More on Larkin; and drafting

I was distracted yesterday by Larkin, having only intended to write something about his ‘Church Going’, after having been in church. But his writing is interesting for a number of reasons, one of them, I think, that it is, for the most part, life writing under the meaning of the act. He writes, it would seem, about himself, his views, his fears, his desires. I wouldn’t dare to call him ‘confessional’, and he gets three black stars for having indicated his distaste for Plath, by whom I cannnot find a word wrong, but I suspect he is one of the most autobiographical writers of the last fifty years.

Years ago, they repeated the ‘Monitor’ TV programme on which he consented to appear, in 1964, and I managed to record it. It illustrates, presumably with his consent, many of the poems, by having Larkin practically re-enact them (so we see him bike to an abandoned church, and take off his cycle-clips ‘in awkward reverence’, for instance). After this brief appearance on camera (in which John Betjeman, in usual upbeat tempo, is the presenter), Larkin declined ever to be filmed from the front – although he did get caught, looking very ill at ease, in a TV tribute to Betjeman at the very end of the latter’s life.

This caused some problems for Melvyn Bragg, when he came to do a South Bank Show on Larkin. The only shots Larkin would allow were over his shoulder (not his best side, I wouldn’t have said). The most memorable moment came when he produced a large ledger, and laid it on the table before him. It contained his first draft of the poem (as against the collection), ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. He turned the pages, exactingly. And then, out came another ledger with more revisions. And another. And then another. And so on (my memory may have invented the positive tower of ledgers he seemed to create).

I was very impressed by the labour that had gone into creating it (rather more, I suspect, than Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, which has the air to me of someone thinking with his nerves – I know it went through drafts, but these consisted largely of huge and dramatic cuts, not substantial re-writes. At the time, I thought it validated the whole process of writing. And yet there was something just a little too macho about those ledgers. Not all writing has to be carved and re-carved.

I edit my own writing far more than I did, but I think there has to be some room for the instant poem, one to which amendments can be made, but not necessarily wholesale changes. Interestingly, English teachers (me included) became quite obsessed with the process of drafting, and I can remember a student of mine who re-wrote a poem fifty times, partly at my instigation. There was an English adviser, Sue Hackman (I last heard of her as Chief Adviser for School Standards), who was the first I heard say, at a conference, that we had gone too far with drafting, and – not her words – fetishised it. It’s interesting that Billy Collins, the populist American poet, said as much – that the ‘compositional spontaneity’ of young writers was being compromised by the foregrounding of drafting as process.

Having said which, I’ve yet to meet a creative writing student whose main problem was grasping that a first shot wasn’t a last shot. Nor am I going to advocate a happy medium. Sometimes you need a lot of work, sometimes a little. The problem is starting out with a mind-set that re-drafting is just around the corner.

And I am secretly in awe of amazing artefacts like the first draft of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which, originally, the day was blowy, and  a million radios were striking thirteen:

The draft opening of Orwell's novel

The draft opening of Orwell's novel


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