Tag Archives: Hugh Sykes-Davies

Moving your story forward, thoughts on editing-as-you-go

handwriting_LargeThe danger of editing as you go

If you keep going back to see what your characters did earlier in the piece you might succeed in ‘improving’ their behaviour, sharpening their dialogue, brightening a scene or shading it down … but you will not have moved the narrative forward one iota. Trust the story; you can always go back later and shoo the devils out of the details.

A lesson from the Surrealists

In 1936, Hugh Sykes-Davies, wrote In the stump of the old tree, and I’ve been reading the poem, loving it and holding it up to the light for more than forty years – but just today I see how it reflects on writing process, the going forward and the potential expense of looking backward.

Sykes-Davies is coming back into fashion now, and I am so glad of it.  Apart from his outspoken commitment to Communism, his networking abilities – friends included some avant garde giants of the time, for instance  David Gascoyne, Ludwig Wittgenstein and T. S. Eliot – Sykes-Davies also wrote an enduring textbook, ‘Grammar Without Tears’, an original copy of which I am saving to buy off Amazon.

I’m envious that Sykes-Davies, a by-the-book and wrote-the-book scholar of structural grammar, jumped the rails to become a Surrealist.  His poems helped deconstruct the entire grammarly pudding, poke fun at the rules and clearly open some of the gates to post-modernism and post-structuralism.  It’s the sort of bravery I adore.

hsd5

Hugh Sykes-Davies, English surrealist poet, Cambridge scholar, grammarian and outspoken Communist. At St John’s College, 1940’s – where he taught for nearly half a century.

On top of all this, Sykes-Davies was a swordsman of some repute. While he may have looked meek as milk, “He had many wives, four of them his own,” wrote George Watson in his essay, ‘Remembering Prufrock’.

I digress. As ever.
Here is the text of In the stump of the old tree – which I now see as a paean to the writer’s habit of editing as you go … sometimes at the peril of your story’s forward momentum:

In the stump of the old tree

In the stump of the old tree, where the heart has rotted out, there is a hole the length of a man’s arm, and a dank pool at the bottom of it where the rain gathers, and the old leaves turn into lacy skeletons. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees, where the hearts have rotted out, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and dank pools at the bottom where the rain gathers and old leaves turn to lace, and the beak of a dead bird gapes like a trap. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees with rotten hearts, where the rain gathers and the laced leaves and the dead bird like a trap, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and in every crevice of the rotten wood grow weasel’s eyes like molluscs, their lids open and shut with the tide. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the rain gathers and the trapped leaves and the beak and the laced weasel’s eyes, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and at the bottom a sodden bible written in the language of rooks. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are holes the length of a man’s arm where the weasels are trapped and the letters of the rook language are laced on the sodden leaves, and at the bottom there is a man’s arm. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are deep holes and dank pools where the rain gathers, and if you ever put your hand down to see, you can wipe it in the sharp grass till it bleeds, but you’ll never want to eat with it again.
Poetry and Prose, 7 (Nov. 1936), 129.

* Sewannee Review, http://www.sewanee.edu/sreview/home.html, 2001
reprinted in Jacket magazine. (http://jacketmagazine.com/20/hsd-watson.html), 2002