Daddy, Daddy, You Bastard, or the Art of Being Influenced
William Greenway | December 2000
Everyone thinks that literary influence is a good thing, and it is, up to a point. As Harold Bloom points out in The Anxiety of Influence, we're inevitably influenced by our favorite writers; they made us want to start writing in the first place. We imitate our favorites, and then we take what they give us forward into our own new artistic life, hopefully leaving behind the idiosyncrasies that made our mentor unique, but in our work would be only bad habit or parody. T.S. Eliot has described the complex relationship between the beginning writer and his/her mentors in "Tradition and the Individual Talent:"
The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. 1
As beginning writers, we encounter these "monuments" and they stimulate the creation of our own work, which, if it is really new, then alters the tradition, which has now been updated and is ready to influence the next beginning writer. And so on.
At least, that is the way it is supposed to work. But what is it that eventually puts us off our mentor, that allows us to be more truly ourselves? Harold Bloom says it is the very same process that children go through with their parents-that we want to be our own person, and we can't do that if we don't somehow get rid of the influence of our parents. The influence of the parents has, after all, already been subsumed into the body and life of the child-it subconsciously permeates our very psychic tissue so thoroughly that it is hard to separate, for instance, our learned personality from our congenital personality. But how do you stop being influenced by your parents, so you aren't a blurred copy of them? You leave home after a big fight. In Freud's term, you must "kill off" your parents if you are to live outside of their shadow. Does this cause anxiety? Absolutely. Does a poet become great without that kind of anxiety? Not according to The Anxiety of Influence.
Bloom asserts that writers must outgrow their influences, even Shakespeare, the way, say, a young tennis player outgrows the champion parent even though he/she may never be as good as the parent. A case in point is Donald Hall, heavily influenced as a young poet by Dylan Thomas, but now a disparager of Thomas's poetry. In fact, his whole book of reminiscences, Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, brings many of his influences, from Frost to Pound, down from their poetic pedestals. It's as if he must make them human before he can deal with them, the way Sylvia Plath at the beginning of "Daddy" sees her father as large as a continent, but reduces him in the end to a mere corpse in a grave. Because her father died when she was still a girl, he has remained perfect, allowing no opportunity for the young poet to grow up into a recognition of his human frailty.
Luckily, some poets are so distinctive that it is impossible to write like them without sounding like a parody (though I know some poets who have written like e.e. cummings all their lives). Dylan Thomas is another of that kind of influence-I know because he was mine. I wrote Thomas poems for a while when young, and then suddenly didn't anymore. (Caitlin Thomas once said young poets threw in a few bones and worms and thought they had a Dylan Thomas poem.) I like to think I learned much about sound from him, and a critic once said she heard echoes of Thomas in my work, though I doubt she would have if Thomas had not been the subject of some of the poems in the book.
But echoes are good, echoes are right. What you don't want is ventriloquism. For poets, this line between influence and thralldom is thin. Poets will often admit, though grudgingly, to being influenced, and they'll sometimes admit to being influenced by their peers. But there are places that are touchy, and when you poke them, the poet squeaks. You could see the influence of Hardy in Thomas's work all day, but when you mentioned the real influence on Thomas, the one that makes him so unique, Hopkins, the bitten Thomas howled. No influence at all, he stated too quickly and too loudly. Now, anyone can tell within five minutes of reading Thomas that he was heavily influenced by Hopkins-for one thing, they're both writing Welsh in English-but like a child whose father has followed him to school, he will do his best to ignore him, to dissociate himself from the man in the clerical collar. It is a sad day when that is no longer possible, when, as Erma Bombeck said, you put your hand into the sleeve of your sweater and your mother's hand comes out the other end.
