WHAT GOOD IS INFLUENCE IF IT DOESN’T INFLUENCE?

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Famous works of American poetry, admired as they are by critics and public alike, have never been reproduced.  Like a wonder in nature, a mountain or a canyon, or like a giant statue in the Soviet Union, they reign coldly and alone.

Forms like the haiku, the sonnet, the ode, the ballad, quickly became community property, but the masterpiece is admired—after all, is it not a masterpiece?—but it is never imitated.  It breeds not.  It stands aloof.  It does not add its waters to the common spring.

There may be parodies of the acclaimed work, but the masterpiece does not give birth to anything.    Poets die in its flame; generations destroy themselves attempting to match the spirit of the masterpiece, perishing in futile mediocrity.

Is this why originality is so urged?   Is this why “make it new” is such a common cry?

But originality needs a vehicle; nothing is completely original.  The great works do not provide these vehicles—for the very reason that no one can ride in them—their very genius and uniqueness makes this impossible.

So influence tends to happen along lesser lines.

“The Raven,” “Leaves of Grass” and “The Waste Land” are three iconic American works, and all of them escape imitation.   They welcome readers, but they wreck the poet who dares to enter them.

The more iconic, the less influential?

Is this why great poems are so few and far between?

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8 Comments

  1. October 11, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    Great poems are few and far between because true greatness is few and far between.

    But I will contest the idea that masterpieces are necessarily sterile.

    No, none of us are likely to match “I Sing the Body Electric” or “Song of Myself,” but surely Whitman’s greatest works opened poetry up to free verse and a pseudo-stream of consciousness style that still reverberates? (To offer a specific example – isn’t Whitman’s greatness the father of Ginsberg’s “Howl?”)

    I will never match Berryman’s “Dream Songs,” but his amalgamation of older forms and contemporary sensibilities can provide a fertile platform for growth.

    The reason why the National Gallery is frequently populated by easels and art students meticulously copying the masters is because there can be much to be learned in imitation.

    That doesn’t eliminate the need to “make it new” (there’s Pound again!), but a life of poetry and art is a process of learning.

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 12, 2010 at 2:16 am

      Coffee,

      Is Whitman stream of consciousness? I don’t think he is. Can you give an example?

      “Howl” is a load of rot, really.

      The “Dream Songs” owe a great deal to a learned mind disintegrating under severe depression and great quantities of alcohol. There are no more drunks in academia. It’s a different era, now.

      But the sensibility of “Dream Songs” and stream of consciousness probably comes from 19th century French poetry (in general) more than anything else, though sometimes William James (who taught Gertrude Stein at Harvard) is given credit for stream of consciousness. But you see, this is what I mean: influence comes from general styles and trends, not from specific masterpieces.

      Tom

  2. October 12, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    I said “pseudo-stream of consciousness” for reason – though perhaps it would have been more accurate to say “proto-stream on consciousness.” Can we call it “SoC” for short?

    SoC, arguably, did not truly exist in literature until Freud had managed to seep into the zeitgeist. But I do see some of the origins of SoC in the longer poems of “Leaves of Grass,” just as you see it in William James.

    As a piece of craft, I think that “Howl” would be torn apart in an MFA workshop as being painfully sloppy – but then again, couldn’t we say that about a number of writers (what would an MFA professor think of Hugo’s lengthy historical digressions into a great battles of the Napoleonic era that have nothing to do with the story? or Hemingway’s tendency to replace commas with periods? surely La Recherche du Temps Perdu would be derided as self-indulgent narcissism?). I still like “Howl” – but maybe that’s the 16 year old boy with copies of Ginsberg and Karl Marx in his backpack at school, trying to figure out what kind of person I want to be.

    “influence comes from general styles and trends, not from specific masterpieces.”

    Yes – but masterpieces also come out of those influences. You noted the “Dream Songs” (a masterpiece, I would say) emerge out of influences from French poetry.

    I see SoC as coming out Whitman (you disagree, but see James as a progenitor).

    It’s not a closed loop. Berlioz found fertile soil in the groundwork laid by Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with his Symphonie Fantastique.

    • Noochinator said,

      October 12, 2010 at 10:57 pm

      Dream Song 14

      Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
      After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
      we ourselves flash and yearn,
      and moreover my mother told me as a boy
      (repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored
      means you have no

      Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no
      inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
      Peoples bore me,
      literature bores me, especially great literature,
      Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
      as bad as Achilles,

      who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
      And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
      and somehow a dog
      has taken itself & its tail considerably away
      into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
      behind: me, wag.

  3. October 13, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Ultimately, I would put forward that you are conflating the fact that true masterpieces are “sui generis” with them also being “infertile.”

    They may be sui generis, but still inspire and provoke their spiritual/metaphorical/oedipal children.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    October 13, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    THE STRANGER

    — Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love the best? Your father, or your mother, or your sister, or your brother?

    — I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.

    — Your friends?

    — You are using a word whose meaning remains unknown to me to this very day.

    — Your country?

    — I do not know under what latitude it lies.

    — Beauty?

    — I would love her gladly, goddess and immortal.

    — Gold?

    — I hate it as much as you hate God.

    — Well then! What do you love, stranger?

    — I love the clouds … the passing clouds … over there … over there … the marvelous clouds!

    -Baudelaire

    • Noochness said,

      October 13, 2010 at 7:47 pm

      Demons may giggle
      And angels may weep,
      But me I would say:
      Sex, food and sleep.

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