If you think about it, unoriginality is everywhere. A fair chunk of some pretty great poetry is simply a “version” of an earlier work. Think of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, John Gardner’s Grendel or Caroline Bergvall’s “The Canterbury Tales.” Think of Carol-Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, where she blatantly versions every myth and fairy-tale from King Midas to Beauty and the Beast. All of these writers make it new by making it again.
In this exercise, I encourage you to choose a clutch of poems by another writer to “version”, or re-write. The older, the better. Antiquity is a good place to start. The Roman poet Catullus wrote lots of poems that are just the right length (short) for this exercise. Sappho’s fragments work well, too, as do some of Ezra Pound’s shorter Cathay poems, which “version” (some say translate) poems of ancient China.
First, read the poems. You will have to read them in translation, in English, unless you can understand Latin, ancient Greek, or Chinese, in which case I am jealous. The trick is to spend a bit of time with each poem first. Read it once, twice, thrice. Sit with it for a while. Let it sink in, let it enter your bloodstream. You are not doing a translation. Do not transcribe the poem line-for-line. Let the poem make a home in you. Let it start seeding new images, before you pick up a pen.
Now, close the book of poems, and write your “version”. It doesn’t matter how faithful your poem is to the “original.” The less faithful, the better. So, poem 78b by Catullus, which in James Michie’s translation reads thus:
…What pains me most is that your spittle-slime
Has fouled my sweet girl’s sweet lips. But the crime
Is one you’ll have to pay for, for your shame
Shall echo down the centuries, and Fame
Grow old and ugly muttering your name.
might turn into something like this:
Into the pearl-cave of her girl’s mouth
you bloomed your black tongue.
Time’s square will blink your image
on its screens for decades to come.
Or poem 87 by Catullus (James Michie’s translation again), which goes like this:
No woman can
That any man
Ever loved her
As I loved you.
No lover bound
By pledge of heart
Was ever found
True on his part
As I was true.
might become this:
No one can say
I didn’t smother you
with the blood
of my heart
Anne Carson in Men in the Off Hours achieves some wonderfully deviant and spooky versions of Catullus, so I recommend checking those out for inspiration.
Here’s one last re-write, versioning a poem from Pound’s Cathay:
The Jewel Stair’s Greivance
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
And here’s my “version”, which is, again, quite far from the “original” version by Pound (which was already many steps removed from the “original” ancient Chinese):
Don’t slip, don’t soak,
don’t watch the moon.
Diamonds on the soles
Pound’s version of this poem has a lengthy footnote explaining the poem’s imagery. The footnote is almost as long as the poem itself! It might be fun to try “versioning” the footnote, too.
Joan Fleming’s début book of poetry The Same As Yes was published last year by VUP. She won the Biggs Poetry Prize in 2007, and her work has appeared in Landfall, the Listener, Sport, and The Best of Best New Zealand Poems. She is currently studying towards an MA in iterative poetics at Otago University.