Does this happen likewise for poets? Does there come a day when, no matter how hard you've tried to suppress them, you feel that there is the possibility that you are turning into your own influences? Bloom says this aversion is one of the effects of influence, that the younger poet writes in reaction to the mentor, continuing further influence, albeit an ironic one: "We need to stop thinking of any poet as an autonomous ego, however solipsistic the strongest of poets may be. Every poet is a being caught up in a dialectical relationship (transference, repetition, error, communication) with another poet or poets." 2 (Plath's obsession with her father, far from being exorcised by the writing of "Colossus," continues as a negative wave, changing from awe to almost hatred in "Daddy," but still there.) An example of this dialectic might be one of Thomas's last poems, and arguably his best, "Fern Hill," which is quite similar to Hopkins 's "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child." They are both poems about the innocence of children seen from the point of view of another child who has grown up and is nearing death, feeling in hindsight that somehow the child knew about death subconsciously all along. In "Fern Hill," Thomas says,
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand
Here, the subconscious figures in the "shadow of my hand" (italics mine). As for Margaret, her heart has "heard of," her "ghost guessed" that death is "the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for." Thomas shows his remarkable pedigree, and his hand looks like the parent's. But is it? For there is a difference: whereas for Hopkins the blight is a universal, external condition of the world, for Thomas death is a personal seed carried inside us all along, just as "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer." Thomas's poem is in some ways arguing back to Hopkins, sassing him. No, the poem says, it is not the blight man was born for, it is the blight man was born with. In a curious reversal of roles, Thomas is reminding the priest Hopkins of the idea of original sin, and its consequence, death. Bloom calls this willful divergence "misprision," when the offspring poem begins at the same place as the parent poem, but then swerves off in a different direction. Or it could also be "completion and antithesis": "A poet antithetically 'completes' his precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough." 3
Thomas's poem is arguing with, or at least commenting on, Hopkins's orthodoxy. If you really want to goad a priest, try telling him there is no heaven except in the "round / Zion of the water bead," no synagogue but the "synagogue of the ear of corn." Try telling him that "After the first death, there is no other" because we enter, not heaven, but the earth once and for all. Whereas Father (pun intended) Hopkins's symphonic sounds based on the Welsh system of chiming consonants and vowels, cynghanedd, is often used in the service of religious orthodoxy-though admittedly unorthodox orthodoxy-Thomas's is used in the service of a pagan gospel, an ironic gospel where the lofty language extols the earth and all that must die.
I decided not to be a minister like my father, but as I stand in front of a class with a book of poems in one hand and gesturing with the other hand, how far away am I from what my father did? I am hoping for converts. The only thing that has changed is what we preach-I extol that hellish gospel known as secular humanism, and that's the fun of rebellion for me, and maybe for Thomas too, as if we would write poetry anyway, but it's more fun if you have something to write about, and rebellion gives you that something. We look for mentors and role models of rebellion.
Part of the process of being a poet is letting ourselves be constantly influenced by work that is new and exciting to us. Once in a while, we expect these influences to pop out for a line or two. Every one of us could probably pick out a line or two in our own poetry that was inspired by the music of Yeats, for instance. Such techniques are part of our repertoire, tools that are handy when we need them-yet to borrow styles at appropriate (or desperate) moments is to create mere pastiche. We want to be better than our parents, not a caricature of, or even equal to them. To go beyond what they have done is, as Eliot says, to stand on their shoulders to see better, farther.
