Sunday, November 25, 2007

The history of poetry and the moment of composition

While you’re actually writing a poem, how conscious are you of the history of poetry? Are you constantly thinking about how your poem will relate to the poems that have come before, or do you not think about that at all? Are you somewhere in between? Are you overwhelmed by the anxiety of influence, indifferent to it, perhaps hostile?

I’m not looking for right and wrong answers here; I’m just curious. Although I do think the answers will tell us things worth considering.

I don’t mean history more generally, by the way, just the history of poetry. And I don’t mean what you think about before or after writing, I mean literally while involved in the process of composition. And lastly I don’t mean in terms of the history of your own poems, but the history of poems written by others.

I would also welcome answers about this relative to fiction writing and the history of fiction, or song writing and the history of music.


Jessica Smith said...

Between writing poems, I am wrapped up in the anxiety of influence... in that I want to take up many different poetico-political causes, make something new, etc. But when I am actually writing a poem, i'm usually not thinking about those things. It takes a lot of time and space of struggling... then there are brief moments of poem-writing. During poem writing I am often thinking of these things:
- Proust
- A song, or songs (whatever's on the radio or in my head)
- Sex
- Love, or desire for emotional fulfillment.
- Being a child, or, how being a child will not happen for me again.

Dan / Daniel Gutstein said...

Lately I think of Charles Reznikoff's FIVE GROUPS OF VERSE (1927) -- what else is there, in spirit? Poetry, proetry, drama. Every thought a revelation. Not thick. Has movement and quietude. Back when winters were winters and people could perish, not just die. I suppose, instead, I could detonate a grenade inside my skull and then write down which words were falling like ash. For that, one might take Celan, if one wanted a touch of order, or, shit, Bruce Andrews (just read the B.A. Aerial with some of your nonsense alphabet poems about RJR). I mean, if someone wants to explain to me the history of poetry, so be it, but otherwise, your models choose you and at the same time you're a fool if you worship them to the point of paralysis. You must believe yourself to be at least different, if not contributing a brick or two toward the tower we are building into the clouds. In terms of fiction, I'd say to watch the best thrillers, perhaps. I think of a movie like Diabolique, whether I'd be constructing a narrative or not. ---Blood And

Ann_Bogle said...

This is a great, frank question, kindly phrased, a true one. I fear, like Jessica, feeling overly influenced by certain writers who might historically be regarded as my contemporaries but who literally precede me, such as Lorrie Moore, who is five years my senior (five books my senior, too, but not perhaps five manuscripts!) She doesn't seem to believe in using punctuation to do the work of language, but she had the heart to make fun of the exclamation point, long before the internet necessitated overly-emotive practices ... the jokes. Are mine hers or like hers? There is a cross-hair in our lives that contributed to our similar reasons for writing, things in our backgrounds, having a sister, for example, or being Protestant, or wishing to entertain, a world view, a sense of what ought to be right, what ought to be wrong, without a need for vengeance. As we know, it's important not merely to imitate. I pub'd a story about the subject, that tended to be viewed -- not by her -- as a confession of my own lack of originality, as a crush on another writer. We get in aesthetic trouble so easily -- it's not like life, wh. could usually care less what people actually think. But you asked about poetry, not fiction. Yes, to both; I worry less that I am copying anyone else, and more about the appearance of that. I wrote stories like Lydia Davis' before I had seen her work, but it was thought I was copying her. She was, speaking historically, writing around Lorrie Moore and perhaps Scalapino and perhaps Hempel and from the position of translator. I worry less about posterity than about influence, but I know writers v. worried about it.

Ryan W. said...

During composition I'm very aware of the part of the recent history of poetry that I've been exposed to, exposed myself to. Not so much pre-1950s stuff. I have no anxiety of influence. Used to. Yes, I'm aware during composition of the recent and ongoing history, and need that awareness to write. I'm not cogitating about the history, but feeling it.

Ann_Bogle said...

At a talk last night by Paul Muldoon, newly appointed poetry editor at the NYer, he mentioned Robert Frost's belief that all poetry is related to all poetry written. Animal poems all relate to Marianne Moore, since Marianne Moore. I had hoped to get a direct quotation, but the book line was a little long. Aside: U of MN puts out a nice spread at readings & lectures. What I meant by mss. is letters, anxiety w/o influence.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for your helpful comments, everybody.

Ann, whether Frost's belief is true or not (I understand that you're not saying that it is), it's a good thing at least some of us don't think that way when we're actually writing. To me, that would make the moment of writing much too much like some terrible family reunion.

But I probably also think Frost's idea is a superficial and in some ways easy generalization. It's certainly an issue worth exploring though. Would a poem written, say, by a Vietnamese poet regarding animals be related to Marianne Moore? On some level yes. But on many others, probably no.

I'm glad to hear that at least some universities still put out a spread at readings--I hope you enjoyed the evening!

K. Lorraine Graham said...

When I was in high school, most of my first non-forced rhymed poems were blatant rip-offs of Rilke and T.S. Elliot.

When I decided to be a poet, I wrote most of my poems on lunch break at my public policy job. I'd read poems (at the time, work by Mayer, Vallejo, and Notley, in that order) then write a poem. But that wasn't because I was eager to place myself in their historic poetic lineage, but because their work was a portal to a linguistic world different from the one I was in. I was sick of writing poems about missile defense systems. Or if I was going to write poems about missile defense systems, I needed some new mechanisms for doing that.

Now, I think I suffer from anxiety of influence much more. Part of me doesn't care: I don't really think very many people will ever read my work, and I don't think my work matters in any great historical sense. And even if it does, it will have little to do with the work and more to do with the values of whoever is in charge of deciding what matters in whatever historical context my work ends up in. If that makes sense.

Of course, I have writers that I'm influenced by, and gladly. I think it's important to be thinking about and questioning one's contexts when writing. At the same time, after you write a poem and send it out in to the world, the world does things with the poem that you might not have imagined/intended.