Wednesday, March 05, 2008

TS Eliot: On Influence & the Tyranny of Readers

In discussion with Roddy Lumsden after an ecopoetry debate last week, I put forward the hope that my new book of poetry represented a new direction for me. Roddy, with his usual cynicism, responded that poets often think their latest books represent new directions, when they rarely do.

Looking at my manuscript of Camper Van Blues again in the light of this conversation, I couldn't manage to divide my poetry from my personal desire to move on, and so was unable to reach a decision on the question.

Having to face the possibility that my wish to grow and develop as a poet, although powerful and sincerely felt in itself, might not be enough to make it actually happen, made me turn for comfort and guidance to that old stalwart in my life: literary criticism.

TS Eliot, writing on 'Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry', tells us:

"When a poet alters or develops, many of his admirers are sure to drop off. Any poet, if he is to survive as a writer beyond his twenty-fifth year, must alter; he must seek new literary influences; he will have different emotions to express. This is disconcerting to that public which likes a poet to spin his whole work out of the feelings of his youth; which likes to be able to open a new volume of his poems with the assurance that they will be able to approach it exactly as they approached the preceding."

So, if we accept Roddy Lumsden's comment at face value, and take it on board alongside TS Eliot's above, this suggests a certain poetic complicity at work.

If development has stalled at a particular point in a poet's career, has the poet failed to move on because of some inherent limitation, or are they afraid to move on stylistically in case their readers - editors being among the first and most influential of those - refuse to go with them?

The full text of TS Eliot's 'Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry' is available as a free e-book at Project Gutenberg.


Ms Baroque said...

In scientific studies and statistical analysis, a tiny percentage point of change or variation is enough to create havocs of effects. I see the Wanderer in your new book - say - as a stylistic departure, or deepening for you. I think some of the sounds in your new book are marvellously rich and in I think that sense is deepening in your work.

I just don't think you should look to be a different poet overnight, you have to be content to be yourself: it's just that who you are now isn't who you used to be.

Or to put it in another way, using that time-honoured old poetry prop, the moon: when you drive along it seems to drive along with you. You can;'t get away from wherever you are in relation to it. But it doesn't mean you're not moving. You certanly don't seem stalled to me.


Ms Baroque said...

Hmm, I don't mean departure, really. I think just doing the same thing in a slightly different way IS movement. Or doing a slightly different thing in the old way.

Steven Waling said...

We wouldn't be human if we didn't develop; but we'll probably always have certain features to our writing that are recognisably us, even if we ourselves can't always see it. I know that my previous book was a development on the previous one. I was much more radical in my use of cut-up and collage than I'd ever been. The next one will be even more so. I think if you saw my earliest published poems, you'd see a much cruder poet, and probably more mainstream; but I was using "demotic" then and I still am. So there are developments & continuities.

Jane Holland said...

Yes, to both of these. And no.

Steven, I agree - there is a 'constant' in a poet's work that remains while other things - genre, style, form, whatever - fluctuate, develop and change. But for me, the development I'm after is not really about form, or any surface changes in fact; it's about thematic changes, more than anything else, as well as the confidence to handle more ambitious projects and ideas. I'm beginning to feel that a 'thinking' poetry is the sort I value above all others, and so far thought has not been a constant in my work.

Ms. B, I wasn't thinking specifically of myself and my latest book in this post, though many thanks for the vote of confidence! That was how the entry started, agreed, but by the end I was widening the question out to poets in general rather than bringing it back to dear little moi. I don't think I've stalled at all. I haven't shot far enough, that's all. But as we seem to have agreed here, these important developments tend to be incremental rather than overnight.

Unless you're lucky enough to be a character in a play by Kafka, of course.

Rachel Fox said...

Beware the cynics (and I speak as a bit of a cynic myself) for they shall stop us ever doing anything.
As for not having shot far enough...isn't that how every writer feels most of the time (and every artist and composer and so on and so on)? That feeling is just what keeps you going on to the next thing...otherwise if you really had just finished the perfect collection, the best writing ever done by anyone anywhere...well, then you would just stop and go and do something else wouldn't you? It is frustrating to have just finished a book and still have this feeling but it is also what will make you carry on. Isn't it?

Jane Holland said...

Once again, Rachel, you speak with great wisdom. This post-manuscript frustration does seem to be necessary, as is a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder. Without such things, no one would bother with the extreme hard work required to put out a book of poetry in the first place, let alone more than one.

What I find more and more is that just as I've decided I know something in particular about poetry, I discover either that I didn't know it as well as I'd assumed or that I was completely, ludicrously wrong.

But even that warning flash in the corner of my eye doesn't seem to make any difference; I still carry on making the usual fateful pronouncements and tripping over my own ego.