Wednesday, January 30, 2008


A former student was--and probably still is--an ardent fan of a contemporary poet to the point where he wrote poems infused with the same subject matter and even similar stylistic mannerisms of his role model. At first, the class, including myself, praised him for his desire to learn from a practitioner whose works have a so-called "signature style"; however, instead of searching out other practitioners as additional role models, the student poet was vocal in his decision: "He's the best poet I can find, so I'll stick with him as my main influence." But his peers' praise began to dwindle with each new poem. Most memorable, one of his fellow students said, "You've already written this poem--and so has X (the name of his main influence). Why not try something else? Or, better yet, why not read someone besides X?"

Influences can help and hurt us: They can enrich our poetry when we utilize the best of what they have to offer, but they can hurt us if we only have a few influences.

We all have influences that are both visible and hidden. I can remember the first poets whose works I intentionally imitated, for I yearned for such a connection. Consequently, because I knew little of prosody, I initially devoured poetry by poets known for their use of form and meter: Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Keats, Yeats, Owen, Edward Thomas, Dylan Thomas, and Auden (all English poets--and, yes, I know Yeats was Irish and Dylan Thomas was Welsh--though Auden did become an American citizen) were my guides. But I soon discovered others who added their own examples of "closed" or "received" forms on this side of the Atlantic: Frost, Wilbur, Millay, cummings, Lowell, Berryman, Schwartz, Roethke, and Bishop. But I then got to the point where "free" verse was a mystery to me, and so I sought out poets whose varied lines, turns, and measures were just as fascinating to me as Vaughan's decision to write a poetry that had more variations than his hero's verse, namely George Herbert. Hence, I drenched myself in the works of poets like Whitman (his "open" verse is far more interesting than his "closed" verse), Williams (though much of Williams' verse has formal patterns), Bly, James Wright, Warren, Dickey, Hall, Strand, Hugo, Walcott, and Kinnell (and, as the astute reader knows, most of these poets started out writing "formal" verse before they began writing what could be termed "hybrid" verse). Finally, I became enamored with poets via translations who wrote in languages other than English: Rilke, Paz, Borges, Neruda, Pavese, Lorca, and Transtromer.

But the post-war generation that includes Kumin, Ashbery, and Snyder is probably the most recent generation of poets that I consciously chose to influence my work in terms of craft: They are my diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. As for the poets of the Matthews, Hongo, and Dove generation, I greatly admire and value their works, but they still seem to be finding their way: their generation seems just a bit too close to my generation (I was born at the end of the Baby Boomer years; the Vietnam War was winding down when I became eligible for the draft in 1973 but wasn't inducted into military service). This isn't to say that the poems of the Levis, Komunyakaa, and Rios generation aren't precious gems--they are wonderful gems I treasure. Still, I simply want the various poets from the 17th century to the post-war era to be my main craft influences. (As for subject matter influences, that's entirely another topic.)

Why all of the personal history? I used my own experience in that workshop to illustrate to all of my students the need for numerous influences in young poets' works. As one of my mentors used to say, "Why settle for rhinestones when you can have diamonds, emeralds, and rubies?" Young poets should indeed take advantage of those who have created poems that will live for as long as humans value written and spoken words.

As for the poets in the present, we strive to find our diverse ways with the help of those who went before us and--as Ringo Starr and Joe Cocker once sang--"with a little help from our friends."


Anonymous said...

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