Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Michael Lithgow : part two

What poets changed the way you thought about writing?

WC Williams taught me the simplicity of language, the power of the clear clean line, of how the clear clean line can offer such visceral pleasures. Williams was a family doctor in a poor community. He made poems from the mundane stuff all around him and with them crafted vessels to hold the profound feelings he experienced. I only understood later how antisemitic his work is – and so I’ve abandoned it. But the pleasure in a clean, unadorned line still remains, even if I don’t always strive for it.  

The confessional poets all taught me it was OK to confess, but more importantly, to do the intimate, complicated and fraught work of subject formation in a poem. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsburg, Robinson Jeffers, James Wright. My love of poetry was forged in the crucibles of these poets who shared their own excruciating and beautiful attempts at being human.

Sylvia Plath deserves special mention in this regard. Like so many others, I have been deeply affected by Sylvia Plath’s work. Plath taught me to listen to syllables, meter and rhyme in more complex ways. Plath also demonstrated that enduring feelings of hopelessness, loss, being lost, confusion, uncertainty and horror at the raw existential truth of being alive can be transformed into sudden, alert and surprising sensations of resilience and transformation. But it’s the complexity of her images as almost a language of their own than continues to beguile. I continue to learn about writing from Plath.

From Gerald Stern I learned to leap around more, to let the insane links between images and words and feelings and memories and thinking loose in a poem, that that looseness can fill a poem with terrific energy and surprising sense-making. Stern is a storyteller in a kind of homespun, mythic way. His poems create myths of his own life, and by doing so, allow us into a world where we can consider our own lives in mythic terms, by which I mean on terms more meaningful than, say, what the Dow Jones tells us about the worth of our days. 

A recent influence is Tongo Eisen-Martin. His poetry opened up for me an exploration of form and discovery of its epistemic consequences. It’s fair to say my approach to form has tended to be conservative, or perhaps conventional, and opening up form to something more organically or ecstatically formal allowed me into a poetic exploration of almost violent tensions trying to unhinge my own critical sense of self from their foundations in certain kinds of privilege. 

Cvetka Lipuš is also a recent influence. Only one of her books has been translated into English, so there is so much more to learn. Lipuš teaches me to leap further, letting scraps of the remarkable in day-to-day details bubble up into almost-dreamscapes. ‘Almost’ is where the magic lies for me, somehow tethering the power of dreaming – the power of how dreams make meaning - in the recognizable debris of a life. Lipuš’ first translated collection (Athabasca University Press, 2019) was the inspiration to complete the manuscript for my second collection of poems. 

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