Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Orbit of Mentors and Precursors

In an excerpt from his collection of essays, Career Limiting Moves, Zach Wells is skeptical of "coming of age yearbooks" like Breathing Fire:
The reason these anthologies are consistently disappointing is that poetry, fickle bugger that it is, manifests not in generational collectives and period styles, but in scattered individuals of eccentric talent. Generations are epitomized by shared characteristics, poetry by exceptionality, oddness, iconoclasm. And the generations presented in these books, having been carefully chosen by their elders and mentors, tend towards the reproduction of both the virtues and the flaws of preceding generations.

But if one sets out to be different without an apprenticeship to past masters, one is apt to come off more freak than unique. “Woe to him,” as Lao Tze said, “who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant.” Following in the shadow of poetry’s greats can of course be discomfiting. Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence deals with the psychological upheaval poets—even great ones—undergo trying to escape the orbit of their mentors and precursors. Small wonder some poets prefer to pretend that they have little to learn from the distant poetic past: it makes their jobs a hell of a lot easier.

Most of the contemporary poets I admire have developed a dialectical knack for folding lessons learned from their ancestors into the batter of contemporary settings and idioms. When baked, these experimental mixtures can create surprising and spontaneously fresh conceits, structures and turns of phrase. When there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9), the key to originality is in the choice of antecedents as they combine with the particularity of the individual poet’s experience (including his or her heritage and present cultural milieu), thought and speech patterns. To borrow Auden’s distinction, these poets aren’t concerned so much with “originality” as they are with “authenticity.” They know that if they’re going to write the poems that are theirs to write, they must pick and choose those techniques others have used that best suit their own predilections and limits. Such poets don’t so much find a voice as they forge a style. Respectful deference is rejected in favour of a bold blend of promiscuous intertextual fraternizing and thievery.

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