Thursday, December 2, 2010

What Influences Your Writing?

I don't often blog. Plenty of people out there who can do it far better than I. But lately, cruising around myriad poet's web-pages and reading their work, I've been getting curious about where people are coming from, what drives the whole need to write, as well as what resources we draw on, consciously and unconsciously, to express our thoughts. There are big obvious answers to these questions, and others that defy my attempts to pin them down. Do we write for ourselves, for someone in particular, or for reasons hidden even from ourselves in places we're attempting to access with words? If these types of  ideas also occassionally puzzle or intrigue you, I'd be interested in hearing from you here. I'd also like to know which poets people actually read, whose words come into their minds at odd moments, which poem first made them think---'" I wish I'd written that."  

I'm not big on self-analysis, but I'll try to answer my own questions first for encouragement. My answer is pretty much 'all of the above.' I think we write for ourselves because we're compelled to but also write always to the ideal imaginary listener, the one who will understand us, complete the cycle of tale to teller. Also because we have to try to access the things we're writing about to disarm them, put them in some sort of usable form. And I don't think we have much choice in the matter, except in how we pick our tools.

In one of my November, 2010 Off the Shelf Archive posts, I said that Wallace Steven's Farewell to Florida was one of three poems I felt had most influenced my worldview. This work is probably the most intellectually coherent and respectable of my influences. I first read it in my late twenties, at a time when I was experiencing a very similar event, and attempting myself to articulate it. I know I try for his stylistic, fluent and cerebro-sensual imagery often in my work still. 

Now to embarrass myself totally, risk exposing  myself as fundamentally unserious,
and give up the other two.

I came across the very first poem I wish I'd written,  Alfred Noyes'  The Highwayman, in a volume of a kid's encyclopedia called Childcraft, in the one devoted to tales, poems and stories. It had a florid illustration of "Bess the landlord's daughter/ the landlord's black-eyed daughter/ plaiting a dark red loveknot into her long black hair..." I was enthralled with the story, the character of the enigmatic Highwayman, the slimy ostler Tim, the relentless evil of the Redcoats,--and totally identified with Bess, her heaving bosoms bound to the bedpost, her finger crawling toward the trigger strapped below her breast which embodied her death and the only hope of life for  her flamboyant, feckless lover. There's some excuse for this; the imagery, the archetypal quality of the ballad-ish form, the fact that I was eight years old...and rereading it now, some vestigial small girl within still gets a bit of a shiver, "Look for me by moonlight/I'll come to thee by moonlight/though hell should bar the way..." even now after all the countless recorded renditions and performances of wildly varying quality it still has that tease of something more glimpsed out of the corner of the mind's eye, something unexplainable, wild and eternal hidden within the everyday. Who is it I'm waiting for, willing to die for? 
I still say it's a damn fine poem in its way, despite the chronic overuse of exclamation points. 

"Our talk had been serious and sober,
      But our thoughts they were palsied and sere—" 

Ulalume, by Edgar Allen Poe, is the third of my three seminal poems. I read it in high school English class, and to the high school me it had everything: drama, verbal excess of the most attractive purple kind interspersed with totally stunning interludes of pure description of the landscape of the imagination. Not to mention mystery, and the obligatory obsession with death teenagers for some reason always revel in, as well as some of the most haunting rhymes ever devised by man or woman, sober or otherwise. I can still recite it line by line from memory, and memory is not exactly my most reliable quality these days. "It was night in the lonesome October/of my most imemmorial year/It was hard by the dim lake of Auber/ in the misty mid-region of Weir.../In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir..." The man could set a stage, I'm tellin ya. And bring down the curtain: "Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her/ and...conquered her scruples and gloom/ and we passed to the end of the vista/but were stopped by the door of a tomb.../ I said what is written sweet sister/ on the door of this legended tomb// she replied..." ..well go figure. As a poem re-read now in the cold light of adulthood, it has all Poe's flaws as well as his virtues, but I know I use this style of building tension through repetition and  rhythmic progression all the time unconsciously.

If you take these poems in sequence, you can probably get at 90% of what I'm always working towards when I feel compelled to write, and the melodramatic urges I'm cursed with trying to discipline, as well as the tools I use to try to get there, but...

There's more to it, of course. There always is.

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Image: Ulalume, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain or Public domain], via wikimedia commons.


