Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Brendan Kennelly: On Poetic Influence

I was at a poetry reading the other night, where a talented friend of mine read some brand-new poems, most of them still only halfway to their final destination.

But one of the phrases in one of these poems made me look up at him suddenly, having heard amidst the ongoing construction work, clear as a church bell across still fields, a snatch of true 'finished' poetry.

Afterwards I went up to my friend and told him how particularly achieved I thought that piece. Rifling through his sheaf of papers, he found the poem in question and handed it to me. To my frustration, it was laid out in incomprehensible fits and starts: here one word, there a brief stanza, great acres of white space, a solitary ampersand below, another couple of words far out to the right margin, all in lower case.

I asked what on earth he was about, laying out the poem like that, and he began to tell me, with great shining enthusiasm, of the avant-garde poets he'd been reading and how important he now realised it was to get the poem's spacing right for the rhythm.

I wanted to punch him.


The marvellous Brendan Kennelly, in an essay on Derek Mahon's Humane Perspective (collected in Journey to Joy: Selected Prose, Bloodaxe 1994, p. 129), has this to say about influence:

'There is an influence that is bad, a bad influence. It is born out of unquestioning adulation and encouraged by undiscriminating indifference. Such admiration is no good to anyone. It is rarely a helpful source of imitation. There is an influence that is half-way there, sloppily absorbed and turgidly reproduced. In such instances, the imagination becomes a gaping mouth. This influence is lazy. Periodicals and magazines are full of it. I think it is a peculiar poison of much Celtic Twilight poetry, for example, the fleas that Yeats talks about. And then there's an influence that is worthwhile. Plutarch on Shakespeare; Shakespeare on Shakespeare; Ibsen on Joyce; Blake on Yeats; Hazlitt on Keats; Godwin on Shelley; everybody on Eliot; these are examples of fully absorbed influences which are inseparable from growth. People often talk disparagingly about influence but it should not be so, because any true original is derivative. He is derivative from himself through others. He willingly submits himself to certain instinctively chosen influences until he emerges into himself. The thing is to see where the derivative self ends and the new original self begins.'

My italics.

I wish I had written the above; I have certainly thought it often enough, or something very like it, and to find my own feelings echoed in a book by a poet I know and greatly admire is a wonderful thing.


Rob said...

Yes, I like the Kennelly quote a lot. It's complemetary to what Michael Schmidt said in his 2006 lecture at the StAnza Festval:

"What we are includes, and depends upon, what we have been; what we have been can be changed not in pattern but in meaning by what we become. Life by the chronological clock versus life by values. Not to know what we are made of is not to know who we are, is possibly to fall victim to what we are made of. The poet who refuses to read other poetry for fear of being influenced has been influenced and will write without knowing how derivative the work is, for the ear is not innocent and memory is a faulty filter."

Bo said...

Yes, as some people sometimes say about the 'irrelevance' of the past, 'we know so much more than them' - and as someone put it: 'Yes. And they are what we know.'

Jane Holland said...

Do you have a link for that Michael Schmidt quotation, Rob? It's great and I'd like to follow it up and read the rest, assuming it's available online.

panther said...

I was in a cafe recently in a certain West Country town and overheard A saying to B "I'm a poet, as you know, but no, I don't read other people's poetry. I don't want to be influenced." Of course I smirked, discreetly, ironically, into my cup of Assam.

On a previous trip to same town, I met a woman who told me (proudly) that she didn't read books because she wanted to have her own ideas, not other people's.

Nuff said.

Rob said...

The full text of the Michael Schmidt lecture is at this link.

He's partly responding to Neil Astley's notorious "poetry police" lecture of the year before.

Jane Holland: Editor said...

Thanks, Rob.

Jane Holland said...

Ah yes, I remember that lecture now. I read it when it first came out, and remember being horrid about it on the Poem forum. I imagine I was in a crappy mood that day. (Hard to believe, I know ... )