First Version, Best Version?

Zaffar Kunial’s eagerly-awaited first collection, Us, which has been shortlisted for this year’s T. S. Eliot Prize, includes two poems called “Stamping Grounds (Earlier)” and “Stamping Grounds (Later)”. (One is the fourteenth poem in the collection and the other the fourteenth poem after that.) It’s increasingly common for poets to include poems with the same name in a single collection (two called “Circumnavigation” in Matthew Francis’s Mandeville and two called “The Radio” in Leontia Flynn’s — what else? — The Radio). But these aren’t just two poems with the same — or similar — titles; they are two versions of the same poem.

Poets frequently revise poems after publication. Wordsworth and Auden were notorious for it, as was Marianne Moore. Robert Lowell turned his interim Notebooks into material for the three books that followed. But — scholarly editions apart — it’s rarer for different versions of a poem to appear in the same collection. W. D. Snodgrass, whose Heart’s Needle, about the breakdown of his marriage and separation from his young daughter, inspired Lowell’s discovery of “confessional” poetry, included an account of the process by which he revised the sixth section of the poem to give what he felt was a more honest account, but this was appended more as an afterword.

Poets’ revisions are not always a success. Wordsworth was criticised by contemporaries for working on poems after the initial inspiration had died and Marianne Moore famously pruned back one of her best-known poems, “Poetry”, to little more than a stump: the first three lines and even those shorn of the words, “there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle”, which gave A. Alvarez the title for his book of essays. In the process, Moore sacrificed the “imaginary gardens with real toads” image, for which the poem is probably best remembered. If not exactly “first thought, best thought”, there is the question of whether a poet’s first completed version is usually the best version.

In the case of “Stamping Grounds”, I have to say, the answer is probably not. Like a number of Kunial’s poems, it’s about making connections as a means of exploring identity and establishing roots. In both versions of the poem, connections are made between the funerals of his mother’s father and his mother, at each of which he threw earth (the “ground”) onto the coffin; between his grandfather’s burial in Polesworth and his mother’s in the Welsh Marches, coincidentally the start and finish of John Donne’s journey in “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward”; between the post office, where his mother was brought up (and where there was presumably “stamping”) and “post” meaning “after”; and between his grandfather’s initials and (I am assuming, though it is literally not spelt out) those for a “stamped addressed envelope”.

“Stamping Grounds (Earlier)” is in two sections, almost twice the length of the later poem and written in a generally looser style. It makes extra connections (between the grandfather’s name and the word for “land” in his own father’s Kashmiri dialect and between his mother’s delay in erecting a headstone for her father and his own delay in doing the same for her), but otherwise the material omitted might be best described as extraneous detail.

“Stamping Grounds (Later)”,  which is more sharply focused, is organised into four, six-line stanzas (although both poems use free verse). It’s perhaps worth noting that the slightly prosier, more loosely structured first version has an epigraph from Dickens’ Great Expectations, whereas the tighter, stanzaic second version takes its epigraph from Donne’s Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward. Both poems end with the revelation of the grandfather’s initials, SAE, but the first version describes them as “a kind of ground, or earth / I’d only picked up on today”, whereas in the second version, “it’s like a present / in the post — a coin of earth — held up to this day.”

The latter makes a more coherent image, but — even so — I wonder whether the connection between the initials is really strong enough to support the poem. Poets are, of course, familiar with SAE’s — they’re what rejection slips come in (or more probably acceptances in Kunial’s case — he has been a prizewinner in the National Poetry Competition and winner of the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize, as well as a Faber New Poet). They were also more common pre-internet, when people used to “send away” for things. However, you post them yourself as an enclosure; they don’t properly convey the idea, for which the poem seems to be reaching, of a long-lost letter suddenly arriving from the past.

To see the poem’s evolution is nevertheless fascinating and Kunial’s search for connections, linguistic and otherwise, is used to much better effect in poems such as “The Word”, “Hill Speak”, “Self Portrait as Bottom” and the title poem itself. But why did he include both versions of “Stamping Grounds”? Couldn’t he make up his mind, or couldn’t he reach agreement with his editor? I prefer to think of it as a demonstration of assurance gained in the process of writing — a better sense of how he and everything else fits. It may be unusual to revisit the same poem in a single collection, but a stamping ground is, after all, somewhere you return to.


Busty London Escort

Three of the quirkiest poems I have read this year appeared in collections by Leontia Flynn, Ocean Vuong and Richard Osmond, all of which were published in 2017.

