Anxiety of Influence

This morning I got out the hand-written drafts of four different poems written in the past few months, to type and save on my computer. (How disappointing they looked without the original excitement that accompanied their inception!)

Reading through them I could see where they were influenced by my reading of Zbigniew Herbert at the time. Two were even unpunctuated and one was attempting an overt play of philosophical ideas which is pretty alien to my usual way of writing.

Transferring them to hard drive, I started to make some changes and realised they were now beginning to look and sound more like something by Donald Hall whose selected poems I've been reading for a fortnight and finished just yesterday.

The influence is probably less apparent to someone else, but it reminded me just how strongly newly-written poems can be shaped by poems that already exist.

The solitary nature of writing can encourage one to imagine that poems are created in a vacuum. In reality, a very meaningful tacit exchange takes place, sometimes across continents and centuries, between poets and poems. Even the most individual and original poem sets out from and ultimately furthers a tradition of other poems.

Viewed this way, each 'new' poem could be seen as another stanza in the poem/s that preceded and influenced it; and all of the discretely titled poems ever written, sections in the epic of Poetry.

As such, it is amusing to look back to my teens when teachers and older poets would talk about finding 'your own voice', as if each of us has this unique completed vocal aptitude waiting to be uncovered. Linguistic theory doesn't support this view of language. Rather we constantly acquire and reinterpret what we hear around us. The better advice would be to forget about finding a non-existent Voice and concentrate on absorbing as many voices of other poets as possible.

The very personal space I inhabit when writing a poem, and which I imagine is somehow most profoundly me, may well be a misinterpretation, and instead be a way of being that finds me connected fundamentally to other people. Perhaps it would be better to say that the act transcends the Other. This is why it can feel like such a sustaining activity and not at all lonely despite the long hours alone.

I guess I'm not alone in sometimes coming across something in a poem by someone else that I've also thought of writing or have actually already attempted. Likewise, in re-reading other poets I sometimes come across lines or cadences that I recognise as being the catalyst for poems that I eventually wrote and whose origins were quickly forgotten.

This is okay. Acknowledgement of influence honours a profound human bond. Anxiety over influence occurs when the poet feels the need to deny those bonds and imagines that his/her work somehow exists entirely separately from other work.

In this respect there are some interesting parallels between counselling and Buddhism. Buddhism takes as an unhelpful illusion the idea of a separate ego. It does not accept the idea of a separate mental entity acting entirely independently. Poetry - or any creative undertaking - is an expression of interconnectedness; of the Mind of which we all partake.

In a way that is far simpler to understand, counselling identifies inadequate interpersonal relationships as a major contributing factor to poor mental health. Contrariwise, the working through of those difficulties and the improvement of meaningful interpersonal relationships is viewed as an important factor on the way to improving mental health.

Given what I have said, reading Herbert or Hall or any poet for that matter can contribute significantly to our overall well-being.


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