Poetic Bloodlines

By Lisa Russ Spaar

April is, of course, National Poetry Month, and this has me thinking gratefully of the forces that have helped shape me as a poet in the 35 or so years that I’ve been apprenticing.  If I were to speak honestly about my own poetic influences, I’d have to mention the fact that the space where I do most of my writing is also the family laundry room, and that for much of my adult life the best time to scribble notes for poems has been in the office lobbies of my children’s music teachers and orthodontists (or on the bleachers at Little League games or in my car at stoplights or in the bathroom with my foot propped up against the door—“Mommy will be out in a minute!”).  This and the reality that to avoid throwing out my back I need to carry around a notebook small and light enough to fit into an ergonomic shoulder bag have probably contributed as much as has the work of my literary tribe (Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins, among others) to the dense, compressed lyric poem that tends to be my favored mode.

Yet I am, like most poets (except for the occasional scribe who proudly relays that he or she doesn’t read other poets for fear of contaminating a singular vision), a reader. Poets have literary forebears. We have family trees. Geneaologies. As John Donne said of our bodies, our literary influences “are ours, though they are not we.” As poets, our relationships with those writers who have helped to shape our work, both those among “the noble living and the noble dead,” can be wildly ambivalent, ranging from obsessive, exclusionary possessiveness (“my Constantine Cavafymy Muriel Rukeyser! my David Berman!) to awed feelings complicated by deep-seated worry,  frustration,  self-consciousness, even competition.  William Blake admired the work of William Wordsworth but is said to have once been so mad at him over a theological point in a poem that he contracted a bowel complaint.

Some argue that the paradoxes of literary influence are especially difficult for American poets. Harold Bloom has written famously about the “anxiety of influence,” remarking that American poets ambitious for originality must understand that they are emerging into what Bloom, quoting Goethe, calls the “Evening Land.” But even those American poets who don’t buy that view, or who are simply unconcerned with whether or not they are entering the arena in the twilight of a European/classical tradition, can experience something akin to what C. K. Williams, with regard to one of his chief literary influences, Walt Whitman, calls “the fear that if I give myself over too completely to [Whitman], my own poet will be annihilated, that I’ll become a mere acolyte, a follower, an appendage.”

Most writers seeking to make original work, to develop their own style or aesthetic, are nonetheless indebted to the work they have encountered that italicizes them as people and poets. Such influences possess a discernable and ineluctable hold or attraction, inspiring the reader/writer to envy, imitation, admiration, interpretation, resistance, anger, love, dejection, and even, sometimes, rejection. Our influences are our intimates, and we are as aware of their excesses and flaws as we are of the  magnificent forms they present to the world. On the first day of class, the poet Charles Wright used to give his students  a copy of Keats’s “Ode to Melancholy” and dare them to find six other poems, by any poet, in any language, that were as remarkable on every register. The task always proved difficult.

Complicating things for the reader who writes, then, is that when we deeply admire a writer, it is not so much that we want to write like them, but that we want to write as well as they do.

Any poet’s literary legacy is likely to be a mongrel, even seemingly contradictory pedigree.  We can often learn as much from those poets who disturb or rankle us as we do from those with whom we share sympathies. One thing I like to ask students when we look at a poem or poet is, “What poets had to be writing, innovating, in order for this poem or book to exist?”

One obvious way to consider a literary influence is to trace a poem or poet back through a kind of linear chain or constellar tree of poetic ancestors and heirs:  Mary Ann Samyn back to Tom Andrews, for example, and Bruce Beasley to Charles Wright to John Ashbery to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot to the surrealists and the ancient Chinese poets. Or, to take another tack with the same poet: Samyn to Brenda Hillman to Susan Howe to Gertrude Stein. Or Samyn to Laura Jensen to Sylvia Plath to Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore to Dickinson to the Brontes to Shakespeare to Sappho.

One might trace a lineage in the other direction, too, from Whitman to Pablo Neruda to Allen Ginsberg to Galway Kinnell to C.D. Wright to Alex Lemon and Gregory Pardlo.  Consider the influences of Paul Legault, as another example, whose whimsical, smart experiments obviously hearken back to Dickinson and to Defoe, but also to Ann Lauterbach, Jack Spicer, Arthur Rimbaud, Federico Garcia Lorca, Marcel Proust, and Guillaume Apollinaire. The genealogies are mazy and mixed up and unchronological and provocative.  Fittingly, one title in Legault’s wonderful recent book The Madeleine Poems (Omnidawn Publishing, 2009) is “Madeleine as Portrait of Walt Whitman as Gertrude Stein as Stripper.”

Our influences can exist out ahead of us, too, and return to us in the present moment from a destination we’ve not yet reached (as Susan Howe says of Dickinson, “My precursor attracts me to my future”).  I count on my students to keep me thinking and working this way.  Not long ago,  a former student, Willie Lin, a Kundiman Fellow who is about to graduate this spring from the M.F.A. program at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote to say that her campus had recently been visited by the poet Kathleen Peirce. Did I know her work? Willie queried. I should know her.

And so in the interstices of pre-April poetry madness, I’ve been treating myself to the work of Kathleen Peirce, whose oneiric, haunting, linguistically vulnerable books The Ardors (Ausable Press, 2004), The Oval Hour (University of Iowa Press, 1999), and Mercy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991)  have  suddenly become very important to me (“Why shouldn’t I / want to think of wine asleep in casks with my eyes closed? / Wasn’t this always with me, the serene pause in things / held back from touch? How is it the weather feels / to have turned from what things want? / What should I let inscribe itself onto me as you do, / who love me all you can and not enough?” from  “Jessamine,” for example).  One never feels entirely safe in these poems, something I once said to Willie about her own work, which I deeply admire and would also consider to be a personal poetic influence.

I can’t resist closing with one of Willie’s poems, from a series called Sleeper’s Almanac.  The poem opens with an overt nod to a letter from Emily Dickinson to T.W. Higginson (“I smile when you suggest that I delay ‘to publish’ – that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin — ”) and strikes me, as do the poems of Peirce, as concerning itself with the matter of originality and influence, a kind of ardent and skeptical petition for salvific, sacramental thaw of relationship, in language as in life:

As firmament to fin, as lust to luster. My non-belonging. Pet-peeve, I joke with the woman cleaning after her dog. My spine practices its weathervane-twitch. Where some find delicacy: snowdrift, crocus, gold filament, a throat. I finger the loosened thread from the seam of my coat pocket until the key falls into the lining. What emotions do you associate with white? With bister? Boughs twist and rent with ice up and down the sides of our street. Winter hustling shoulder and heft: salt lick, brine spring. When I said madstone, I meant heart, and when I said chest, I meant mine—it is not difficult to imagine the sea, the sweat-line pooled in the small of a back. Somewhere someone is washing her hands clean.

(©  Willie Lin.  Printed by permission of the author.)

As Marcel Proust put it, “Style for the writer, no less than color for the painter, is a question not of technique but of vision: It is the revelation, which by direct and conscious means would be impossible, of the qualitative difference, the uniqueness of the fashion in which the world appears to each one of us, a difference which, if there were no art, would remain the secret of every individual.” Our originality as artists depends to an extent upon our origins, those bonds of incipience and influence that are both prior and out ahead of us, directions we hope always to be deepening, challenging, extending.

Lisa Russ Spaar, poetry editor for Arts & Academe, is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.

(A&A illustration incorporating images by Flickr users rick and lowjumpingfrog)

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