Friday, January 29, 2010

How Do You Make It Your Own?

Yesterday I was blogging about influence, specifically about how your decisions can be really your own when then were influenced by other people?

Granted the topic has the whiff of stale theory, but it is surely of great importance. Even if I am not going to solve it right now-- to say the least-- I still want to add some further reflections.

Examine the question in a different context, one that we owe to Harold Bloom's book: "The Anxiety of Influence."

According to Bloom, poets, and by extension other artists, learn their craft by studying the work of their predecessors. If you are going to write an epic poem you will learn about it by reading Homer and Virgil and Milton.

If you are new to the game, the chances are very good that you will adopt the stylistic mannerisms of your predecessors. Spend some time reading Henry James and your novelistic endeavors will sound like Henry James.

If a reader picks up your novel or poem and is immediately reminded of some other writer, then you have not found your own voice.

The poem is not yours if it reads like ersatz Wallace Stevens.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with these first efforts at imitation. They belong to the learning process. You cannot escape it by trying to create your own literary genre.

Having your own voice, having your own signature, putting your stamp or your mark on your work... all of these work because they give your reader the sense that you have remained within the genre.

If you try to invent your own genre your readers will simply not understand what you are doing. It's a little like trying to create your own language. A new language would help you to overcome the risk of saying something that would remind your listener of someone else. Unfortunately, no one would be able to understand a word you were saying.

How then do you overcome the tendency to imitate? How do you find your own voice?

Harold Bloom suggested that the process involve a series of psychological ordeals. This may feel like a psychotherapeutic process; it may feel like a mystical journey; it may even feel like a young troubadour undergoing a series of ordeals to prove that his love is true.

I to see it in terms of hard work, of extensive revisions, or reworking the material until it gains its own integrity. Poets whose work feels excessively derivative are either young or lazy.

Be that as it may, Bloom proposed that poets wrote poetry about their struggle to overcome the influence of their predecessors.

Certainly, Romantic poets, an area of Bloom's expertise, were especially concerned with the struggle with their literary forebears. One reason might be that many of them were very young, and this form of anxiety seems endemic to youth.

Nevertheless, saying that poetry is about the poet's struggle to find his voice, to establish his signature, feels solipsistic.

It confuses the act of making something your own with the act of making it all about yourself. If it's all about you, you do not really need a signature.

But if it's all about you, why would you imagine that anyone else cares about it. And if you believe, as Bloom seems to, that the struggle of the epic poet with Homer mirrors the Oedipal struggle that Freudians believe we all engage in, then I would reply that the Oedipal struggle has nothing to do with finding your own voice. It's about copulating with your own mother.

Poems must touch an audience. They must address the concerns of their readers, which are not necessarily the concerns of the poet.

A poet must find his voice, and he may certainly write about the process of finding it. If he does, he will be writing about an object, in much the same way that a self-portraitist draws the image he sees in the mirror or a painter paints his model.

What ultimately matters in art is not what it says about the artist, but what it says about the object, the model that inspires the work.

Isn't art about how the artist recreates his model, making it his own? Not so much in the sense of possessing the model, but in creating a new version that speaks to the concerns of other people.

If your poem has nothing to say no one is really going to care whose it is.


vanderleun said...

The other lessons taught in workshop hell
Are: "Rime is always bad and feelings swell!
Express yourself, young and toothsome student!
(But know that bending over is still prudent.)

"You see, in this strange game, we've got a rule
That states the poet comes before the school.
So please ignore Eliot and Stevens, even Dante,
To let feelings, a la Streisand, up the ante.

"By composing, from such sources, endless plaints,
You are allowed to shitcan meter's steel restraints,
And craft within our workshops shapeless blobs
That will sustain your feelings and our jobs."

What remedy remains for profs so sodden
With modest grants and laurels cheaply gotten?
There's no pretending that such men are poets pure,
For "once a bear is hooked on garbage there's no cure."

Our only hope is to accurately describe them
As mired in their muck. So woe betide them,
Should they hope to gain a lasting recognition,
Their very work will work for their derision.

The poem's not a path to some fat pension,
Nor like some hired hand releasing inner tension.
It requires nothing less than all the soul and mind,
And is, like love and Homer, always blind.

It is not made in workshops, whole or part,
But in the "rag and boneshop of the heart."
And those that cannot blindly see and sense
Must chained forever be in Castle Indolence.

All poetry is dreaming written clear
To the inner eye that wakes the sleeping ear.
You must listen to iced silence, seeing only night,
If you would give your readers second sight.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

That's great... it says it all... thanks for adding it to the discussion...

vanderleun said...

Give a poet an opening and he'll just paste in any old doggerel he's got lying about.