Roots & Branches: From What Twig This Bright Leaf?

July 23, 2010

Poet Kiki Petrosino, who has been tweeting as @harriet_poetry for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, tweeted a question this morning:

Good morning, poets. If poetry=a tree with many branches of influence, then to whose twig do you attach your own bright leaf?

I’ve thought about this question over the years, but started to visualize it a bit in reaction to Kiki’s (or Harriet’s?) question.

My poetry is rooted in what Robert Hass called the “strong central tradition of free verse made out of both romanticism and modernism, split between the impulses of an inward and psychological writing and an outward and realist one, at its best fusing the two.” (Hass, Introduction to Best American Poetry 2001)

I studied with Hass and with Gary Snyder, along with the late Walter Pavlich, and have had some great guidance along the way from poets Alison Hawthorne Deming, Donald Hall, Colette Inez, and Karen Swenson, along with a cast of other friends, both poets and poetry readers.

If I look at poetic influences — teachers by example, rather than in person — Elizabeth Bishop, and by extension, her Hopkins, Herbert and even Moore, could be counted among mine.

But also Pound, Rimbaud (in the Varese translations), the two Kenneths, Rexroth and Patchen, at various times, especially in my early days; the Robert Lowell of Life Studies, and novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje.

I’d have to add to that list a trio of Irish voices (tenors?), including Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, and Paul Muldoon. And while we’re on the British Isles, let’s not forget Geoffrey Hill, John Clare and, of course, “the Bard,” Robert Burns.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose “Mariner” was given to me by my Aunt Gladys, directly influenced my first “serious” poem (now lost, thankfully) about my great grandfather, a whaler who sailed out of New Bedford.

There’s also a curious group of more experimental influences from Anne Carson and Mina Loy to Lorine Niedecker and Jorie Graham. Walt Whitman, Fernando Pessoa, and Allen Ginsberg, all great experimenters themselves, were also part of my early poetry reading education.

It’s an eclectic, multi-branching tree, to say the least.  I’m not sure one can see the influence of any one more than another in my work — someone once wrote that the influences of Bishop and Hall were most evident — but it would be a rather spectacular looking tree, should one chose to design it.

One could get easily lost in such a forest.

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