Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A re-post from the northern Colorado years | poetic influences/influenzas

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[January 22, 2005]

It is Saturday January 22nd right now, but I am going to go backward to Sunday the 16th of January at 6 p.m. when I got to do the Poetry Show on the radio at KRFC 88.9 FM with Dona Stein, who has been a wonderful friend to my work as both a poet and a teacher of poetry. The idea was to have poets who teach poetry talk about the why and how of teaching poetry. My good friends Bob King (UNC colleague) and Donna Salemink (UNC alum) were on the air with me. I was very happy to see them and wished we could have talked much longer, but we were going on the air in a few minutes. KRFC is in the process of being renovated, so it was kind of half put together and half falling apart. Our host wanted to know why we taught...

I said it must be the fabulous wealth and the gold-plated Rolls Royces and the oil wells they give us at UNC because they place such tremendous value on poetry and the humanities etc. (I pictured in my imagination a four-foot tall oil well stuck in the asphalt of one of the vast university parking lots, and it was dry.)

To be perfectly honest, I do not really have any explanation for why I love to teach. It's just always been a strong compulsion that has been there almost as long as that even stronger compulsion to write and create. What made me swear solemnly at the age of eighteen to devote my life to writing? What made me think it was worth more than anything else in the world? That no sacrifice was too great etc?

(If my novel-writing buddy Simone Zelitch were here now eavesdropping, she would say, "Ah, you are bragging.")

In the spirit of avoiding bragging and slipping into exaggerations etc., I will make a few simple rules for this blog before I forget them: (i) only write about things about which I can be completely honest, (ii) tell the whole truth whenever practical or possible.

Of course, this means I am going to just have to simply not say anything at all about a lot of contemporary issues due to the way things are around me here. But I will make this promise for myself (and for anyone else who dives into this experiment) that I will be faithful to the truth in this blog.

I imagine that the ideal reader of this blog is a young writer, someone who probably knows my work and is curious about it and/or me. I wish that when I had started out in "Po Biz" that there had been more older writers who were genuinely truthful about the writing life and its strangeness. I think I owe it to the next generation to not make it seem easier or better than it is. But I also think I owe it to them to relate what makes it still worthwhile.

For one thing, I hear from some readers occasionally, including people I've never met or heard of who saw my work somewhere online or in print. Sometimes I even get things that seem like "fanmail." Sometimes I get a phone call from someone who saw my work online and loved it, and I am invited to read here or there.

Some of my readers have even told me that they don't just read my work; they re-read and re-read it. Of course, I am happy about this. But I also worry about the influence my work may have on them because influence is often a double-edged phenomenon. I have had in the past some poet friends who sort of fell in love with my work and could not help but start to imitate it in some ways. I was always flattered by this, but it was not just that simple. There was a sense of struggle....

When I first fell in love with the works of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Hart Crane, for example, it was quite overpowering and I went through imitative phases in relation to each of them. Eliot was by far the most deleterious influence (which is a kind of a compliment to his powers), but it took years to sort out for myself how I could find a stance in relation to his work that would enable me to go forward and not merely reiterate anything he had done. It was really torture, though, until that breakthrough in 1984 when I wrote "The Sylf." The influence of Pound, on the other hand, was much more beneficial and uncomplicated. No matter what terrible things you say about Pound as neo-troubadour, as fascist, as elitist, as anti-semite etc., there is still the self-sacrificing, compulsively and extravagantly generous friend that Pound was. Somehow this aspect of Pound pervades his greatest poetry, and it makes it a more giving field to wander in than Eliot. When you imitate Eliot, you always sound like a derivative, watery version of Eliot. But imitating Pound somehow throws you back out to your own voice, and you can come away from Pound as a better, more skillful writer than you were before. It is much harder to pick up any tricks from Eliot because his stylistic innovations are so peculiarly integral to his voice that they remind the reader of him (and how much better he is than you are). He is astonishingly subversive as an influence. I've seen lots of talented poets pretty much wrecked by Eliot, and so have lots of other poets. I think that subversive influence of Eliot's may have even fueled some of the backlash against his work.

So even though I still love Eliot's work, I recognize its hazards. It should almost have a warning label specifically written for young poets: CAUTION: reading Eliot may cause severe subversions and birth-of-genius-defects. Consult a metaphysician or a doctorate before digesting.

(Analogously, many poets have observed that Milton is a subversive influence whereas Shakespeare is a very generous influence. William Wordsworth is a potentially subversive influence while his sister Dorothy is a very generous influence. Poe and DeQuincey are both subversive influences, but Poe is much worse. Sylvia Plath is a subversive influence while her friend Anne Sexton is a relatively generous influence. Ginsberg is more of a subversive influence and Ferlinghetti is more of a generous influence. Etheridge Knight, Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds, my first great poet-mentor/friend and two of my past poet-teachers, are all great and generous influences.)

Throughout my teaching career, I have tried very hard to not overexpose my students to my work even though it may be the reason they are there in the first place. I'd feel terrible if my work inadvertently had undesireable side-effects. I hope that my work may be more of a generous reading experience. It seems to work this way for some of my students. But no one can ever predict this for sure. You can only find out the hard way by seeing what happens, and by then it may be too late.

But with all that said, I have skirted the real issue: what makes the writing life worthwhile? It's those moments when the gift comes and you are ready for it, those moments when you are fully conscious in the artwork and alive to all the possibilities of its truth, its sensuous and sinuous beauty. Those moments when the writing is more involving than anything else you could ever do in your existence, they bring you back to your true reason to live. They do more than make writing worthwhile, they make life worthwhile. Nothing can destroy those moments, and nothing can replace them. In those moments there is this "marvelous joy of being sure...."

1 comment:

Maureen Alsop said...

Where does Stevens weigh in? This is a new way to think about inspiration... the destructive structural meltdown from the roots vs. lightening quick shimmer in the tree leaves. Writing itself should come with a warning label... avoid asking yourself why you are doing it... it's a compellingly unanswerable question.