeared in Island (n.40, 1989, under Andrew Sant's editorship).

Z, under house arrest in Johannesburg, 1988.

I take
my prison with me
four walls

any old town will do.

may come to me
one at a time.
the game.

I don't do crowd scenes.

No words
I write
may reach you.
And these
are banning orders

stripes of shadow across your path.

For reasons known only to an earlier version of myself, I changed the poem ten years later when I put it into my second book. I realise now that those changes I made undid the very thing that Rosemary Huisman had praised the poem for.  

Here's the later Isolated States version (as published in Isolated States in 2001)

Poem for Z, under house arrest
Johannesburg, 1988.

I take my prison with me.
Any four walls,

any old town
will do.

You may come to me
one at a time.

That's the game.
I don't do crowd scenes.

I define myself

I put my prison down and rest.
No words I write may reach you.

And these are what banning orders look like:
stripes of shadow across your path.

Looking at the two versions today, I believe the first version is right, and not only because an academic judged it to be so. I feel that the weariness of someone in detention and something of the haphazard chaos that has befallen them are better captured in the original version, with its broken lines and odd "shape".

This really makes me wonder at the difference between the "poet's mind" and the "editor's mind" and at the blindness that can come when one has worked at a poem for too long: how to keep to the original vision and not flinch from the logical corrections that spring to mind ...?


Anonymous said...

Thanks Anne - exactly what I needed to hear and understand while fiddling with older poems in my second ms. Fraught with danger!
I think the first poem is stronger, too.

Anne Kellas said...

Thanks for your feedback Esther. It's helpful to have the first version affirmed.

John F said...

Yes, I like the first version too - so much more tense, anxious, as if ready to burst from the page. The second looks prosaic in comparison. Geez! How important are line breaks!

Anne Kellas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anne Kellas said...

From novelist and editor, Ivan Vladislavic

I was intrigued by your piece on ‘For Z, under house arrest’. The transformation brought about by the new line breaks is striking. Having worked as an editor for so many years, I’m fascinated by how a text settles into its final form, usually once it’s published, a form that then seems unbreakable. Many writers seem to feel that the provisional nature of the text is settled once it goes out into the world, so the freedom you feel to revise is interesting in itself. I wonder if poetry is more open to reworking than prose? In a way, one would imagine the opposite, in that poetry is regarded as the more exacting, distilled form. But perhaps it’s because prose is looser, freer that it’s easier to abandon to whatever shape it’s found, whereas poetry calls out to be refined further. Then again to recast is also to recant, to change the meaning fundamentally, which is what seems to have happened with your reworking of this poem. The two versions certainly have different effects, even visually. Because they look so different, they mean differently.

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