The Radio is Leontia Flynn’s fourth book. As well as some fine poems about her childhood in Northern Ireland, I particularly liked her versions of Catullus. Others have appeared in The Poetry Review, so with any luck we may eventually have a full set. Many of her poems use rhyme and the book contains some sonnets, a villanelle and a splendidly McGonagallish “Ode to Moy Park”. There are also concrete and prose poems and three verse dialogues. The most eye-catching, however, is “Poem about all the Space I Told My Husband I Needed”, which — apart from the title — is just a blank page. You can “read” it as representing not only the space she demanded, but also her subsequent inability to fill it. There have been many poems about failed inspiration and some very fine ones (Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode”, Hopkins’ “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend”, Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”), but what could be more honest than a blank page? It’s a concrete poem, if absence can be concrete.

Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is the much-lauded debut by a young poet who arrived in the USA at the age of two, as a refugee from Vietnam. Poems in the book, which won the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, deal with subjects such as war and exile, as well as with the poet’s sexuality. They do so with an extraordinary freshness, which may partly reflect the poet’s struggle with dyslexia. One poem, “The Seventh Circle of Earth”, is nearly as empty as Leontia Flynn’s, but not quite. It has the numbers 1 to 7 scattered over two pages, referencing footnotes to an otherwise blank text, the poem being contained in the footnotes. Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell was reserved for those who had committed crimes of violence. “The Seventh Circle of Earth” focuses on the location of the crime and its the victims. Below the title is an epigraph from the Dallas Voice about the deaths of a gay couple “murdered by immolation in their home in Dallas, Texas”, immolation here not in its strict sense of sacrifice, but meaning death by fire. The poem is addressed by one of the dead men to the other among the ashes (footnotes) of their razed home. It is a powerful conceit and one that encapsulates both the marginalisation of gay people in some sectors of society and the idea that a homophobic intent to erase them from the face of the earth has been subverted by the poem’s living on among the footnotes. It ends ironically: “6. … Look how happy we are / to be no one / & still // 7. American.”

After that, it is something of a relief to turn to one of the poems in another first collection, Useful Verses by the English poet, Richard Osmond. No, not Richard Osman, the TV presenter — the poet’s bio says he works as a wild-food forager. The book won the Seamus Heaney First Collection Prize and was shortlisted for the Cost Book Award. Anyone expecting a cross between a self-improvement guide and a book of conventional nature poetry will be in for a surprise. These are intelligent and sophisticated poems by a poet who, as Picador’s blurb says, views flora and fauna through a wholly contemporary lens, involving things such as quantum physics, online gambling and social media.

Unlike the poems by Leontia Flynn and Ocean Vuong, which leave text out, Richard Osmond’s “A Game of Golf” adds a subliminal message in. It concerns a pair of marketing-agency types, one of them the speaker in the poem, who play golf with a visiting client, a neurologist from America. Having not only tactlessly won the game, but then found that their car has been clamped, the speaker hopes “to salvage the afternoon with the promise / of erotic massage”, which he proceeds to suggest to the client, using a technique drawn from an earlier project: boosting the online presence of a network of escort services by curating a blog in which the keywords “busty”, “London” and “escort” were used as frequently as possibly both overtly and concealed like “hidden clues” in cryptic crossword puzzles. This happens not only in the words spoken to the client, but throughout the whole poem, as in “robust Yankee”, “WatermelonDonut?”, or “E-series Cortina”. Whether it worked on the client isn’t revealed. What it might do for this blog remains to be seen.

“The Mabinogi”

I’ve been rereading Matthew Francis’s “The Mabinogi”, which was published last year. It’s his free-verse rendering of the first four branches (books) of “The Mabinogion”, a mediaeval collection of Welsh, prose tales, themselves a transcription of much earlier oral myths. I’d read a library copy earlier in the year, but bought my own, because it’s a poem I’m sure I’ll return to and because I specifically wanted to read it a second time, having looked again at the original in an English translation I’ve had for years. (Like many people, I was introduced to “The Mabinogion” through “The White Goddess”, Robert Graves’ eccentric exploration of poetic myth and inspiration.)

As Francis says in his introduction, the narrative logic of the tales, with its digressions and ellipses, its reliance on magic and a dreamlike switching between this world and the otherworld (“Unland” in his version), is not like anything we are familiar with in modern fiction and he felt that the very aspects that made a prose treatment difficult could prove a strength for poetry. I confess that when I first read them all those years ago, I found the tales rather hard to take. By contrast, Francis’s treatment of them as poetry really was an eye-opener, prompting me to go back to the originals themselves and see them in a different light.

