I went to an event at the Edinburgh Festival where a novelist was billed to read from a book of poems. As a poet-novelist I was intrigued. I like the novels, but I did not like the poems at all. They sounded old-fashioned in metre and arch in language, and I didn't buy the book (and no, I won't name the writer!). What was most interesting to me was that when questioned about which poets this writer loved, and was influenced by, those named were all long dead. There was no sign that this writer was interested in contemporary or even late 20th century poetry at all. This writer sounded like a Georgian poet because that was all the input their poetry received
I have recently read Kate Ashton's Who by Water, published by Shearsman, and one of the things I like about Kate's work is how varied is the music of her different poem sequences. My favourite is a sequence of poems in tribute to Li Po, which have a similar shape and cast to ancient Chinese poems. There are poems that reflect a diet of rich, complex modernist poets, and others that seem to me to have a pacy bounce of much more recent writers. The ability to write so well in such a range of registers, so many different tones of voice, must be a reflection of wide and life-long reading across a huge spread of poetic styles.
All this has set me thinking about my own poetic influences and how they must show up in my own writing. This week I was the Bard in the Bookshop at Nairn Book and Arts festival, and in planning what poems to read out I decided to choose a selection influenced by others. I have written lots of pieces as explicit tributes - for example, I wrote a response to Norman MacCaig's long poem 'A Man in Assynt' for his centenary celebration (it's called 'A Passion for Assynt' and you can hear it on You-Tube here). I've stolen first lines of poems I love, and taken them off in my own direction. Sometimes my work is a more direct response, for example, the final poem, Yew, in my sequence of tree poems, is a gentle challenge to Sylvia Plath's indictment of this tree as 'blackness and silence'. Realising that all of Ted Hughes' wonderful bear poems featured male bears, I wrote a female one. And I have numerous other poems 'with apologies to' or 'after' other poets who have inspired me, including W S Graham, Tom Leonard, Kathleen Jamie, Gillian Clarke and AR Ammons.
Reading out some of these influenced poems and owning up to their origins felt like having the opportunity to nod and bow and thank people without whom I could not put pen to paper, the writers who have nourished my own poetry, fed my appetite for words. If I sound a bit like them, well, I'm pleased, frankly. I am not afraid of being 'derivative'. I hope my work isn't a pastiche. I'm not explicitly trying to write in the style of anyone other than myself, but I acknowledge those who have influenced me with gratitude. I know those well-worn books teetering on my poetry shelves have helped and nurtured me, both giving me ideas I am aware of and entering more subtly into the cadences and rhythms of my subconscious.
We are what we eat.