Visions and Revisions

Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, Broadview Press, 2002
 
Reviewed by 
Bert Almon
University of Alberta

 

"Anyone who wants to achieve what the editors call 'intimacy with the poem' will find delight in this collection, which enables the reader to enter the poet's workshop and see how poems are created. I don't know any other book like this one, with its multitude of drafts of poems by English, American and Canadian poets. Writers, teachers of writing, and student writers will learn from it, not to mention those content to read and enjoy poetry." 

 

Preface

 

Visions and Revisions: An Approach to Poetry was originally published in 1971; this current edition, while not changing the basic ambitions of what essentially is a compilation of poetic revisions, is expanded to include a diverse population of well established contemporary voices along with the original list of time-revered poets. There are also minor changes in the presentation of the various versions of the poems, changes intended to make the book consistent and more user-friendly.

 

The new edition of Visions and Revisions remains a direct approach to poetry. Each poem included in the book is followed by at least one earlier draft or version of that poem. This format allows exploration of the poet's vision from various social and political perspectives. The reader will always be delving into the nature of poetic language and the dynamic changes often found so necessary by those obsessed with language. This book, used in an academic setting or elsewhere, should serve everyone who is interested in poetry.

 

The poets represented were chosen primarily for their excellence and for the availability of materials needed for this study, namely, the drafts and revisions the poets have gone through to achieve their final versions. The selection of poetry in each chapter is not necessarily representative of the individual poet's life work. Their inclusion, rather, depended largely on the insights offered by their various versions. Most often, the definitive or accepted version always appears first, followed by earlier drafts. Because many of the poems underwent an even more extensive process of reworking, variant words or lines are also included in these drafts. Further variants or deletions are indicated by brackets.

 

For the most part, the poets are chronologically arranged so that the sensitive reader may notice an historical development in the use of language, idiom, cadence, and tone. All of the chapters contain a number of poems by a single poet, with these exceptions: the Keats chapter, which examines a single lengthy work; the Three Poets chapter which includes Frost, Williams, and Lowell; and the final chapter, which presents a miscellany of distinguished poets and their poems. In addition, there is an appendix of translated poems that illustrates how one vision, the original poem, when filtered through the medium of another language and seen through another person's eyes, can give rise to a very different work because of the translator's unique perception and use of language.

 

This study of poetry and poetic composition is intended to encourage consistent inquiry about each poem; the reader may question why one version is preferred over another. Is this simply a matter of personal taste or are there objective aesthetic criteria that come into play? Serious analysis of the different visions should eventually lead away from the reader’s prejudices and toward the poem itself. Also not to be forgotten in the process of poetic and artistic decision-making are larger social and political considerations, as nothing is produced in isolation from real life pressures.

 

Each chapter includes brief commentaries along with questions following each set of poems. The first, the Emily Dickinson chapter, illustrates extensive editorial changes involving syntax and punctuation. The questions asked regarding the Dickinson material should serve as a further guide throughout the book. The reader's approach might profitably be a cumulative one, the observations gathered from one chapter enlarging the perspective for the ones to follow. Some questions may overlap, but others will drop off, and of course readers will initiate further inquiries. The commentary also includes biographical and historical information intended to guide and stimulate the reader.