Each year Meanjin awards a prize for the best poem to be published in our pages in the course of a year. In 2011, however, the judges we unable to chose between two poems, All Eyes by Stephen Edgar and Fairy by Fiona Britton and awarded the prize jointly. Below you can listen to audio of the poets reading their work, see the full text of the poems and scroll down for an insight into the drafting process of Stephen Edgar’s poem All Eyes, including a look at his early hand-written drafts.
Look, look, it says, and peels away the night
As it flies on. And there,
A ghostly Ferris wheel frozen in space,
Saturn comes looming at the satellite
With all its shattered rings of icy lace
Exquisitely beyond repair.
So much to see. And now the vast moon, Titan,
Fills the compulsive lens.
Descending through the folds of orange fog,
It peers among the marvels to enlighten
A distant world’s attention, all agog
For each new vision that it sends.
Out there, some twenty billion light years hence,
Too far for light to serve,
Who knows what sown and pullulating planet
Has come and gone, an ark of evidence
Interminably circling where it cannot
Be salvaged by the optic nerve?
The fossil in the paginated book
Of shale that once was slime
Falls open and cries, Look. And these sunflowers—
Their yellow is the synonym for Look,
Though they’ve no word for weary or the hours
The sun has summoned them to climb.
Was it for this the aeons fashioned us?
To look and make it so?
The moth wing’s intricately subtle scales,
The fleck of matter in the nucleus
As light as light, your face which never fails
To show me what I cannot know.
Met the highway at Old Bar:
strung out, amphetamined,
he swung off the rut-ribbed dirt feeder,
felt tooth and jaw unclench
on the smooth grey strip,
the k’s a curling ribbon of road beneath his Toyota,
mind chiming on the nitpick words of his father’s goodbye—
just do no harm, if you can’t do any bloody good—
gripped the wheel so tight an old cut opened,
sepsis square in the black gash there
and in the thumb an ache
that leant a pulse to the maddened rush
of trees–road–black sky;
and so on, ad nauseum
(his mother spat that Latin once:
she acted bookish, didn’t join them
chipping shell from the boat on Sundays
when his thumbs got new cuts
while other cuts seeped).
He disappeared the old folks from behind his eyes,
dissolved himself into the capsule of the car,
saw he was atomic, in the clever chain of it,
time passing in his mouth and out his arsehole,
his insides a trivial tube
(the head a hollow thing),
and then, of course, his thumb.
He clocked one-eighty
when the thing hit—
the windscreen a diamond shower
and in his lap a flapping wing.
A gush of acrid fear; he felt the front wheels swing,
sent a glorious spray of shoulder gravel
up around the windows,
in the Bollywood headlights of the
thundering B-Double in the inside lane
God no, not like this, not yet
then he was stopping, stopped,
his thighs clawed by the manic dying thing;
a bat, he saw—
with the face of a dirty fairy
crying human tears,
opening and closing its leather coat
ad nauseum, ad nauseum, until he faded
and the creature’s agony shriek brought him around;
he was alive
the split night ringing in his ears.
Stephen Edgar on the writing of All Eyes
The first thing you will see from the accompanying drafts of All Eyes is that I compose by hand. I get the feeling that not many poets (and presumably no prose writers) still do that. When I began writing in my teens, of course, that was they only way I had, and even when I acquired a typewriter that seemed too difficult to use for composition. But even now when my typing skills are better and computers make it easy, I prefer to write longhand. It may be fanciful but I like the feel of the connection between my mind and my writing hand; it is as if there is a direct charge between the imagination and the page which a keyboard and screen do not produce.
The poem, as you will see, was written between 10 and 12 March 2010. However, on consulting my notebook (I have always jotted down potential poems in notebooks) I discover that the idea for this poem actually dates from about five years earlier and, as far as I can remember, it was prompted by a television report of satellite footage from Titan, one of the moons of Saturn.
On the matter of dates, by the way, ever since I began writing poetry in my adolescence I have always scrupulously dated the drafts of my poems and kept a chronological list of them. I’m not sure why; it just seemed the natural thing to do, and it has always been a source of astonishment to me that hardly any other poets do the same—at least as far as I am aware. I would hate not to be able to place my poems in time or in sequence.
What sparked the idea for a poem in this satellite report can be explained by some other words in my note: These things, these things were here… This, of course, is a quotation from Hopkins’s poem Hurrahing in Harvest:
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
So the poem draws out the implications of that notion: that the phenomena of nature would somehow go to waste or be pointless without a sentient intelligence to observe them. And the last stanza even flirts with the possibility that the very purpose of our existence is to be that observing intelligence and to confer meaning on what might otherwise be meaningless matter, or indeed meaningless life. This smacks very much of the anthropic principle and I don’t know that I really believe it. But it is imaginatively stimulating and a subject area that I seem to have become absorbed by recently because it crops up in other recent poems. Those very words from Hopkins, for example— these things, these things—occur in Auspices, written a couple of years earlier, which in part speculates on the question of whether the conscious observer creates meaning, and Lost World, also from 2008, wonders whether, in the absence, or loss, of a visual record, we can even know that something happened.
If we turn to the formal and technical aspects of the poem, given that I am a formalist, the question may arise: how do you decide on the particular form, the particular pattern of rhyme and metre? To this I can offer no very clear answer except to say that it is partly a sense of the appropriate form which comes into being with the idea and imagery, and partly heuristic and discovered in the process of writing. And if you consult the drafts you will see that, though the basic form was settled almost immediately, I did, after the first page, change line five from tetrameter (four stress) to pentameter (five stress).
One rule which I almost invariably follow, however, is that once the form of the first stanza has been determined, all the other stanzas must follow the same pattern in both metre and rhyme. Another thing which may be observed is that I do not belong to the ‘first thought best thought’ school and believe, from experience, that revision can be as creative a process as the original composition, though of course some poems seem to find their completed form more easily than others.