Terrible First Drafts of the World's Most Famous Poems
Poetry can be hard to read and to write, but the payoff is great. For the reader, a bounty of beauty and unique insight into the wide, untamed world around, above, and within us; for the writer, almost-certain wealth and fame, secret poet zeppelin parties, and all the erotic birds/trees you can write about!
But it might comfort you to know that even the greatest poems of all time were once seventh-period garbage no more famous than your own. Good poetry takes determination, practice, and one of several magical quills buried alongside Emily Dickinson. Since those have been missing since 1906, we offer instead some motivation. Here’s a mind-blowing look at the failed first drafts of the world’s most famous poems.
Poe was devouring a plate of fried crows and morphine, as he did every morning before yoga, when the idea for this classic poem leapt into his head fully-formed. It was all there: the chamber door, the lost love, the inevitable descent into madness (or, as Poe called it, “Me-time”); all that eluded him was which haunting quote the raven should quoth? Months of awkward workshopping at Baltimore Community College would eventually result in the famous refrain, “Nevermore!”, but not after many misguided attempts, including:
“Quoth the raven… Not again!”
“Quoth the raven, Got a buck?”
“Quoth the raven, Your escape from self-loathing regret is highly unlikely!”
“Quoth the raven #YOLO”
In the first draft of Paradise Lost, God tests Adam and Eve by giving them an egg to take care of for the weekend (spoiler: it cracks). All that remains of the ill-fated “Egg draft” is this famous iambic couplet, in which the Lord decrees:
“If thou can’t keep yon yoke within its shell
I’ll smack thine butts straight down to bloody hell*”
Fragments also reveal that Milton nearly titled his masterpiece “Yoke’s On You,” but was advised by his book agent to go with something “more churchy,” lest he sound too “blind and crazy.”
*Note that Milton’s God was originally written with a full Cockney accent, and is referred to periodically through the draft as “Heaven’s Chimbleysweep.”
Originally published as “Goodnight Moon, Forever,” this classic picture-poem was meant to be a step-by-step guide to summoning the Viking apocalypse, Ragnarok. Scholars suspect author Margaret Wise Brown, nee Margaret Wise BroadswordSwallower, would’ve gotten away with her ritual summoning had the crucial last page, “Goodnight, sacrificial virgin ‘neath my Obsidian blade,” not been cut for space. Today, the Great Green Room remains a perplexing half-realized vision of Valhalla, where upright bunny-men sing songs and slurp bowls of mush from the skulls of their enemies.
This was one of Robert Frost’s few poems about nature, but nonetheless became a hit. Many don’t realize the simple four-stanza fragment we read today is but one short chapter of Frost’s first epic Choose Your Own Adventure Poem, a form he pioneered in 1916 that would remain popular throughout the century (see also Maya Angelou’s, "Do YOU know why the Caged Bird sings??? Turn to p.73 for the answer.”) Readers who instead opted to walk the road MOST taken would be delighted with family theme park attractions, popular people saying cool things, and a souvenir stand proffering “I TOOK THE ROAD MOST TAKEN” t-shirts that shrunk after a single washing. Still other readers of the original poem may’ve opted to “do nothing,” “contract tuberculosis,” or “go home and think about orphans.”
This popular poem was originally pitched as “The Cat in the Slacks.” But alas: Dr. Seuss couldn't think of enough rhymes, and nobody wanted to buy voluminous red pants for their infants.
What’s your favorite poem? How would you have made it better?