How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #1

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With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. I love the business of giving a reading, but there’s often a moment that arises that makes me uneasy as to how to how to respond. It’s the question of influence; the hand going up to ask: what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your own poems?

It’s my problem I’m sure, but I’ve always had two ludicrously extreme responses spring to mind on hearing the question. Firstly, to list pretty much every single poet I’ve read in the last 40 years because the truth is every single one has added a grain, a pebble (for better or worse) to the path I walk to write a poem. Alternatively, since I can’t think of one, or even two, clear contenders for powerful influence when I sit down at a blank page or screen, it must be that I have emerged ex nihilo, a peculiar original. The first would be a lengthy reply of little use or interest; the second would seem positively dripping with arrogance (and equally of little use or interest).

Actually, I can think of a third answer: it’s not for the poet to identify influences; it’s a job for a reader. But I wanted to use the next two posts to kick the idea of influence around, to sort out my own ideas and to answer it in two ways. Early in a writing career, the revelation of, or encounter with, a new voice, style, or even subject area can lead to great lurching changes of direction in a poet’s own work. The lurch or swerve becomes progressively less marked the older a poet gets. Put that down to a more confident self belief perhaps, or to a growing inertia, or a more sophisticated process of absorption of such novelty, or sheer bloody mindedness . . .

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For me, I started in the business convinced that I was composing song lyrics because poetry as such was not a familiar thing – except in occasional English classes at school and I dropped that subject at the age of 16. As I’ve said elsewhere, science was what I did through most of my teens. With too much time on my hands and too little joy to be found elsewhere, in the mid 1970s I began to turn to other sorts of books. From Foyle’s in London, I stole a copy of Everyman’s Selected Poems of Wordsworth. They seemed a bit dull and plodding but reminded me of rural Wiltshire where I grew up. For a few months I copied Wordsworth. Perhaps a year later, after a good dose of Sartre, I was finding my way back to the academic study of literature. It was the poetry (and drama) of T S Eliot that I fell in love with (not Dylan Thomas – the other poet on the curriculum). I still have those early Eliotesque poems somewhere, mostly Prufrock period style, though also a horrifyingly pretentious sequence of poems like a clumsy, anaphora-laden Waste Land.

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Re-starting my Higher Education took me to Lancaster University, studying Literature and Philosophy (and a few sessions of Creative Writing with poet, David Craig) and Hughes and Larkin were served up and readily ingested. At first, I swerved to the latter’s urban details and personal gloom; later it was the Hughes of Gaudete (recently published, 1977) that I copied, writing a long, quasi-mythic, magic-real, psychodrama about sex and power that I eventually self-published in Oxford. As a post-graduate among the dreaming spires, it was Percy Byshe Shelley who I was working on for several years and, though not a model for poems as such, his ideas about the role of the Imagination and poetry as an “Orphic language” have been important to me ever since.

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Among contemporary poets, I’d discovered Heaney (not the rural Ireland stuff so much as his wrestling with private and public responsibilities – Station Island, for example), Peter Redgrove’s fluid take on mind’s encounter with the natural world (The Apple Broadcast) and Ken Smith’s urban-political Americana (oh how I wanted to have written Fox Running). I wrote individual poems modelled on all these writers while absorbing much more deeply the work of the Romantic period – only now did I really find Keats, his poems and letters, Wordsworth still, Coleridge’s Conversation poems especially. What might have been expected – Hardy, Auden, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Dickinson – were all missing or they missed me.

 

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Ken Smith

 

A decade of writing, reading, plus some reviewing too. A couple of my own books published and I’d stumbled my way to Rilke’s New Poems, Elegies and Sonnets, the second and third of which I began to translate and (whether visible on the surface or not) were a great influence on me – the Duino Elegies  for their thoughtful drive from existential mourning to praise, the Sonnets to Orpheus for that same thought (more of the praise) and their use of form. From Whitman I found my way to W S Merwin’s marvellous fluidity (something I was comparing to Paul Eluard’s work too) and from Rilke it seemed a logical (not the right word at all) step towards the 81 texts of the Daodejing which again I felt I had to try to English because it both rhymed with what I already knew and I knew it would develop further what I needed to know.