The trick, then, is to let ourselves be influenced as much as possible but keep ourselves unique. How do we do that? The ability to be influenced in the right way may be a learned trait as well as a natural perversity. A poet friend says he likes to read some poetry, then take a nap, assuring that he will immediately forget exactly what he was reading, drifting off to sleep with pleasant images and words floating and recombining in his head. Almost invariably he will wake and come up with his own poem, which doesn't really resemble its prompt. (Jacob Bronowski, when he echoes Ecclesiastes by saying that there is nothing new under the sun anyway-only deconstructions of the known and then the recombination of its elements-puts the "origin" back in "originality.") Influence is a special kind of forgetting, one that allows us to write our own poem around the poems we remember. Reading a poem, for a poet, is always a dangerous business. If it's good, you're sad because you didn't write it: "Why didn't I think of that?" If it's bad, you're irritated because you could have done the same thing better. Being influenced means that you have to like something you've read so much that you want to write that particular poem, but then be able to forget it so completely, at least on a conscious level, that you can't recall it from memory; either that, or you give up and go ahead and memorize it, complete with attribution. To be influenced is to cultivate a bad memory. It is to be two years old again, wrestling the tool from the parent's hand-"I can do it myself!" Bloom says, of Wallace Stevens, who denied any influence, "But poetic influence need not make poets less original; as often it makes them more original, though not necessarily better." 4
One of the frightening things about reading a great deal of poetry is the thought that you might unconsciously plagiarize. Paul McCartney went around singing to his friends "scrambled eggs" to the tune he composed in a dream, the tune to "Yesterday," to see if any of them had ever heard it before. It sounds silly until you remember George Harrison some years later losing a lawsuit because he had "unconsciously plagiarized" "My Sweet Lord" from "He's So Fine."
The right kind of foggy memory is best. We learn the technique but not the words. This is what T.S. Eliot meant when he said "Bad poets imitate, good poets steal." Or, as Bloom says it, "Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves." 5 To imitate is to try to be like something other than yourself; to steal is to make it your own, to incorporate it into your own style instead of changing your style to sound like someone else.
So how do we learn to be influenced in the right way?
Read Everything. The more poetry we read, the less likely we are to be hung up on one style or become enamored of just one poet. (A whole generation of poets between the wars went down the tubes trying to sound like T.S. Eliot.) Since there is always another poet around the corner, there is less chance of the relationship being exclusive, and the more fickle and promiscuous we behave. (I slipped into a romantic metaphor, but what else is influence but infatuation, a literary crush?)
Don't Read Just the Poetry of Your Peers, but go back to, or keep reading, Milton , Marvell, Housman, Herrick, Dickinson , and Bishop. Remember, we are the inheritors of a great tradition, so let's acquire all the genes we're entitled to, the complete range of things you can do with poetry. One of the good things about being a teacher of poetry is that you're constantly forced to read "those old guys." To quote Eliot: "Someone said: 'The dead writers are remote for us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know."
Read Prose as Well. Rilke says, "The poet must know everything." Some of the best stylists are novelists and essayists. The descriptions in the works of, for example, Annie Dillard, Diane Ackerman, or John McPhee are often poetry, and have a familiarity of tone that can be included in our repertoire. Original and unique ways of expressing ourselves are all around us. When William Stafford was asked what his main stylistic influence was, he replied, "My mother."
Imitate Your Favorite Poets Occasionally and remind yourself of the differences between imitation and theft. Parodying helps you avoid the more obvious excesses. I was terribly obsessed with James Wright for a long time until I did a parody of him:
Just off the pathway to Maidenhead
the eyes of those two English ponies
darken with vengeance.
They have come gladly out of the willows
to trample my friend and me...
I felt better after writing it, and he was no worse off. I could go on to love him, learn from him, and see that many of his mannerisms wouldn't work very well in my own work. After all, if truth be told, we usually do this in our minds so we'll feel better about the poets we compete against, the way an essential part of killing off our parents is making fun of even their virtues. How else are we going to reclaim that part of ourselves or our talent that produces work that they might be able to do better? In mockery, we remove the basis of judgment from the scale of Better to that of Different. Differences become those of kind and not quality. Whenever I read a William Matthews poem and feel despair that I could never do that, I console myself by saying, but neither could Stafford, and that helps me to abandon, at least for a while, the gamesmanship of po-biz.
Be Influenced By Poets From Other Cultures. This is a great age of cross-fertility, a renaissance, and Americans especially need international influences to lead us away occasionally from the American plain style. This has at least the advantage of novelty. Your poem may be a rip-off of Cavafy or Elytis, but at least fewer people will hear echoes of Olds or Wordsworth. Try to write poems that sound like they are European or Asian, that have a different music. I have a friend who received a grant to go to Turkey to translate a nonexistent Turkish poet. In order to have poems to translate, he had to write Turkish poems in English, then find someone to translate them into Turkish, so his originals could be the translations. He said he learned a lot.
