A Note on Influence via Poetics

Since it is the literary critic Harold Bloom’s birthday I wanted to again research the rise or fall of anxiety, mostly in terms of influence.  I think it is imperative to enter into discussion about how prevailing a concept anxiety indeed is or if current writers allow for what Jonathan Lethem introduces as an ecstasy of influence.  Below are some note on ecstasy with an excerpt from an essay I wrote on Kevin Young, John Berryman, and the role of anxiety vs. ecstasy of influence.  If you wish to see the entire piece please let me know:

Liberating the Idioms:  The Role of Influence in the Writings of John Berryman and Kevin Young—How it Allows Comparisons to Be Drawn  Between the Two; in which the Present Author Shaves Off His Own Anxiety for Five Pages Before Getting to the Point that Influence is Now Better Friends with Ecstasy than Anxiety, and Additionally Stalls for Many More Pages Before He Talks about the Poems that He Himself is Truly Ecstatic About; in Turn, Applauding Gerard Manley Hopkins for All His Good Work, David Wojahn for his Sentimental Examinations of Berryman, David Orr for his Brief Comment on Influence, Jonathan Lethem for his Critical Acuity, Which Also Means Kudos to Harold Bloom for Getting Things Rolling, or Stopping Them From Rolling, Which is Really Just to Say that We Owe it All to Shakespeare, or that We Should All Stop Worrying and Love the Poem, as it is Really Just a Thing That Needed to Be Written; Granted it Was Done So Somewhere Along the Lines of Influence be Them Conscious of Unconscious, or Within an Idiom…Liberated

  1. Meet Kevin Young via John Berryman via Gerard Manley Hopkins

Having recently been inspired by the work of the poet Kevin Young, I have fallen into an ecstasy that cannot help but further trace the place(s) at which Young himself became ecstatic. I call this tracing the mapping of influence[1], and since it is neither easy nor fully possible to mark and clarify every influence, examining one of many essentials helps garner sufficient evidence of their relevance and thus assistance in the grandeur of contemporary poetry.  Incidentally, the influences of Kevin Young draw far and wide—not only does he admit to having many forms of inspiration (Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, Robert Hayden, William Carlos Williams, Seamus Heaney, to name a few), but he also converses with them in the text. Young’s books, six in ten years, openly point toward and identify their connections—from concentrated and playful examinations of the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in To Repel Ghosts (2002, reprinted in 2005 as To Repel Ghosts: A Remix), from an homage to and enactment of the blues in jelly roll (2003)—a National Book Award Finalist—and more recently to the historical film noir plot employed in Black Maria (2005).  Moreover, such immersion—via influence—is a consistency in Young’s work as writer, scholar, and editor—the latter showcased quite passionately and precisely in the Library of America’s 2004 edition of John Berryman poems, which Young himself edited.

The selection of Berryman poems enlists work from throughout his career, which spanned from the release of Poems (New Directions, 1942) until the release of Delusions, Etc. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972), the last book arriving shortly after Berryman’s suicide—a January 1972 leap from the Washington Bridge in Minneapolis, MN. By editing the selected Berryman it is evident Young immersed himself in his role as editor; additionally, Young had already been engaged with Berryman many years prior to this role.  In the Spring 1999 issue of The Kenyon Review, Young’s essay on Berryman—“Responsible Delight” (the title of this essay taken from Berryman’s poem “Letter to his Brother,” written in 1938, ending with the line “Bring you the brazen luck to sleep with dark/And so to get responsible delight,” as qtd. in Kenyon Review) — carefully scans the range of the work from its conception until the arrival of the posthumous poems, special attention given to the earlier work. In September, 2007, Harvard Magazines Shaun Sutner interviewed Young and when asked about influence he nodded graciously toward Berryman—“He’s such a mix of high and low culture. I think poetry aspires to the best of both.” (HM, SS)   It is within this appreciation of Berryman where readers not only get a better understanding of what Young admires, but an additional key into the room of his influences and thus a glance at how he evokes them, Berryman residing at the head of this table.  With this information we can further gesture toward the role of influence and how Young’s acceptance and employment of it gives readers a new way of not only reading Berryman, but also connecting his work to the work of Young.  Young’s poems draw upon an ecstasy in reading Berryman and in doing so often operate out of a corresponding respect to content; likewise, both poets’ poems often share a syntactical ingenuity.  Yet whereas Young has crafted from what I believe to be an ecstasy of influence, Berryman wrote primarily in a time that linked the word influence more tightly to anxiety.

