10 December 2009

Summoning, Revised

In 2006, I responded to a call for submissions to Poem, Revised, an anthology which, as Amazon puts it, is

An in-depth look at the writing processes of 54 poems, each by a different modern author, is provided, complete with early drafts, subsequent revised versions, and short essays from the poets themselves revealing how and why they made specific changes


I wrote my piece on the revision process for my poem "Summoning", first published in Strange Horizons in 2006 and subsequently collected in All Blacks' Kitchen Gardens. My submission wasn't accepted, but I dug it out recently and thought that it would be worth reposting here.


Summoning (published version)


Behind coded invitations,
long night journeys,
country house gatherings
of like-minded men -

behind the fear of women,
banishment of servants,
locked doors, shuttered windows,
guards to ward off spies -

behind cloaks, hoods,
symbols scrawled on vellum,
books of lore and learning,
circles of protection -

behind scrying-glass,
crystal, speculum,
the lighting of a candle
and the speaking of a name -

you never know.
That is the truth of every incantation.
You never know
what will come to the flame

Published in Strange Horizons, February 13, 2006

Origins, Revisions and Comments


On January 6, 2004, I jotted the following lines in my diary:

Summoning

You never know what will come. That
is the truth beneath ...


I had recently read John Crowley's novel The Solitudes (also published as Aegypt, but in fact the first volume of the Aegypt tetralogy), and I think these initial lines were inspired by the book's depiction of the 16th-century magicians and alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelley working, under conditions of great secrecy, to contact the angels and learn their secrets.

The lines looked promising, so I transferred them into the "Poetry jottings and ideas" file on my computer, and returned to them from time to time, turning them around on the screen and in my head, trying to make a poem.

It took almost two years for this process to bear fruit. I expanded the lines I already had into the final stanza of a poem, and then it was a matter of getting from the title to that final stanza. Once I hit upon the first word of the poem, the rest of the first draft quickly fell into place:


Summoning (first draft, November 11, 2005)


Behind the long night journeys,
coded invitations,
gatherings, late at night in country houses,
of like-minded men -

behind the fear of women
banishment of servants
locked doors, sealed windows
casting out of spies -

behind the cloaks, hoods,
books of learning,
scrying-glasses,
circles of protection -

behind mirror, crystal,
speculum, entreaty,
the lighting of the candle
and the speaking of a name -

You never know.
That is the truth of every incantation.
You never know
what will come to the flame.


I let this draft sit for a few weeks. When I returned to it, I was encouraged. The poem had structure, imposed by the regular stanzas and the repetition of "behind". It had movement, going from the preparations for summoning (lines 1-14), to the moment of summoning (lines 15-16), to a more general observation about the process of summoning (lines 17-20).

It also had several obvious flaws. Line 3 was both clumsy and far too long. "Casting out" in line 8 would be more appropriate for demons than for spies. The word "entreaty" does not fit among the collection of physical paraphernalia for "seeing" angels listed in lines 13 and 14. When read aloud, lines 5 and 6 did not sound right.

Something else struck me. Lines 1-17 form a sentence of the form "Behind [a list of things] you never know." This is syntactically odd at best, and I would not use it in prose. After careful thought, I decided that it did work in the context of this poem, so I retained the odd construction, but made the sentence form more clear by removing the initial capital in line 17.

I did my customary pruning of the extraneous instances of "the" that festoon my first drafts, shuffled words about for a while, and came up with this:


Summoning (second draft, December 7, 2005)


Behind coded invitations,
long night journeys,
country-house gatherings
of like-minded men -

behind the ban on women,
banishment of servants,
locked doors, shuttered windows,
constant fear of spies -

behind cloaks, hoods,
symbols scrawled on vellum,
books of learning,
circles of protection -

behind crystal,
scrying-glass, speculum,
the lighting of a candle
and the speaking of a name -

you never know.
That is the truth of every incantation.
You never know
what will come to the flame.


I returned to the poem for the third and final time five days later. One problem jumped out at me as soon as I read Draft 2 aloud: I had ended up with "ban" in line 5 and "banishment" in line 6, which would never do. I spent a lot of time on this couplet, and in the end, decided that I liked the version in my first draft better than any of the alternatives I could think of - so back came the original wording.

In line 8, I had replaced the original "casting out of spies" by "constant fear of spies". But if line 5 was to revert to the original, then "fear" would appear twice in the same stanza, which was rather too phobic. Besides, the emphasis of the first four stanzas is primarily on actions taken by the magicians rather than emotional states, so I came up with "guards to ward off spies" instead.

I changed the order of words in lines 13 and 14 (the first two lines of the fourth stanza) purely for euphony: "scrying-glass, crystal, speculum" sounds better to my ears than the earlier version.

After making these changes, I was satisfied, and submitted the poem to Strange Horizons.

It's interesting to look back on the variety of poetic techniques used in "Summoning". The poem uses internal rhyme and half-rhyme (e.g. "night" in line 2 and "like" in line 4); alliteration (quite a few examples, e.g. "lore and learning" in line 11); assonance (e.g. "hoods" in line 7 and "books" in line 9) and near-assonance (e.g. in "country-house" in line 3); repetition ("behind" as previously mentioned, and also "the [verb] of a" in lines 15 and 16, and "You never know" in lines 17 and 19). It’s hard now to remember how much of this was planned, and how much spontaneous. More than anything else, I go by ear.

2 comments:

Helen said...

Interesting to see how others work :)

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Helen! I don't know that I'm usually this analytical, however.