Influence

Daljit Nagra - 5 February 2011

Poor poets are poor readers of poetry. All good poets wear their influences for all to see. How do we use influence in our writing? What sort of poets do we read and how are we influenced by them? What other non-reading experiences influence your work?

There shouldn't be an anxiety about being influenced as we do not exist in a vacuum and we are influenced by many writers before us, whether we know it or not. We may think our poems are highly original but they are probably fitting into a tradition, a line of writers who have written in the style we employ but this should not be depressing should it? Hopefully this is a liberating feeling to know that there is a tradition of writers who think and feel a bit like us and who we can be influenced by so our poems become better if we learn from them.

My influences have been writers such as Shakespeare, Milton, Hopkins and Thomas. I continue to be influenced by them in many ways, in particular because they have shown me how to mess up the rules of language to energise my poems.

You may use these very same writers to influence your work in another way. Great writers offer endless ways in which we can be influenced, partly because they have influenced many writers after them, and indeed, they have been influenced by writers before them.

I'm also influenced by ordinary things: I have a poem in my second collection (August this year) which starts with 'Pip pip' which I took from a book that I was reading to my 3 year old daughter. As a poet I'm always looking to steal things from our Weetabix book, from conversations on the bus and so on.

My basic question is how do you use your favourite poets to influence the style and content of your poetry? How have daily things influenced your poems? Can we control influence or is it pervasive and therefore we should give our imaginations up to it? Feel free to comment on any of these questions.

Comments:

I think influences from other poets is both deliberate and uncontrolled. When I first got into poetry at university, I started to enjoy Elizabeth Bishop immensely (still do) and my early poems imitated her style. As I matured and re-read her work, her influence became more subconscious, slipping quietly into my way of writing. Reading aloud helps this. We hear the world of the poet and become part of it. New images and words feed into this, expanding imaginations.

It is lovely to hear, as you say Christian, the world of the poet and the more poets we hear and become part of I hope in turn our poetry gets that much richer as it can set off echoes in the reader. Hearing other poets in our favourite poets is part of the pleasure of reading poetry.

I wonder also, when we imitate writers whether it's possible to simply copy their style? If we are true to our personality hopefully our own style will inteject and we will be unable to copy the other writer, instead we may have absorbed their air or feeling into our enrichened writing styel...

It can be a worry hoping that one is not just copying a favourite poet.

Keeping in mind the following quotes, that I wish I could find the exact wording, but as i remember them: the American poet Theodore Roethke in reply to someone accusing him of finding influences of other poets in his poetry he replied, 'and didn't I also drink from my mother's milk? ' And I remember another poet ( Chinese?) telling a neophyte - if you read a hundred poets you will write like a hundred poets, but if you read a thousand poets you will write like yourself. I especially read a wide variety of authors who write in styles that are very different and even opposite from the bare accessible l style I prefer, e.g Clare, Reznikoff. Poets like Dereck Walcott, Octavio Paz because they show me new ways of discovering beauty or maybe Ben Okri, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker because they remind me of keeping my writing real and alive. The 'language poets', rant poets and performance poets remind me to keep experimenting.

I love your paraphrase about reading a thousand poets and you'll sound like yourself. I think this is very true. And the more poets' styles you try out you will land on an attitude to the world and langauge which is probably very closely you...

I do feel too that the more poets and poetry-styles you read, you subconsciously take in random bits of them which personality-wise fit into you; match that puzzle, plus add a chunk of what is 'yours', and not like anyone's else. I realise which poets subtly influenced my writing style only after reading my stuff again after a lot, a lot of time. I think (think) that the poets who've influenced me are Louise Gluck and Kim Hyesoon. I've been unconsciously writing in broken, short, terse-but-rich lines since becoming a big fan of Gluck's and Hyesoon's poetry. And Kim Hyesoon uses dreamy-dark imagery about fish and stars; I've found out I've quite acquired a taste for that kind of surrealism too, as time went by.

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Epigram

A short, succinct poem, often with witty (or even vicious) content.

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