  1. The Part in which We Get to the Point About Ecstasy Being a Better Term

Than Anxiety to Set Alongside Influence

“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master.”—Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence”

Ever since the long time literary critic Harold Bloom published The Anxiety of Influence in 1973, the word anxiety has ensnared influence in its negative little claws.  Not only has the study left a lingering feeling that the anxiety of influence in a writer cannot be dodged, but it has also left a sense of there being nothing new one can produce, that everything is plagiarism and robbed from what Bloom gestures as having arrived, almost entirely, by way of Shakespeare—noting in his introduction:  “Shakespeare invented us, and continues to contain us.” (Bloom xvi.)  Despite the fact that very few people would argue that Shakespeare’s impact has been and only continues to be immense—including Berryman, himself a notable Shakespeare scholar—applying the word anxiety to influence does not help to explain how influence works in assisting an artist in creating their own work.  Furthermore, whereas Bloom’s study may have allowed him to define new guidelines for a critical examination, it makes the face of influence a stricken one.  This is not to say, however, that Bloom isn’t making valid points, nor that he purposefully intends to make anxiety a smothering concept.  He even notes the following in the preface to The Anxiety of Influence:

I never meant by ‘the anxiety of influence’ a Freudian Oedipal rivalry…how weakly misread The Anxiety of Influence has been, and continues to be.  Any adequate reader of this book, which means anyone of some literary sensibility who is not a commissar or an ideologue, Left or Right, will see that influence-anxiety does not so much concern the forerunner but rather is an anxiety achieved in and by the story, novel, play, poem, or essay.  The anxiety may or may not be internalized by the later writer, depending upon temperament and circumstances, yet that hardly matters:  the strong poem is the achieved anxiety.  (HB, xxiii)

I would agree that the strong poem is the achievement, yet not one of anxiety. Bloom’s intentions set aside, the usage of anxiety does end up smothering influence, as well as hindering the significance of working with, as opposed to against, one’s influences.  The poem is the poem as having come from wherever its influences reside, yet instead of guising the influence, it is best to allow a signaling toward it.  It can be argued, on the contrary, that this signaling is a difficult and perhaps burdensome task, yet it can be left as the unconscious influence as well, as Kevin Young notes—while referring to William Carlos Williams and Robert Hayden—in an interview with Charles Howell of Callaloo in the winter of 1998—“in an odd way, I have absorbed them both so much it is as unconscious as breathing.” (C, KY, 46) Luckily, as it is now thirty years after Bloom’s study, and with the proliferation of collage and multi-media genres in today’s art world, artists tend to applaud influence for its guidance in allowing them to exercise their own creative gusto.  This gusto is characteristic of both Berryman and Young, especially in having named their influences, and is best referred to as ecstasy.  Sometimes ecstasy is forgotten when a writer takes it almost feverishly into the construction of their own first line, yet at other times it becomes a sidekick, a grounding component for the material created there from.

In February, 2007, Harper’s Magazine published an essay by the writer Jonathan Lethem entitled “The Ecstasy of Influence:  A Plagiarism.” The very fact that Lethem admits to plagiarism allows an immediate debunking of anxiety, for it is no longer relevant that one may be worrying about literally bettering or figuratively killing their predecessors, but instead openly borrowing from and appropriating the work.  Additionally, this active lifting that Lethem admits to is one of self-admitted elation, one he argues is less importantly linked to the he or she who sparked the influence, but more so sprouting from the idea that “most artists are converted to art by art itself.”  (JL, HM, 64) With Lethem’s new pairing of ecstasy with influence, it is clear that the word anxiety is wearing itself out, or, if it is not wearing itself out, at least it is being viewed through a different lens.  In fact, in the December 2005 issue of Poetry, David Orr is keen to note the following in his review of the selected Berryman poems Young edited.

