A few years ago I received this beautiful and rather amazing book as a gift. It’s called The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. Just like the title indicates, the book chronicles the making of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Waste Land in astonishing detail, with images of Eliot’s original drafts, as well as editorial comments and notes made by Eliot, his wife (who helped edit the poem), and his friend and main editor Ezra Pound, as they worked on the poem together.
To quote the Amazon sales-blurb:
Each facsimile page of the original manuscript is accompanied here by a typeset transcript on the facing page. This book shows how the original, which was much longer than the first published version, was edited through handwritten notes by Ezra Pound, by Eliot’s first wife, and by Eliot himself.
The Waste Land is one of my favourite poems. It is a rich, bewildering, mesmerizing, and utterly captivating poem that weaves together sounds, lyrics, images, words, and a multitude of quotes from and references to other sources, both ancient and modern: books, myths, legends, prayers, chants, fairy tales, songs, plays, as well as spiritual and religious works. When I read it in high school, it fundamentally changed the way I looked at poetry, writing, and language. It made me realize that language can be used in very different ways than we usually see in more traditional “rhyming poetry”, prose, and everyday writing; and that even though what is said can seem strange and even be difficult to understand, it can capture your imagination and express profound emotions, thoughts, and ideas in a way that speaks to you beyond verbal logic.
When I read The Waste Land, I sometimes feel like I’m immersed in a hallucinatory, feverish vision – a half-dreamed, half-mad, half-lucid stream-of-consciousness. I imagine it to be something like listening to the prophecies of the ancient oracles, high on whatever hallucinogens or trance-inducing prayers and chants they used in their caves or temples, minds caught somewhere between the worlds, between the real and the unreal, between sleep and waking and tripping out. And just like in the prophecies of the oracles, you can find profound truth in Eliot’s words, even if it is not a literal, logical truth.
To me, The Waste Land is a masterpiece, written by a poet at the top of his powers.
What this particular book about the poem shows so well, is that even a masterful writer like Eliot depended on and benefited from severe rewrites and thorough editing. The Waste Land in its original state (i.e. the first draft) was not as good as the final result when the text had been put through the editorial wringer not just once, but repeatedly. I sometimes get the feeling that many people believe that if an author is really good, then the stories or poems just flow from their brain through their pen or keyboard, and comes out fully finished on the page. In my experience, that is not the case. I’m sure it happens occasionally, but more often good writing, good books, good poems, are the result of savage self-editing and a multitude of rewrites by the author, as well as helpful editing from others: call them editors or trusted helpers (in Eliot’s case the main helpers were Ezra Pound and Eliot’s first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot).
Having to work at something, doubting it, rewriting it, throwing it out, bringing it back, editing and re-editing, writing and re-writing… all this is part of the creative process, and very often your first draft is a hellish, sub-standard piece of crap – no matter how good the writer.
Consider another one of my favourite literary works: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s first versions of the story, the Strider/Aragorn character was called “Trotter”, and was originally a strange hobbit wearing wooden shoes. He passed through various stages of development (he was even an Elf at one point) before eventually becoming a man, and then the Aragorn character we now know and love. Tolkien’s story developed and changed many times in his rewrites, and I think that in the end, he ended up with something a lot better than his original idea.
The same can be said about George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire-saga. In a recently leaked three-page document that was apparently Martin’s original outline of the story, there are many things that seem strange and weird if you’ve read the published books. Arya falls in love with Jon Snow, Daenerys kills Khal Drogo after he kills her brother, and Sansa gives birth to Joffrey’s son. I think most of us would agree that whatever editing and rewriting took place in this case, also changed things for the better.
Seeing The Waste Land take shape in what seems to have been an often tortured and torturous process of scribbled notes, savage cuts, moving and re-inserting text, and an eternity of rewrites and editing, is both fascinating and instructional. It is clear that collaborating with insightful and talented editors was important when Eliot shaped his masterpiece. (I’ve worked with editors, and I know how sensitive and crucial that relationship can be.) Because the poem’s evolution is so well documented, there are even some who argue that The Waste Land was really co-written by Ezra Pound. I understand the argument since Pound did make important changes and significant cuts to the poem, but I also think that many other writers out there owe their editors the same debt!
What this book reinforces for me, is that great works of art don’t usually just fall into your lap (or onto the page). It takes work and effort to create something good. Real writing doesn’t depend on coming up with a brilliant idea, brilliantly formulated on the first try. Real writing isn’t about getting everything right in the first draft. Real writing is sticking with your story (or your poem, or whatever else it is) through thick and thin, through rewrites and editing and despair and endless cups of tea and coffee and walks to clear your mind, through agony and joy, until you have something you are ready to release into the world.
To quote Louis Brandeis: “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” Words to live by and remember.
The Waste Land was published in 1922. One of my favourite parts of the poem is the final, or fifth, part, “V. What the Thunder Said”. Here is an excerpt:
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
- Read more about Aragorn’s character development.
- Read more about George R. R. Martin’s original outline for A Song of Ice and Fire.