Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Poetry Environment

In discussion over an earlier post here on choosing poems for a manuscript to send to publishers, James Midgley wrote:

"In the end I suppose it's important to 'stay true to your feelings' (blech) -- but by now those feelings have been hugely tempered by the poetry environment anyway, so it shouldn't result in anything majorly off (in theory)."

Now that made me think (thanks, James)! I read a wide range of contemporary poetry and I know it influences my writing, but I would want to resist the whole idea of choosing poems for a manuscript according to any ‘poetry environment’. Now, perhaps my attitude is a delusion and, subconsciously, I can’t help doing so.

But I’ll suggest one thing. The contemporary poetry I read exerts an influence on me, that’s clear. But another (more important?) influence is the poetic tradition I choose to stand in, and that may stand at an angle to dominant trends in UK poetry. For me that tradition is partly the softer side of the New York School and partly European surrealism. Of course, these traditions find a degree of common ground further back in time, but my point is that these traditions inform my work in a stronger way than the latest collection by poet X, however good or popular it is and however much I might learn from it. The tradition is the foundation, the contemporary is decoration.

Of course, reading Michael Hamburger’s brilliant The Truth of Poetry has pulled me even further in this way of thinking than I had gone before, and it’s partly the reason I’ve rejected otherwise strong poems for my current draft manuscript. They don’t represent where I am at the moment, although it’s still possible I might get over it.


scavella said...

As I have no idea what tradition my work stands in, I don't know what my influences are. How much does that matter, I wonder?

Rob said...

To be honest, I'm not completely sure! I'm trying to think through a few things and haven't quite succeeded in saying what I mean to say yet.

Eliot must be a big influence on you though?

It's to do with self-awareness. Also, it's to do with the ability to assess even other contemporary writers with reference to where they are coming from.

I think it must matter because none of us write poetry in a vacuum.

Ivy said...

I've found, with my limited experience, that a full-length ms will most likely contain older work [and so might not represent what one is actually thinking about at the moment], while chapbooks/pamphlets are great for showcasing more recent obsessions.

Colin Will said...

I think that the older I get, and the more I write, the more distanced I've become from my influences, with a few exceptions. When I started writing in the early 60's my main influences came from American sources - Brother Antoninus (William Everson), Gregory Corso, Kenneth Patchen, Denise Levertov. After my 20-year break from writing, I developed a deep affection for Norman MacCaig's clarity and eye for nature. I don't write like him, except when I'm in Assynt, but my way of working is very similar to his (see the commentary in his Collected).

I remember having a discussion in the Scottish Poetry Library about influences a while back, and saying that many contemporary Scottish poets have been influenced more by American poets than by those from other parts of the UK.

Rob said...

Ivy, yes I agree. I'm not sure my decisions on what to include and exclude were the best ones. I don't mind if poems are new or old, but would like only to include poems that I'm proud to have written. I've already discarded a number of poems from the manuscript and might add others I'd previously excluded. But I have ideas for new material that might be better still - of course, I'll have to write them to find out!

Colin, your comment on American influences on Scottish writing is interesting. There's definitely a lot of truth in that, and I've felt that about my own work too.