Poets, we have been told, are anxious about influence—but of course, not all influence is created equal.  Most readers are familiar with Harold Bloom’s conception of Influence as a generational struggle…but there’s a humbler and more common influence.  This is the influence that workaday poets exert on their contemporaries, or near contemporaries–the kind of influence that depends not just on poetry, but on personality…and all the accoutrements of daily life.  Given the importance of Bloomian Influence, it’s not surprising that regular old influence has sometimes hoped that, with the right lighting, it might be mistaken for its big brother.  These distinctions matter when we talk about John Berryman.   (DO, P, 245)

The distinction that matters here is that those who are beginning to read Berryman with joy and intensity are not as close to the poet and the work as near contemporaries were when Berryman first arrived.  Instead of being anxious about how amazing something just published is, we are now seeing, as Orr further notes—“the emergence of true influence, and the steady erosion of whatever pressures extra-poetic factors may have brought to bear on these writer’s reputations.”(DO, P, 246)  This “true influence” is often misread and left in anxiety’s brambles, as something hemmed into the force of factors well beyond the poet’s actual poems.  This would then leave us with the question—why should we read poetry and, why, exactly, must we worry over the factors not available to us within the work itself.

Although many writers still fear their ability to write better than their influences, poets like Kevin Young go right at both discussing and conversing with their influences and in doing so are quick to note that there is nothing wrong with this.  In fact, Young eschews the placement of anxiety alongside influence by diving right at the material, by constructing his books as montage—taking the texts that Jean-Michel Basquiat found and further using Basquiat’s biographical information in To Repel Ghosts to make the poem work on more than one level—each level becoming a direct response to Young, as having been influenced.  The book’s free verse style, which uses a lot of enjambment, internal rhyme, and quick turn of the cliché, as seen in  “City-as-School”—“only the good/die numb” (KY, TRG, 16)unravels as if Young is both lifting the speech from Basquiat while at the same time contextualizing it in a more contemporary scene.  Although Young plays consistently with a reader’s expectancy, twisting phrases with slapstick references, as in “Toxic”—“Bugs/Bunny, his goose/cooked over carrots” (KY, TRG, 128)—this emphasizes a natural reaction the poet had while being influenced, and thus opens the reaction up for collage. It is relevant to note how in “The Ecstasy of Influence” Lethem adds that collage “might be called the art form of the twentieth century.” (JL, HM, 4)  In addition to how Young engages with those he writes about, he also reveals how editing one’s work is a way of speaking to it, often becoming immersed to the point of unconsciously evoking similar patterns of both content and style.

John Berryman’s most intense immersion came with The Dream Songs, a collection of 385 poems written from 1955 up until the point of his suicide.  Although Berryman wrote other notable books in and around this time, including numerous early sonnets and the rarely spoken of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), which poet Conrad Aiken called “one of the finest poems ever written by an American, a classic right on the doorstep,” (CA, HMB) the The Dream Songs are more often than not the only poems referred to and unfortunately rarely within anything close to their entirety—anthologies abound with constant returns to certain songs, most notably Dream Songs 4, 5, 14, and 29, all remarkable but nevertheless over-anthologized and thus false indicators of what is otherwise a vast and complex scope of poems.  This scope, however, is dutifully adhered to in The Library of America’s collection in which Young edits, which includes over sixty of The Dream Songs, as well as works from all periods of Berryman’s life, which are meticulously scouted out and woven together.  In turn, the keen eye Young employs in choosing these poems is one that undoubtedly jibes his own work and caters to the potency of both the manner and matter of his—and influentially so—Berryman’s poetics.

