The Inner Transformations of Words

Paraphrases always leave the interesting bits out. Take this popular quote attributed to Paul Valéry:

A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.

I learned that it is actually a paraphrase of Valéry from W.H. Auden. A great soundbite but far from the actual quote. Here is the full, translated passage from an essay titled “Recollection”:

A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.

New meaty meanings come out of this. It is odd to think of completion like slipping on a banana peel, but Valéry doesn't see completion as the point. A poem does not want to stop transforming. When a poet leaves a work behind, she is nipping the bud of a generative process. The poet, however, would just call it meeting a deadline. The poem is published and she moves on.

But the history literature is full of people who tended to one work over time. Two of my favorite examples are Walt Whitman with Leaves of Grass and Michel de Montaigne's Essais. Both works went through many editions – the first looking nothing like the final. And both tended their respective works until a universal accident befell them – their death.

So I then think of the web, where words (and bits) want to propagate and spread. Sure, we write and publish words at a constant rate, but how often do we go back and facilitate the stages of a post's inner transformation?

Perhaps that is not the right way to think about it. We are working on a different scale than Valéry and his contemporaries were. The web can give rise to prodigious output that rivals writers of past centuries. How can we keep up with every post we write? It would turn into spinning 100+ plates. There is an enormity to our output that even the most attentive would struggle with.

So what do we do? We could look at inner transformation on a macro level rather than a micro level – from the inner transformation of a post to the inner transformation of broader themes. Tend to the connective tissue that keeps our posts together. Maybe one has to recognize certain posts that require more upkeep because they are corner stones, upholding the foundation of the ideas behind your writing.

The web necessitates an updated approach to what “inner stages of transformation” means for writing, especially for blogs as such a work that Valéry wrote about.