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A few years back, an article in PN Review sent me to the work of Yves Bonnefoy. A heart-rate raising sense of another writer who had fought the two-faced dragon of language and seen enough to conclude that at the bottom of its filthy lair gleamed the concept and the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality”. One reason (I’m now quoting an earlier blog post on a 1953 essay by Bonnefoy) we do this is that there are “general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It ‘allows thinking’ of a certain kind; it is linked with ‘the vast power of words’. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing ‘world of things’. Conceptual thinking is ‘systematized’, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its ‘flight’ from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks ‘Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]’”

 

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Yves Bonnefoy

 

Reading Bonnefoy did not send me lurching to right or left but rather nudged, re-calibrated, re-assured me that my own direction of travel was not a wholly isolated one. I don’t write like Bonnefoy – there can be a dull abstraction to his poems which seems to me to contradict his ideas about real presence expressed as specific particularities – but I know what thought underlies my own work has close parallels to his (as far as I understand him). That’s influence, I’d say.

In my next blog, I’ll look at the question of influence from a different angle – what ghosts of other writers can be seen in more recent work?

W S Merwin – The Moon Before Morning

This review by Fiona Sampson says all I’d want to say about Merwin’s brilliant new book.

I was delighted when Bloodaxe wanted to excerpt from a review I wrote for ‘Poetry London’ about his last – The Shadow of Sirius (2009) – for the blurb of the new collection.

Here’s what I wrote then:

The Shadow of Sirius won its author a second Pulitzer in 2009 and this UK edition from Bloodaxe is a PBS Recommendation so Merwin hardly needs a plug from me. Yet his original poetry (as opposed to his wide-ranging translation work) remains relatively little known here and this book is so good that I am delighted to be able to add to the praise it has already garnered. These poems are lyrical, majestic, sceptical and tenderly gorgeous meditations on time and the nature of perception. They are also technically thought provoking. Since 1970 Merwin has abandoned punctuation and the resulting texts are thrilling processes in which syntax drifts in and out of focus, never a word out of place, and technique is made to carry metaphysical and psychological weight. Merwin intends the poem – because it must reflect human consciousness – to re-present a unified field of experience, especially of the temporal.

Early poems here are autobiographical and the shadow of Sirius is mortality and time for a writer in his eighties. It “appears now that there is only one / age and it knows / nothing of age as the flying birds know / nothing of the air” (‘Still Morning’). Later, age itself “seems to be without substance” since “the bird lies still while the light goes on flying” (‘Unknown Age’). Many of these sinuous, seamless poems appear to be enacted in a present tense that is re-focused on a remembered past which then contains anticipations of the future. So in ‘Accompaniment’, a child is washing his hands on a train journey, hearing his mother’s instructions about what they will do next, but the journey is long:

I will

wake up far away

we are going south

where I know that my father

is going to die

but I will grow up before he does that

the hands go on washing themselves

‘Photographer’ reads like a little myth of this process. The artist’s death goes unremembered by most but “someone who understood” rescues hundreds of glass plates and from them come “apple trees flowering in another century / lilies open in sunlight against former house walls”.

Though ‘A Likeness’ ends by declaring “I have only what I remember”, there is such generosity, breadth and richness to memory beyond any roseate nostalgia or cheap remorse that Merwin enacts Eliot’s observation that “all time is eternally present (‘Burnt Norton’). In doing so he accesses a redemptive quality yet does not underestimate the epistemological complexities. Many pieces are in search of deeper meaning and can be regarded as versions of ‘A Note From the Cimmerians’ who dwell “in utter darkness”. Towards the end of this marvellous book, landscapes recur which might be Merwin’s childhood USA, or the Pacific island of Maui where he know lives, but most often suggest the France where he once lived (a squabbling Plath and Hughes stayed with Merwin and his first wife in 1961) and seems now to be revisiting. ‘Cold Spring Morning’ notes “At times it has seemed that when / I first came here it was an old self / I recognized in the silent walls”. ‘Youth of Grass’ opens with what reads like straight landscape description but concludes (only 15 lines later) having gathered all the tenses together: “so the youth of this spring all at once is over / it has come upon us again taking us / once more by surprise just as we began / to believe that those fields would always be green”.

“The trouble with pleasure is the timing” declares ‘One of the Butterflies’ and the extent to which Merwin wrests pleasure from the passage of time is extraordinary; and extraordinarily Keatsian since these poems do not reach for fixity or facts, their fluidly unpointed forms unfolding with a marvellous aptness. It is not merely that pleasure is “gone before I know it is here” but more importantly “if I could make it stay / as I want to it would turn into pain” (‘One of the Butterflies’). These are unashamedly late poems and Merwin argues the mark of such work is that they employ “words / that have come the whole way / they have been there” (‘Worn Words’). Just listen to the settled human voice singing in this final poem: “yes this is the place and the one time / in the whole of before and after / with all of memory waking into it” (‘The Laughing Thrush’).