Influences, personal & poetic

Someone recently asked me what my poetic influences were. I admitted to some confusion about the meaning of “influences” in this question. “Do you mean which poets wrote work that influenced my writing style, or do you mean what sorts of people or experiences or art had an influence on the things I write about?” I wondered. Or maybe which poets’ lives influenced me somehow? There are so many ways to interpret that question.

I did assume the person meant the noun form of influence:

influence n. [ C/U ] us /ˈɪnˌflu·əns/

Cambridge Dictionary of English

the power to have an effect on people or things, or someone or something having such power. The kid next door is a bad/good influence on Kevin. She used her influence to get her son a summer job.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the word was originally an astrological term (13th-14th c) that described how stellar positioning acted upon human destinies. It designated a “flow” from the stars, but also “a flow of water, a flowing in,” from Latin influere “to flow into, stream in, pour in,” from in- “into, in, on, upon” (from PIE root *en “in”) + fluere “to flow.” What star streamed its power to me or exerted its effect upon my writing?

When I read a wonderful poem, I do feel the piece has exerted its power, that language, words, imagery have the strength to sway my emotional field. After reading an entire collection by a good writer, I sense a resonance–intuitive, unsettling. Sometimes, the work evokes in me a desire to do what that writer has done. That’s one type of influence. The list of such writers would be lengthy indeed.

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Other influences, though–amazing works of art, thrilling architecture, deeply moving music or dance–I could not exempt those as streaming into my consciousness, awakening me to something new. Or human beings, especially those I love best.

And places. Environment matters to my poetry. In the city, I wrote city poems. In the country, I write country poems. After I’ve traveled somewhere new to me, I conjure the place in my mind and it exerts its own kind of power on me.

Influences, in my writing life, are generally bound to experiences; I’m not a very imaginative writer. “A change in the weather is sufficient for us to create the world and ourselves anew,” wrote Proust. I am not contradicting myself in this paragraph. But I think I will have more to say on this topic soon, once I mull it over a little longer.

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A good start. Possibly.

My most recent reading material is The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, by Antonio Damasio. Damasio is convincingly on the neurological/evolutionary trail to recognizing how consciousness operates and why we have developed it, though he allows for mysteries we do not yet and may never understand.

Damasio is clearly not a dualist who thinks the consciousness can exist separately from the body (one of his previous books is aptly titled Descartes’ Error). He doesn’t address the “soul” in The Feeling of What Happens, but argues that reason requires feeling in order to operate effectively, that feeling is a more “conscious” form of emotion, which is “unknowing” in the sense we call consciousness and is founded upon core consciousness, which is reliant upon the physical organism…a vastly complex array of cells, nerves, you name it, generally self-regulating and not by nature in particular need of a conscious mind.

So next time someone tries to explain why a situation happened and just says, “It’s complicated,” maybe you ought to accept that. Because, apparently, it’s really really really complicated!

http://www.isys.ucl.ac.be/descartes/images/Descartes.gifThat does not keep people like Damasio from trying to track down what goes on in the minds of sentient beings.

Having just read Flow, I immediately thought of what Csikszentmihalyi says about the way true flow experiences depend upon deepening levels of complexity–that’s how we keep from becoming bored by routinization of a task. Dennett suggests that consciousness consists of layers: “multiple drafts,” and Damasio calls the human brain, and the brain-body unit, a series of “systems within systems.” But there is no little self, no metaphorical or actual homunculus, at the very bottom of the system, or at the very top. There are only more and varied connections, he asserts–with profound respect and amazement at what biology has wrought.

I also thought about Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of a life project. Some years ago, I began a journal devoted to exploring my poetic project and learned that I do not really think about my writing as a project per se, at least not in the formal sense of poetics. [Here’s Dorothea Lasky harping on the whole concept of a poetic project, in a bit of refutation aimed at poetry critic David Orr.]

What I think I was doing, in fact, was trying to figure out my life project, in the way Csikszentmihalyi defines that concept. What is my life’s philosophy in terms of guiding tasks, principles, goals, projects, challenges? Is teaching part of the package? Motherhood? Gardening? Writing? Human relationships? Learning? Speaking of human consciousness, do I have a conscious path or goal?