One of the strengths of Francis’s poem is the economy and deftness with which he builds up a narrative out of a series of elliptical episodes, helped by the use of marginal notes (like those in “The Ancient Mariner”, but more functional), so that the “problems” of the original become an integral part of the poem’s strategy. His version is much shorter than the original. Not only has he made cuts, but he has also changed the motivation of at least one of the characters to  tighten the overall structure. There are omissions you might regret. In my case, it was the episode in which the seven men taking the head of the giant, Bendigeidfran (just Brân in Francis’s version), from Ireland to London for burial spend fourscore years in a royal palace in Gwales (the island of Grassholm, west of Skomer) unageing and in a blissed-out state, until one of them opens the forbidden door looking out towards Cornwall and it all ends with what sounds like the biggest drugs comedown of all time.

Although he teaches at Aberystwyth University, Francis is neither a Welsh-speaker nor Welsh-born and has been accused of cultural appropriation in a recent review in “Poetry Wales”. The reviewer nevertheless admits that it works as poetry and recognises an author’s right to deal with his material in his own way. Although I am only half-Welsh, I don’t see there is a real problem here. There are many examples of poets translating in collaboration with linguists and/or using prose cribs and “The Mabinogi” is not really a translation at all, more a reimagining.

The main strength of the poem lies in its cumulative effect and although individual quotes can’t convey this, I should like to add a few to those picked out by the reviewer in “Poetry Wales”. Take Francis’s description of the giant, when he was alive, a Brân’s-eye view of the world:

… think of the vertigo of standing there
gazing from the parapet of self
he can never climb down from

or Pryderi’s wife and mother, waiting to greet him on his return:

…the two women smiling in the doorway,
all air and light, like unfurled beech leaves

or this description of the sound of a wheat field swishing in the night wind:

a ghostly presence outside, shifting
yet rooted, as if the wind
has been planted there.

When I first read the poem, I began to wonder if I hadn’t stumbled into some mysterious otherworld myself. That same week, The Guardian‘s “Country Diary” had an entry about the Stone of Gronw — a flat stone with a hole in it, Gronw’s ineffective body-armour against Lleu’s spear — and Melvin Bragg chose “The Mabinogion” as the topic for In Our Time on BBC Radio 4. One of his experts was Sioned Davies, whose translation Matthew Francis used in writing his poem. For my next foray into the strange world of “The Mabinogion”, I’ll want to use her version. It sounds more modern in every sense than my Everyman edition, first published in 1949, with its self-consciously antique “thees” and “thous”.


Last week, “The Guardian” website published an interview with Jonathan Crowther — the compiler of the Azed crossword, which appears in “The Observer” each week. The puzzle can seem intimidating, if you’re not used to it: the words are separated by lines rather than black squares and a lot of answers are archaic or dialect words (especially Scottish words, of which there are many in the recommended Chambers Dictionary). However, the clues work in the same way as for other cryptic crosswords and the layout of the grid allows more crosschecking of letters in the more obscure words — or “lexical slag”, as Kingsley Amis said in the context of a fictional game of “Call My Bluff”.

The fact that the crosswords are sometimes themed or the words subject to a further layer of de- or encoding before entry in the grid (e.g. missing letters, anagrams, Spoonerisms or Playfair squares) adds an extra challenge. Occasionally, just understanding the rubric can seem the most difficult part. (Puzzlers like words such as “rubric” — I could have said “instructions”.)

And then there’s the task of devising your own clue for a particular word in the monthly competition crossword. The names of the winners and “very highly commended” (VHC) entries are published in the paper along with the solution, but there’s more information on the & lit. website including Azed’s comments on the entries, details of winning and VHC clues and names of “highly commended” (HC) entries. There is also an archive of puzzles and competitors going back over decades. My own stats aren’t brilliant. Since taking up the puzzle again after I retired, I  have managed a number of HC’s and even a few VHC’s, but haven’t been placed in the top three. I console myself with the thought that a number of the competitors are crossword compilers themselves.

The most astonishing thing about these puzzles is that since the first one appeared in “The Observer” in 1926, there have been only three compilers: Torquemada, Ximenes and Azed. Torquemada, Edward Powys Mathers, was actually the inventor of the cryptic crossword. And he was a poet too: Carcanet publish “Black Marigolds & Coloured Stars”, a pairing of his first two books. I haven’t read it myself, but will look out for it now.


If anyone is interested, here are links to poems I have recently had published online.

“Con Moto” published in “Atrium Poetry”

“Diagnosis” and “Voicemail” posted by Against the Grain Poetry Press in their blog

“Musical Ear” published in “Ink Sweat & Tears”

“Your Funeral” published in “London Grip”

“Anomia”, “The Double” and “Still Life” published in “The Poetry Shed”

I am very grateful to the editors of these webzines and blogs for having posted my poems.