I’ve been giving some thought to the poets that I most admire and the importance or otherwise of thinking about the poets that they most admire or can be said to have been influenced by. I’ve come to the conclusion that we can divide ‘influence’ into two distinct categories. The first of these relates to ‘voice’ by which I mean the way that a poem is phrased and the way in which the poet is heard. The second relates to ‘theme’ by which I mean the subjects that the poet chooses to write about.
Influence works in many ways, we admire the work of another and deliberately emulate some aspects of their work. This does not need to be a conscious process- I’ve been a lifelong fan of the work of R S Thomas but it is only very recently that I’ve realised that most of my stuff has been written in his voice. I wasn’t at all aware of this until I decided that I was beginning to get bored with what I was writing and looked again at thirty years’ output. Ridding myself of that influence has proven to be difficult, the temptation to reach for a hunk of Thomas syntax and/or rhetoric still persists.
On the other hand I have made a conscious effort on occasion to emulate Celan’s later work. So I’ve got notebooks full of allusive three line poems packed with as much ambiguity as I could manage. Needless to say, none of this stuff is any good but I don’t mind the many years spent proving to myself that I couldn’t get anywhere near the strength of voice that Celan possessed.
Then we come to the Eliot problem, I’m not one of those that thinks that Eliot is a universally bad thing. A good deal of my late teens were spent poring over The Wasteland and the Four Quartets and I can still see that the first of these is an important piece of work but I do despair at the influence that Eliot has had on subsequent generations without really moving anything forward. I thinks that Eliot’s influence falls almost completely into the ‘voice’ category although his muddle-headed judgements as a critic have certainly distorted our view of what poetry can and should do for far too long.
This brings me by way of contrast to other modernist strands. Discussion of Paul Celan too often revolves around his reading of and relationship with Martin Heidegger which is interesting but I’m not convinced that Heidegger had as big an influence on the work as Osip Mandelstam who Celan translated and admired. It is eminently possible to hear Mandelstam’s ‘voice’ in Celan’s work after 1965 and both poets are concerned with the same subjects- the first stanza of ‘The night is irredeemable’, written in 1916, could very well have been written by Celan 50 years later. In terms of how this ‘influence’ worked I’m guessing that Celan recognised what Mandelstam was trying to achieve, decided (correctly) that this was important and proceeded to take it further. This kind of influence is very different from imitation/emulation.
We now come to the Prynne problem. It is clear from my recent reading that Prynne is a fully paid-up and possibly founding member of the William Wordsworth fan club. It is also clear that he was one of Charles Olson’s keenest followers. As with all things Prynne, identifying any trace of other works is difficult and when these are found it’s often hard to decide whether or not their use is altogether straight faced.
The ‘Mental Ears’ lecture makes an oblique connection between Wordsworth’s notion of the sublime and Prynne’s occasional use of the word ‘lintel’ but it isn’t immediately apparent that this counts as influence per se. There is also Prynne’s use of ‘O’ which appears to signify the same ardency that it denotes when used by Wordsworth.
Thinking about Olson, I’ve come to realise that Olson’s interest in perception and perspective is one that is shared by Prynne but Olson’s ‘voice’ does not occur in Prynne- except for his first collection which he has since ‘repudiated’. I understand from Keston Sutherland’s Glossator essay on Brass that Prynne and Olson had a falling out just before Olson’s death but I don’t think there’s any doubt that Prynne still holds the work in great esteem- somewhere on the net there’s a pdf file of significant Olson criticism with Prynne’s name at the bottom- this is dated 2007. The other significant influences which aren’t often noted are Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan, both of whom have a strong interest in the language/discourse problem. This may be wishful thinking on my part but ‘Word Order’ contains imagery ‘lifted’ straight from Celan whilst the later work contains echoes of Beckett’s residua. None of this detracts from Prynne’s originality but does demonstrate that his work is part of a distinct poetic lineage.
We then come to Geoffrey Hill who is a keen advocate for the work of Hopkins and other, less well known, poets (Gurney, Rosenberg, Herbert etc). Then there is the Ezra Pound problem- the only discernible voice that I can hear faintly resonating around Hill’s finest work. Like Prynne and Celan, Hill is a political poet. He also has strong religious beliefs which he isn’t shy about sharing with the rest of us and his notion of poetry is (to say the least) idiosyncratic. That isn’t to say that Hill is immune to influence but I would suggest that it is more occluded than Prynne and Celan.
Then there’s the ‘horses for courses’ argument- I’m currently trying to write something based on witness statements presented to the Phillips and Saville inquiries and I like what Olson did with the archival records of Gloucester for ‘Maximus’. Am I being influenced if I follow his example and lift straight from the record? Or should I be more allusive? Another strong influence for me is the example set by Emile de Antonio’s documentary films of the sixties and I guess that we all have non-poetic figures standing over us as we write.