Monday, June 8, 2009

History, language and influence

Wrote the third part to the Unsettlement/Settlement poem today. Thanks Chris for suggesting this and also giving me the 'Morning, Noon and Night' exercise, which I didn't do, but helped with the three-parter thing.

Watched Michael Palmer reading at Berkeley's Lunch Poems series. He mentioned a poem called 'So' (I think?) by Wallace Stevens that inspired a series of poems of his called 'So 1 (2,3,4...)' which piqued my interested because I think I am also influenced by Wallace Stevens, although I haven't read much of his stuff. The reason I say that because some of the things I have read of his just look and sound a little similar to mine, although I'm sure I've never read them before. So I'll try and find the 'So' series, it would be great to read a series of poems by someone who directly influences me on someone who indirectly influences me.

And on that note, I've just finished reading another Jay Parini essay on 'Tradition and Originality' which talks about borrowing/stealing from your precursor. This seems to have become accepted for writers to do in even the most obvious of ways since Eliot wrote The Wasteland and there doesn't seem to be much argument about this, not by writers at least. The most interesting thing he mentioned though, was how contemporary writing seems to inform how the canon is read (he cited an Eliot essay on this), so that by reinterpreting the past we are actually altering it. So if Michael Palmer was to write a poem that is influenced by a Wallace Steven's poem, then we would read the Wallace Steven's poem in a different way, perhaps contextually, perhaps just by giving it more significance. So it is a two way street, which is nice.

But he went on to compare this with the nature of language itself, how all words and stolen from the past and reinterpreted, recontextualised every time we use them and it is just that poets are conscious of this process and actively seek to give old words new meanings, old poems new life. I like that too.
Poetry is "about" the past, in that poets understand that language itself is history and that words have slipped through time, undergone mutations, shifts in meaning; but each word is a palimpest as well: it contains multiple erasures, which underlie its current meaning, coloring it, giving it character and ambiguity and direction. A poem, in this sense, is also a palimpest, a "writing over" of previous poems, and therefore a gift to the future, where it will be misread, misdirected, even misplaced.
Also, I like that small phrase "language itself is history." That might give me some help with my history series I think, which I really don't want to be about 'history' in the sense of this is what has happened in the past. Maybe etymology (and influence?) is the key. I started down that direction in one of the poems, although not very successfully. Maybe I could pick some interesting words that are 'normally' associated with history and look up the etymology, writing the poem from there? So it becomes the history of the word I guess.

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