  1. Marvelous topic and questions, HW. Yeah, I have to go with "all of the above", too.

    In high school, I made two important discoveries, one in class, and one out. In class, we spent a day discussing Emily Dickinson's "I Cannot Live With You." The careful beauty of the language, and the absolutely visceral sense of passionate love and killing frustration stunned me. It remains my favorite poem, as you know.

    The other was a book I bought by a man named Grover Lewis, called "I'll Be There In The Morning If I Live." He wrote in an in-your-face vernacular, and gave weird and desperate twists to ordinary scenes, usually concerning people living on the fringe, either societally or emotionally. I hadn't read anything like it before, thoug it was out there. I still love this line: "And the poet, he lives alone these years, on a street near the bayou, where, on windy nights, the trees lock arms and swagger like sailors." Many of the lines became a permanent part of my inner creative landscape.

    A few short years later, I discovered Allan Ginsberg's "Howl." It simply did me in. He took so many different things and tied them together in a crazy/brilliant tour de force. THAT was the poem I wanted to have written, for a long time.

    The last poem that worked its way into my cells, was Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott", which I discovered many years later. The sheer beauty of the language is amazing to me. Even if I didn't speak a word of English, hearing this poem would still be beautiful and transporting. But the story it tells speaks to me deeply as well.

    I would be remiss not to mention the lifelong influence music has had. I have listened to certain songs a million times, read the lyrics, tried to study and learn how they did that. James Taylor, Laura Nyro, Gordon Lightfoot, Cat Stevens, and on through Chrissie Hynde and Melissa Ferrick and a million others. I honestly think music, because it is such a direct line to the emotions, has influenced me the most.

    Lastly, I have been influenced also by who I did NOT want to be. I did NOT want to write obscure, cold, eggheaded stuff. And I didn't want to to write "The Pretty Teacup On Its Doily." I wanted to write like a boxer, who carefully punches and jabs until, WHAM! Lights out. I want to leave people gasping, or laughing, or weeping. I'm so subtle. Ever the lady. Ha!

  2. Interesting post, hedgewitch. I liked reading of your poetic influences.

    I've never read anything I wished I'd written, but I have seen the amazing reactions of people to someone else's writing and that intrigues me. To touch another through words - whether laughter or tears or sighs or shaking of heads in agreement or realization that some things are universal - all through words...that's magic to me.

    I didn't read poetry growing up, but my father read a lot of poetry to us kids. I'm not a poet, but poetry has become my favorite word play - no stress, nothing but playing and fine-tuning and playing some more. It's the time when a single vision will spark something that needs to be told...but that's the way it's been with all my writing. I've been writing fiction since I was 7 and it's just part of who I am.

  3. I really appreciate hearing from you all, and I really do get a greater sense of who you are, why you write and what you're trying to say by knowing a little more about the influences in your lives.

    @Jinksy--Perhaps not a poet, per se, but having just barely read a little at your place, I'm guessing Mother Goose and all the Pooh books, Beatrix Potter and Wind in the Willows, maybe even the Oz books, were in your library.

    @Talon That phrase about the single eye really strikes me, because I think that's what makes good photography as well as good writing, and it's very apparent in your work with both the camera and the written word. I wouldn't write off your poetry in any way shape or form, though, as I think it has great merit, but prose is a whole other ballgame, I agree. Getting the love of words as children, however it comes, is definitely important and I can't think of a better way than having a parent read to you.

    @FB Very good point about how what we DON'T admire, what we reject, is also pertinent. May I say you have succeeded beyond your wildest dreams at never ever writing The Little Teacup on the Doily. Ever.(Unless you've hidden it away on another of your Gemini-an split-personality blogs I don't know about.)
    I agree about music,too. In fact, I was driving home today listening to "Shine on, you Crazy Diamond," and thinking I'd never be able to write anything that came close to it--'blown on the steel breeze...' The combination of poetry and music seems to be a very effective alchemy, and the best poetry and the best music seem able to fuse into one entity greater than either.

    Also somehow, you make Tennyson & Ginsberg fit into your own distinct continuum and they even make sense paired there: "The curse has come upon me, starving hysterical and naked..."or something. (I've put your Grover Lewis on my book list for future reference--that was a great line.)

    Thanks again, everyone, for sharing all this, and maybe even cracking the door a bit on what makes us all tick.


  4. Hmmm, well I can tell you why I write overall. It is in my blood, I write from a stream of consciousness not my own (if it makes sense) as seen in my poetry recently but as well as some of my other short story offerings.

    I think the biggest thing was to find myself and find my family to spur me on to another level. I had to find a way to center myself, a way to edit myself, a way to eliminate the passive voice in my writing and then a way to maintain the discipline.

