Two Worlds, One Field: Kathleen Jamie’s ‘The Wishing Tree’ | Chris Jones

Work of Days

From ‘Work of Days’ (by Karl Hurst)

There are, as far as I am aware, two printed versions of Kathleen Jamie’s poem ‘The Wishing Tree’.  The first is published here; the text of the poem accompanying an audio recording that Jamie made for the Poetry Archive foundation circa 2002.  A second account of ‘The Wishing Tree’ can be found in Jamie’s collection The Tree House (Picador, 2004), and online here.

It’s not altogether rare to find modified versions of the same poem in print.  You occasionally find young and emerging poets making changes between the poem published in a magazine (or anthology) and the piece that finally materializes in the book-length collection.  Then there are the inveterate tinkerers who spend their whole careers revisiting poems to change a word, a line or entire stanzas: W. H. Auden and Derek Mahon spring to mind as architects of this kind of ‘rebuilding’.  But Jamie falls into neither of these categories.  She had been publishing work for twenty years by the time The Tree House came along.  She is not known for revisiting previous work to make wholesale changes (no matter how strange or alien she finds earlier incarnations of her poetic self).

That there are two versions of ‘The Wishing Tree’ in the public domain actually gives us a rare glimpse of the processes of redrafting by this most accomplished of poets.  Not only this, I would contend, but the palimpsest of changes that can be traced from one text to the other reveals a poet who is in the process of developing a new style of writing, a shift in the textures and shapes of language that highlight Jamie’s ‘mature’ voice in her two most recent collections.

The poem plays a pivotal role in The Tree House, as it is the first piece we come upon in the collection.  Opening poems have a key job to perform because they function as ‘thresholds’, introducing the reader to the main styles and preoccupations explored in the work that follows.  They are doors through which we enter the house.  If we see Jizzen (Picador, 1999), the book that precedes The Tree House, as a transitional collection, the poet beginning to shake off the earlier styles found in the more urban, issue-based ‘social realist’ Bloodaxe oeuvre (see Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead: Poems 1980-1994 (Bloodaxe, 2002)), then The Tree House is the first volume that shows Jamie off in her bold maturity, focusing on the ‘birds, beasts and flowers’ themes that have garnered so much praise from critics in recent years.  That we can see ‘The Wishing Tree’ with double vision perhaps allows us a better view of Jamie as she repositions herself, shaking off previous orthodoxies to form a new contract with her writer-self.

Before I go any further, it would be useful here to highlight the differences between the two versions of ‘The Wishing Tree’ on offer.  For reasons of clarity and pithiness, I will refer to the Poetry Archive piece as Text A and the poem that appears in The Tree House as Text B.

In terms of word alterations, there are a number of differences between the two texts.  In Text A we read of ‘each secret visitation’ whereas in Text B we have ‘each secret assignation’.  In Text A the coins are ‘gently / beaten into me’.  In Text B the coins are ‘daily beaten into me’.  In Text A we have: ‘Beyond, the land reaches’, and in Text B it has been changed to: ‘Behind me, the land reaches’.  In Text A there is the couplet: ‘because I bear / the common currency’, whereas in Text B we read: ‘because I hoard / the common currency’.  I’ll come back to this final example of reworking in more detail later on.

Perhaps more difficult to track here, but no less significant in terms of its effect on the way we read the poem, is the way in which Jamie goes from a conventionally punctuated poem in Text A to one in Text B where she removes most of the commas at the end of lines and goes on to banish all of the three semi-colons that appeared in the original version (one of these semi-colons metamorphoses into a dash [ – ] in Text B).  Jamie continues to use commas mid-line as caesuras (for example ‘My limbs lift, scabbed’) but relies more on the phrasing of words as units of sound in themselves to cultivate natural pauses at the end of lines.  To this end, Jamie removes examples of enjambment from Text B, reworking the line-endings so lines naturally conclude on the end of a thought or completed arc of expression.  The full stops remain in the same positions in both versions.