Maybe my goal is to keep on amid the complexity and to relish it as much as possible, since it is unavoidable. And perhaps by accepting the complications, I will find my life becomes simpler. That could be a possible outcome–right?

I think of Reineke writing on Marcel Proust’s narrator and his struggle with status, jealousy, conformity, and desire. I read the Proust novel(s) when I was in my early 20s and found his narrator frustratingly neurotic but also a little too familiar, as my life experiences in many ways mirrored his. Eventually, he learns that the way to cure the pain of desire is to discipline himself to let go of desire itself; (and no, neither Proust nor his narrator were Buddhist).

And what happens when he gains this recognition is that he can write the novel. He develops flow, and a life project.

I am past 50, a good time to establish more consciously what my life project is. I know it involves relentlessly and joyously learning new things. I think it will include poetry in some way. And discipline of some kind, conscious effort. For now, those things constitute a good start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AWP follow-up

photo Ann E. Michael

winterhazel

Snow fell on Boston. Not a big snow, however, and rather typical for a late-winter storm: damp, swirling but not biting, swift-melting once the sun appeared two days later. Early Friday morning, I trudged with a friend over the as-yet unshoveled sidewalks to breakfast on Newbury Street at Steve’s. We met with conference buddies who are all members of the WOM-PO [women’s poetry] listserv. It is lovely to meet face-to-face people who have been virtual colleagues and splendid to discuss poetry over a good breakfast.

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It is also a relief to realize that I have finally learned how to manage conference-going. It is all a matter of pacing and, I suppose, of taking poet William Stafford’s advice and lowering one’s expectations. The hardest challenge is making the choice between blowing the budget on terrific food (in a big city, wonderful restaurants abound) or on books, because the bookfair at the Associated Writing Programs’ annual conference is enough to inspire swooning among literary bibliophiles.

In three huge exhibit rooms, small presses and literary and university presses displayed chapbooks, literary journals, and books that range from minuscule to tabloid-sized, books that are handmade, letter-pressed, offset, print-on-demand, stapled, ribbon-sewn, die-cut, fancy-boxed, reprinted, spare, florid, illustrated, edgy, deckle-edged, marbled, second-hand, one-of-a-kind, limited-edition, mass produced, commercial, educational…in all genres including mixed-genre, collaborative, collage, anthology, with an emphasis more on the literary than the commercial text. These books can be devilishly hard to locate, even with the existence of Amazon and online sellers; and holding them in your hands is a far more convincing sell than seeing a picture file on your computer screen.

Heaven for poetry-readers, there are also wonderful creative non-fiction books, collections of short stories, novels, books on prosody and poetics, the craft of writing, on creativity and inspiration and toil and revision and on the complex and controversial topic of teaching writing. Oh, and there are people, too. Most of the attendees are writers of one stripe or another who are congenial and curious or else walking about with the glazed expression of the overwhelmed.

Or some combination of the two.

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I exercised considerable restraint and managed not to load my bedside table with two months or more of reading material (see a related post here). And I got some terrific ideas for teaching writing to college students and found some wonderful poets whose work I want to study. The last night of the conference, I listened to the mesmerizing Anne Carson read an indescribable take-down of the fifth book of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, the section titled The Captive (Albertine). It’s been years since I read Proust, which I did almost out of stubbornness in my junior year of college, but the book came back vividly enhanced by Carson’s peculiar approach to pacing, language, scholarship, whimsy and satire. I like what the Poetry Foundation’s biography says about her after the release of her text The Autobiography of Red:

According to John D’Agata in the Boston Review, the book “first stunned the classics community as a work of Greek scholarship; then it stunned the nonfiction community as an inspired return to the lyrically based essays once produced by Seneca, Montaigne, and Emerson; and then, and only then, deep into the 1990s, reissued as “literature”and redesigned for an entirely new audience, it finally stunned the poets.” D’Agata sees Carson’s earlier work as an essayist everywhere in her poetry, along with her deep absorption in Classical languages. Carson’s work, D’Agata alleges, asks one to consider “how prosaic, rhetorical, or argumentative can a poem be before it becomes something else altogether, before it reverts to prose, to essay?”

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Altogether, Boston provided nourishment of many kinds: gustatory, intellectual, emotional, poetical…food for thought.