Commenting on a recent post on this blog, ABJ wrote:
“…maybe it's easier to write original stuff if you're not surrounded by a zillion other poems by new writers and trying to conform to whatever 'craft' is being taught on creative writing courses in order to squeeze you into the Market Place? There's something rather utilitarian about that side of it (at its worst, I mean).”
I’m particularly interested in the first statement, the idea that originality is threatened when writers excessively read their contemporaries. More than that, Andy is suggesting that, in order to conform to the demands of the publishing industry, poets will use their contemporaries as a means to an end – they will write the kind of stuff that seems to be getting published.
Two things: as I understand him, Andy isn’t saying we shouldn’t read contemporary poetry at all. Any poet who advocates a complete boycott of new poetry is more or less telling you not to read his own work! Obviously, contemporary poets need a readership, and that readership will include other poets. But perhaps writers should be more choosy about what they read i.e. only read new collections which seem as if they might inform an existing direction a writer has chosen, independent of the marketplace, a direction informed by a deep, dark space within the writer’s soul (whether you believe in a ‘soul’ or not) and by great poets of the past.
Andy’s comments are directed only at poems by ‘new writers’. Originality never comes from ignorance, but takes off from where past originality paused. As Michael Schmidt so beautifully put it in his 2006 StAnza lecture:
“What we are includes, and depends upon, what we have been; what we have been can be changed not in pattern but in meaning by what we become. Life by the chronological clock versus life by values. Not to know what we are made of is not to know who we are, is possibly to fall victim to what we are made of. The poet who refuses to read other poetry for fear of being influenced has been influenced and will write without knowing how derivative the work is, for the ear is not innocent and memory is a faulty filter.”
However, I know some writers who feel that reading their contemporaries is vital. They feel that writing a poem is, in part, a conversation with other poems, and that includes other new poems. They also feel that getting a sense of what’s being published will indicate to them the kind of material readers want. They write for a perceived audience, not just for themselves.
But perhaps a poet has to hope for an audience, in vain if need be, rather than write for preconceptions – that’s if they want to remain true to whatever spark caused them to write in the first place. Certainly, what marked out the great writers discussed by Michael Hamburger in The Truth of Poetry was their singularity of vision. None of them wrote for a marketplace (although most wanted to build a readership, but on their own terms). In some cases, the marketplace eventually caught up with them (and in other cases has still do so). But Eliot, Pessoa, Baudelaire, Stevens etc – what they did is beyond the reach of most mortals! Isn’t there a sense that most writers have to be content with far lesser achievements? Or is that just defeatist talk?