That Jamie replaces ‘visitation’ with ‘assignation’ could be interpreted on a number of levels. Firstly, ‘visitation’ has distinctly religious overtones to it: yes, this is a poem about miracles, of granting wishes, but the source is distinctly secular, pagan even (this is not an up-to-date version of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ for sure).  ‘Assignation’ suggests intimacy on another level, a much more human one rooted in mortal frailties and desires.  ‘Assignation’ also has much stronger aural support in terms of the vowels and consonants around it, particularly in terms of the ‘s’ (sibilant) and ‘a’ sounds clustered around those lines: ‘each’ and ‘wish’ leads to ‘ass-‘ which then links onto ‘scabbed’.  The second change, from ‘gently / beats’ to ‘daily beats’, also has an impact that ripples through the textures of this poem.  ‘Daily’ implies something that is habitual, incessant, a need that the tree literally finds hard to accommodate.  ‘Gently’, although it exposes the tensions between care in the wishing and the damage being done to the tree, doesn’t bend with the wider associations and significances that I believe are attached to this poem.  This is not a gentle piece of art.  On a most straightforward level, the tree is being poisoned by the actions of the humans who trust in its projected symbolic value.  But this is also a Scottish tree (it says ‘smirr of rain’) with an interest in delineated boundaries (‘I stand in… / the fold / of a green hill / the tilt from one parish / into another’ (Text B)), whose allegiances are with the west of the British Isles (‘Behind me, the land / reaches toward the Atlantic’ (Text B)).  I think that this poem does touch on Scottish nationalist concerns, perhaps not that forcibly, but it does provide images of occupation through the iconography of empire (‘I draw into my slow wood / fleur-de-lys, the enthroned Britannia’ (Text B)). The processes of colonization and forced assimilation could hardly be considered gentle in the ways that they are executed.

From 'Work of Days' (by Karl Hurst)

From ‘Work of Days’ (by Karl Hurst)

As I highlighted earlier, there is a much more traditional approach to punctuation in Text A than in Text B.  Text A has a more conventional underpinning, using commas, semi-colons and colons to control the pace and rhythm of the work.  Text B eschews end-line punctuation at the beginning of the poem in three changes from the original version (two commas and a semi-colon are removed) but keeps the original comma in the concluding sentence of the piece, the comma now having migrated to the end of the line (‘of human hope, / daily beaten into me’).  This is the only instance of the use of an end-line comma in the whole work.  It is irregular practice and difficult to square with previous choices made in the poem.  This may seem a fussy reading on my part, but small changes enacted on the text often have a large impact on the ways in which a poem can be interpreted.  What we hope for is a consistency of style, something that this poem rejects. My own belief is that Jamie is signalling a move away from her previous, more orthodox word-designs.  The first poem in this ‘breakthrough’ volume highlights a more devil-may-care attitude, a new freedom from the rules that have shaped her formative practice.  Jamie has always sought to experiment with the reach of her poetry.  Look at her willingness to collaborate with other artists in her published work: with poet Andrew Greig in The Flame in your Heart (Bloodaxe, 1986), and in The Autonomous Region (Bloodaxe, 1993) with photographer Sean Smith.  She is not a ‘precious’ poet in this respect.  Yet the seemingly minor decisions she makes around this use or rejection of punctuation in ‘The Wishing Tree’ actually offer a new manifesto of sorts: ‘this is the material I really want to write about and this is how I want to do it. I no longer want to be restrained by more ‘conservative’ approaches in the ways I engage with these subjects.’  This is a poem that features a talking tree, after all.

Jamie shows great control in the way she harnesses internal rhymes, assonance and consonance in her poetry.  Her free verse is tight, robust and it sings.  One has only to look at the first six lines of this poem to see how interwoven the aural correspondences are:

I stand neither in the wilderness
nor fairyland

but in the fold
of a green hill

the tilt from one parish
into another.