In the fall, 2005 issue of Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts, poet-critic David Wojahn refers to—via critic Paul Mariani—in an article entitled “In all them Time Henry Could Not Make Good: Reintroducing John Berryman,” Berryman’s language as one that weds a ‘gravity of matter’ with a ‘gaiety of manner.’ (Wojahn, 10)  This matter and manner balance is something Young seems to be aware of, as he often starts with either gaiety or gravity within the book as a project: three of his books—To Repel Ghosts, jelly roll, Black Maria—were written as somewhat of a trilogy, the first of which is almost as long as Berryman’s Dream Songs; coincidentally, the three play out more like interconnected songs that themselves could have easily been placed in a correspondingly full, dream-songish text.  Yet the book of Young’s that can best be set aside the work of Berryman, and better treats the thesis within this space, is jelly roll, which not only carries on with the multiplicity of voice we see in Berryman, but also tings with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm.”  Hopkins, in a letter dated 1880 and written to friend Robert Bridges, explains the necessity of sprung rhythm:

Why do I employ sprung rhythm at all?  Because it is the nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is the native and natural rhythm of speech, the least forced, the most rhetorical and emphatic of all possible rhythms, combining, as it seems to me, opposite and, one wd. have thought, incompatible excellences, markedness of rhythm—that is rhythm’s self— and naturalness of expression (GMH, AHR, 25)

The “markedness of rhythm” Hopkins notes, as well as its tie to direct speech, is emblematic of both Berryman and Young’s poetics:  the usage of flexible rhyme patterns and employment of natural patterns of speech—both favorably and fluently present in both poet’s work—are what allow the best avenue for sustaining the poem’s originality and thus the reality of its origin.  As an aside, it is intriguing to note that both Berryman and Young later appropriate the abbreviation of would as wd., which speeds up the reading and springs the colloquialism; eventually lending more accuracy to the poem’s content and style. In his introduction to A Hopkins Reader, critic John Pick gives an example of sprung rhythm from Hopkins:  “Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet/Brim, in a flash, Full!”  (GMH, AHR, 27)  Hopkins often used such rhythm to cause a minor explosion, or, as he further elucidates—“a kind of touchstone of the highest and most living art is seriousness; not gravity but the being in earnest with your subject—reality.”  (GMH as qtd. in AHR, 27)  In reading both Berryman and Young it doesn’t take long to see the Hopkinsian rhythms at play, seriousness intact; here, matter carries its seriousness but with a manner of both gaiety and of strict attention to marked rhythm.  In “Dream Song 18,” for instance, an homage, or as Berryman better puts it—“Strut To Roethke,” sprung rhythm is alive and well—“The bluebells, pool-shallows, saluted his over-needs, /while the clouds growled, heh-heh, & snapped, & crashed.”  (JB DS, 20)  It would seem that Berryman is nudging the rawness of the colloquialisms even more with his “heh-heh,” yet this passage is not far from Hopkins and neither is Young from either of the two in the following excerpt, taken from “Retrospective,” one of the last poems in To Repel Ghosts: A Remix:

In the dark, the nasty

night, mother of million

nights, you return

looking, not for fame

but ducats, not begging

but collecting

on what was

owed you, getting back

what you sharked.  (KY, TRG: AR, 292)

Aside from form (Hopkins mostly writing in a free verse that is often made up of tabbed-in lines, as to further push then pull the poem along—“Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows flaunt forth, then/chevy on an air”(GMH, AHR, 80)—both Berryman and Young’s poems still attend to the rhythm with a very focused syntax—Berryman with his comma usage—“& snapped, & Crashed” (7-8)—Young with his comma pausing and sly dive into “looking, not for fame/but ducats.” (4-5) The patterns become easier to draw if one glances at all three alongside one another.  Although many more comparisons can be made between these three poets, using the sprung rhythm of Hopkins as a foundation for placing Berryman and Young together becomes a deeper nod toward influence.  Inadvertently, when Young remarks on Berryman’s “staggering, swaggering, intoxicating lines” (KR, 160) in “Responsible Delight,” he is in turn defining both Hopkins and himself.


[1] Note to Reader:  definition of Influence herein:  the power of a person, either dead or alive, as exercised in their ability to induce positive reactions from those having encountered their lives and work, and at times created an effect on the artistic output of the he/she being influenced.

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2 thoughts on “A Note on Influence via Poetics

  1. Pingback: More Berryman « Editions of You

    • Hi Andrew. Thanks for linking to this. It seems like you are contemplating some very specific and relevant particularities of Berryman’s work in relation to your work. I didn’t know about Juan Valera either, so that’s a plus. Best wishes with your work. Also, yes to Film Theory, Barthes, Benjamin, and Eno!

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