The mystery of poetry editing: from TS Eliot to John Burnside
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 himIl miglior fabbro or “the better craftsman” – a phrase from Dante.