There is the standout internal rhyme of ‘stand’ and ‘fairyland’, obviously (and the echo of this in ‘fold’).  After that see how ‘wishing’ has its own association: ‘wishing’/‘parish’, and ‘Tree’ has cascading associations too: ‘tree’, ‘neither’, ‘green’.  There are other patterns at work here: ‘neither’, ‘wilder-‘, ‘another’, and ‘wild-‘, ‘hill’, and ‘tilt’.  Look at the repetition that helps to balance the first six lines (and helps alleviate the necessity to adopt punctuation in this opening sentence): ‘in’, ‘in’, ‘into’.

All of this I use by way of introduction to discuss the final decisions made around the earlier poem’s reshaping.  Just as introductory poems are important in terms of the focus and direction of the collection as a whole, the first lines of poems will often introduce the palette of sounds that will be carried through the rest of the piece as variations on the chosen ‘theme’.  If we consider the first line of ‘The Wishing Tree’, it is the verb ‘stand’ that becomes a ‘tuning fork’ word for what is to follow. Apart from the full rhyme (‘fairyland’) that has already been mentioned, think of all the ‘–d’ words positioned at the end of lines that emerge from and ‘chime’ in some way with ‘stand’ in Text B: ‘fold’, ‘blood’, ‘hoard’, ‘scabbed’, ‘wood’, ‘land’, ‘poisoned’, ‘bud’.

This continuity of sounds is not so apparent in the originally published poem.  Firstly, as I have already mentioned, the Text A version has ‘because I bear / the common currency’, which is, within the aural context of the piece, a lot weaker as a ‘marker-point’ (‘bear’ also over-dramatises the ongoing process too: this is a hardy tree).  Jamie realises this and chooses the word ‘hoard’ because it sits much more closely in line with the governing sound-patterns that stitch together the updated draft.  ‘Hoard’ also dovetails in much more closely with a ‘common currency’ or treasury, the idea that this ‘being’ carries a wider tribal significance for the people who draw on its powers to bless, to help facilitate change.

Perhaps more intriguingly, in the original piece we have this imagining:

I draw

into my slow wood, fleur
-de-lys, the enthroned Britannia.

‘[W]ood’ here has been buried within the line and because of this ‘demotion’ it doesn’t carry the weight it would have if the word was positioned next to the wide open space of white.  This effect is further emphasised by the use of enjambment so that we think about the division into two lines of ‘fleur/-de-lys’ for some reason.  It’s almost as if Jamie can’t see the wood for the trees here.  By the time she comes to rewrite the poem she realises the incantatory, essential quality of the word ‘wood’ and places it at the end of the line: ‘I draw into my slow wood / fleur-de-lys, the enthroned Britannia.’  This subtle shift is one of the reasons why the work is such a finely crafted poem by the time of its final redrafting.  ‘Wood’ is one of the three pivotal ‘end-rhymes’ that hold the poem together: they are ‘blood’, ‘wood’ and ‘bud’.  The poem is encapsulated here in this trinity of words. The ‘blood’ represents the humans who come to knock coins into the trunk and who wish for better lives; ‘wood’ is the tree, of course, which understands that it plays a symbolic role but also that being awarded this privileged state may also lead to its demise.  The battle for supremacy between what the ‘blood’ wants and what the ‘wood’ needs is played out in those final lines.  The tree could be ‘poisoned’ beyond repair (could end up dead), but no, look, the tree is ‘still alive – / in fact, in bud.’  The final word of the poem tips the balance away from ‘blood’ toward ‘wood’: ‘bud’ wins through as the climactic and emphatic rhyme in the work.  It steers the piece toward light and life. Indeed, the poem has been working toward ‘bud’ from the first consonants and vowels of that opening line, through the interstices of ‘rhymes’ that have been clarified and consolidated through this most revealing of drafting processes.

‘The Wishing Tree’ appears in Kathleen Jamie’s collection The Tree House (Picador, 2004). Chris Jones‘s sequence ‘Death and the Gallant’ appears in The Footing, an anthology of new walking-themed poems published by Longbarrow Press. His pamphlet Jigs and Reels recently appeared from Shoestring Press.

