Washing up and growing up
Heavy engineering

The Tyger's Labourer

Today's seminar was on Blake and, courtesy of my mother, I handed out copies of his first draft of 'The Tyger', set against the final version. It's not a long poem, but perhaps half the lines are different in some way, and one whole verse in the first draft was cut. We discussed why he'd changed what he did, whether the cut words found a home elsewhere or were gone forever, why the cancelled verse didn't work, and so on. And this one short poem kept us happily discussing for the whole forty-five minutes that's left after you've handed back the essays and dealt with the signing-in and asked after everyone's Christmas holiday.

The good things that came out of that seminar made me regret that it isn't easier or more automatic to get hold of such drafts when you're studying a piece. The writing magazine Mslexia does a similar thing for aspiring writers, in a very good series where a writer sets out their first version of a poem or passage of prose and then describes the process which ended up with the final version. But it isn't just for writers that studying process is instructive, it's a huge insight for anyone into an author's intentions: into how the piece works. And to have first drafts of great literature is like being able to see an aerial photograph in stereoscopic vision: there are no more facts there than there were in the flat version, but suddenly we can actually see the way the church tower looms over the high street, or the river twists away from the evening sun: the image can imply the journey.

Some years ago - I think just after it opened - the British Library put on the most staggering exhibition of the writers' manuscripts in its archive. There was everything from medieval parchment to books owned and lavishly annotated by Coleridge, to the vast manuscript of Ulysses, phrases at all angles over each huge page, underlined in colour for the thread to which they belonged. Yes, there is some voodoo in such things: here in this room, the same room as me, are objects which were touched and owned, as intimately as I own my own notebooks, by Woolf, Dickens, Johnson (Sam) and Jonson (Ben).

But, more importantly, it reminds us - or it should - that studying writing should mirror writing itself, in being as much about practice as it is about product. We don't need to know if Yeats drank coffee or tea for his working sessions, which is sometimes what people think of when you talk about practice. But we do need to know how his mind worked.

And there's a final benefit. It was no news to my students - writers all - that writing largely consists of re-writing and re-writing, that it's hard work and takes ages. The most poetry Yeats ever wrote in a day was six lines, for example. But it's news to much of the rest of the world, who can't understand why we're not coming down the pub this evening, or why we can't just write more books if we need the money, or why we mind when Amazon lists our book secondhand for 20p alongside the new, real, royalty-paying thing, suddenly expensive even at 40% discount. The labourer is worthy of his hire, after all, but sometimes the world needs reminding that we are labourers.

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