    The other trick is to not let myself get down if I miss a chance at writing. Since I am always creating, I use the time to do something else and cultivate the topic I wish to speak of.

    My father wrote when he was younger, I found it out ten years after he died so I use this as motivation as well. As long as I draw breath, I will write. I tried not to write before and I didn't feel right.

    Besides, how else am I going to meet FABULOUS people who believe in my writing if I hog it all for myself? I always look forward to seeing the comments of my Hedgewitch!

    Want to know the most amusing part? Totally not a poet and never really was into poetry. I did it after some divine inspiration (Freya bitch slapping me still "slightly" painful) but I never followed any form or function, I just do what I am told.

    Don't get me wrong, I am glad to get to read others poetry, there are some amazing people with greater skill than I could even imagine. Power words wielded with effective skill. I am glad every day I get to read these offerings.

    Anyway, enough of me rambling. Great topic to discuss!

  5. My favorite book of the poetry is "The Happy Little Flower" by Mrs. Thimblebucket. The nicest most happy part is "the Happy Little Flower grew high/ towards the Happy Blue Sky." And then cantaloupe amazing schoolbus. Bye!

  6. @LV Glad you could come by. That definitely explains a lot about the way you put things together.I never know exactly what I'm going to read when I come by, and you always surprise me with something, some way of looking at things, totally different from my own. I enjoy that.

    @Anonymous: Bad Anonymous Bad,Bad! but it was super sweet of you to stop by and share your melons.

  7. I'll quote the often-used statement that I write because I have to, but add to that a lot of years of living and experiences that need exploring and expression. Many years of spiritual seeking and my work with death and dying add to my need to put it out there. Good post, Joyann.

  8. Thanks, Victoria. The spiritual side of things is often hard to connect with in modern life, especially in an affluent culture focused as strongly on the material as ours. There's way too much to do, way too often to find the time and energy, yet if we don't it eats us up. Working with death and those dying takes great strength. I can see how writing becomes part of your support system and not just a pastime. All my respect for that.

  9. This is a wonderful post...
    Thanks for sharing...

    I haven't read much poets till now...
    but I will definitely start reading them...
    Well, in school I had read some of Edgar Allen Poe's poems...

  10. I am so glad I stopped by and read this...amazing how certain pieces of writing influence our worldview..and our writing...many times it is the sound of piece that rings and stays are an excellent poet and I always enjoy reading your words..whether they are from another decade or new...we change, we grow..but somehow stay what you commented at my site about poetry being cheaper than whiskey....yes it is...and the hangover is usually much easier on the mind and body...

    Thanks for this great post....bkm

  11. Glad you enjoyed it, bkm. Feel the same about what you do with words. Yours is always one of the first links I check out when I make the rounds of the various poetry contribution sites because you always have something to say I can connect with. Thanks for stopping by, and yes, poetry hangovers are pretty painless compared to overindulgence in other areas. In fact, you usually feel better instead of worse afterwards.

  12. Hi Hedgewitch ~ I've been taking a look around your blog (love it) and stopped by to read this. I never wrote much before, I only took up the pen after suffering a nervous breakdown a year ago, and that was initially to write about my experiences with mental health. Someone told me that I should write it all down, to get it out of my head. And it worked, better than therapy ever did, in a way that I never imagined. In the process I discovered a joy with wordplay and poetry, and now I couldn't stop even if I tried. I'm in a learning curve with regards to poetry, but I love it and find it a challenge (gets my brain cells working!) and the positive comments I've received so far are so encouraging. It just makes me want to improve.

    Anyway, I'm in danger of turning this into an essay, but I will just say your poetry is an inspiration to me. Thanks for posting. x

  13. Hi. :)


    the story of my life is so bizarre that it is almost surreal. The fact that I have survived it at all is a blessing and a miracle.
    There are so many people that are going through things and have no inspiration to keep going, they feel like they are alone in what they are going through. So I have been telling my life story in bits and pieces except for one poem that pretty much sums up everything; called "Survivor" I had told myself when I started my site , that if I could help just one person, I would be happy.
    I know I have helped two.
    You see I used to actively help people, but now my body is mostly broken, I have mild brain damage, and was told a year ago I would be dead by now.
    I felt useless until now, because i can help people again.
    My poetry just pops out of me and I just let it flow.

    I am sorry this is so long, I didn't realize it until now.

    I am glad I found you. :)