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9 Comments on “Two Worlds, One Field: Kathleen Jamie’s ‘The Wishing Tree’ | Chris Jones”

  1. Matthew says:

    Chris,

    What a technically engrossed and articulate piece. Thanks.

    So when you speak of Jamie shedding ‘orthodoxies’, do you mean technical orthodoxies, then?

    I can understand why a writer might shift from ‘social realist’ tendencies to more nature/naturalist tendencies, but I’m struggling to separate the two on grounds of ‘orthodoxy’, or even ‘maturity’.

    I wonder why so many might consider the shedding of so-called ‘social realism’ as a sign of ‘maturity’.

    This is not, perhaps, what you mean to imply in the first half of your account (and it might not even be what Jamie does), but it interests me.

    • Chris Jones says:

      I meant stylistic (or technical) orthodoxies rather than any thematic concern on Jamie’s part. The poem is not consistent in how it uses punctuation. It’s the part of my reading that I am most hesitant about (making an issue out of one end-line comma) but I do think it suggests Jamie is trusting in a ‘freer’ association with her materials. I believe the early work is something she felt she had to write (doing the poet thing) whereas the later work is the stuff she really wanted to write. I really like a lot of the early work myself – ‘The Autonomous Region’ as a whole collection and specific poems like ‘Hand Relief’, for instance, which is a piece of great poignancy and power. She has always been exploratory as a writer (in both prose and poetry) but there is a definite tonal shift in those last two collections that can be traced back in part to the ‘workings out’ we find in ‘The Wishing Tree’.

  2. Matthew says:

    Chris,

    Thanks for making that clear to me. The technical observations make sense.

  3. I hadn’t read the revised poem until today. I have always loved the first version and though I can see that some of the changes strengthen sound relationships through the poem, I still prefer the original (text A in your piece). I really like the way, ‘because I bear/the common currency’ echoes the words ‘I promise to pay the bearer of this note’ which appear on the note. I like the multiple meanings of the word bear and am sad to see it go in the second version.

    • Chris Jones says:

      Thanks for your comments, Ingrid. I do like your reading of the use of the word ‘bear’ here. I always think once the poem is written it is no longer the poet’s but the reader’s (or readers’) – so having two versions of the same poem out there makes this ‘handover’ a lot more complicated. That the first version (text a) is accompanied by such a fine reading by the poet gives it an extra dimension in the ‘aural’ memory of the readership.

  4. Liz says:

    A marvellously rich reading Chris. Thank you. I’m wondering about that splitting of fleur/-de-lys ; in the current context of potential disunion it feels intentional to me. As you say, it is a very Scottish tree…

  5. Chris Jones says:

    Thanks, Liz. Your comments are much appreciated. I’m foxed by her line break here, really. I think one of the reasons why she returned to the poem was because of the ‘shape’ of the poem.

  6. Paul Frosh says:

    This is a marvelous discussion of these versions. There are things I do prefer about the second version, especially the change from “Beyond” to “Behind me” which saved those two lines for me: they seemed somehow out of place in the first version, almost a poetic over-reaching for effect. But I regret the loss of “I draw/Into my slow wood, fleur/-de-lys, the enthroned Brittania.” This arrangement is for me all about that movement of slow drawing, of slowly moving wood (and slowly moving into wood), placed at the centre of the line, with the image of the fleur-de-lys extending across the lines enacting the coin’s motion into the tree. It’s a truly astounding effect and I am saddened by the revision – though it is wonderful to be able to read both versions, and to reflect upon them through your blog in such good company.

    • Chris Jones says:

      Thanks for this, Paul – I only just noticed there was a new reply to the piece, I haven’t checked in a while (I’m only a year out in responding to you!) Yes, I can see your point about the use of enjambment here – I’m more convinced now by the ‘shape’ of Version A after your intervention. This is really helpful.


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