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.

Author: Stephen Claughton

Poems have appeared widely in print (Agenda, The Interpreter’s House, Iota, Magma, Other Poetry, Poetry Salzburg Review and The Warwick Review) and on line (Against the Grain, Agenda Supplement, Atrium, The High Window, Ink Sweat & Tears, London Grip and The Poetry Shed). Twice nominated for the Forward Best Single Poem Prize.

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