Not All Influences Need Be Literary. Involve yourself in new pursuits. Northrop Frye, the great critic, once said with glee that something had "opened up a whole new field of ignorance" for him. A new learning experience and we are born again, as if someone had offered us a new career filming sharks off the Great Barrier Reef. "Write your obsessions," Richard Hugo says, but there can be new obsessions; they needn't always be the same old ones. So much to learn, so many new angles for new poems. Dylan Thomas once said we should spend more time on our heads:
Think how much wiser we would be if it were possible to change our angles of perspective as regularly as we change our vests, a certain period would be spent in propelling ourselves along on our backs, in order to see the sky properly and all the time, and another period in drifting belly downwards through the air in order to see the earth. As it is, this perpetual right angle of ours leads to a prejudiced vision. Probably this was the divine plan, anyway, but I certainly intend to spend more time lying on my back, and will even, if circumstances permit, follow Mr. Chesterton's admirable advice and spend as much time as possible standing on my head. 6
And so when you hear the factory whistle blow and see the same old words and phrases line up in your head for the beginning of another ______________ (your name here) poem, it's time to learn something new. A fellow poet is obsessed with writing about the homemade samplers young girls used to sew in the 18th and 19th centuries, about the discrepancy between the religious sentiments of death, worms, and heaven, and their more temporal and sensual carpe diem thoughts. Be willing, even eager to change, as Yeats is in "The Circus Animals' Desertion;" after a lifetime of change, writing about "the lion and the lamb and the lord knows what," he must now "lie down where all ladders start, / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." Randall Jarrell says "Poetry gives that best of gifts-a change in one's own self."
There are Few Greater New Influences Than Travel. Eudora Welty once asked me what I was going to do with a small poetry award. I forget what I answered, but she responded, "Oh no, you must take a trip. Even when I win $25 I go to the train station and see how far I can go." You stay the same, but your context changes. You are in your life, yet simultaneously out of it looking back and in on it. Your style reflects that simultaneity and acquires another dimension, of space rather than just time. The result is something much better than tourist poetry.
Set Yourself Tasks. Choose them at random-an Elizabethan sonnet, a pantoum, whatever-read some of the great ones, then put the book down and write your own. Give yourself, as William Stafford says, opportunities to do things with language. Ted Hughes used to do this arbitrarily for Sylvia Plath, and if you read these "exercises" (like, for instance, the ottava rima "The Snake") you see not only great poems from the most unpromising of beginnings, but also the discipline that made the free verse of the Ariel poems great. New forms shake up your style. As Valery once said, "Find out what you do really well, then don't do it anymore."
One of the most curious effects of the current popularity of poetry is how divorced it seems from the act of reading poetry. It seems there are thousands of people writing poetry that never read any. I always ask my students at the beginning of a poetry writing class to name the last poem they've read. I've only heard a few responses over the years. One of the saddest things I've ever heard was a poet at an open mic reading say, "I never read other poets because I don't want to be influenced." Well, he had been influenced-by greeting cards, treacly television, and feel-good films. Goethe says:
Do not all the achievements of the poet's predecessors and contemporaries rightfully belong to him? Why should he shrink from picking the flowers where he finds them? Only by making the riches of the others our own do we bring anything great into being.
You're going to be influenced anyway, so wouldn't it be better to try to make sure you're formed by the right things? And who would want that for an epitaph: He was never influenced? Who would believe it? I bet you're nothing like your mother either.
Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington D.C. attorney, author, and literary agent that represents many writers and writers' groups, including AWP.
- Eliot, T.S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Selected Essays. Harcourt, 1932, p. 12.
- Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 91.
- Ibid., p. 14.
- Ibid., p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 6.
- FitzGibbon, Constantine, editor. Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas. New Directions, 1966, p. 85