Poetry is almost always spoken of or presented as elitist. Prose has more rope and loopholes, but Poetry must be a well-designed mousetrap. There are lofty discussions of ‘Where does the poem come from?’ A typical answer might be that it springs forth from a memory or an image and is then passed through the intellectual sieve of language into some semblance of form and structure. Cough.
The answers around ‘Where does inspiration come from?’ are equally abstruse. William Blake heard angels in trees; James Merrill received dictation from Auden through the Ouija board, and Paul Valéry said that the poet starts with what he called une ligne donnée or ‘one given line’ from which the rest of the poem unfolds. Auden and Faulkner would later counsel writers to ‘kill their darlings’ one favorite line at a time. Wry smile.
My proposal is maybe to read the poet’s poetry and then read the poets that the poet read. Was that alliterative enough? The emphasis is read for insight to answer ‘Whom did the poet first imitate before rejecting that poet’s influences to form his or her own style?’ Yes, Harold Bloom’s catchphrase, ‘the anxiety of influence,’ is still with us. Unfortunately, my little hypothesis about literary rebellion requires hindsight, death, and posthumous papers — hindsight to know something about the poet’s reading habits and intellectual disposition; death to give us distance; and the writer’s papers to give us the literary evidence for borrowed imagery and lifted phrases. Poets are said to be the worse plagiarists. I think the hypothesis also holds true for prose. Is not the American T.S. Eliot the English Baudelaire? Is not the poetic F.S. Fitzgerald the novelist John Keats? Scratch all that and simply read lots of poets and poetry.
‘Influence’ is important but it is also deadly. Ezra Pound yelled ‘Make it new’ but who did Pound cite as his ‘spiritual father’ in an essay in 1909? The answer: Walt Whitman (“What I feel about Walt Whitman.”) And to indulge Harold Bloom’s Freudian idea that the artist must symbolically kill his or her influences, Pound, in the same essay, did it himself, criticizing Whitman for, as Pound put it, breaking “the new wood” in the same essay. Pound yelled about the pentameter and Eliot held up the Sacred Wood but it’s all language nonetheless. But is ‘Influence’ always pernicious?
Rachel Wetzsteon didn’t think so. She was an accomplished poet in her own right, but I created this post to recognize not only her poetry but to draw attention to a prose work of her, a piece of writing that few seem to pay any attention to; namely, her discussion of Auden’s poetry in a slim volume of criticism about Auden and his literary influence, Thomas Hardy. In her 2007 study, Influential Ghosts, she demonstrates that Auden, unlike most poets, as Bloom would have you believe, did not reject his ‘spiritual father,’ Thomas Hardy. I should say outright that I think few readers today realize that Hardy is one of the few English writers who was equally gifted in both poetry and prose. Few writers are adept at both. It seems today that we remember Hardy for his dark and pessimistic novels. Far from the Madding Crowd is the only Hardy novel that I remember having had a happy ending.
Wetzsteon walks through Auden’s poetry and essays to show how he observed, copied, and improved upon Hardy’s meter and stanza forms, working in allusion and commentary on art, history, politics and the modern landscape. Auden is indebted to Hardy’s “hawk’s vision” and by that I mean Hardy’s ability to look at situations from a cinematic, and at the same time remote height. Auden would do the same but become more objectively distant yet brutally intimate. Hardy looked down from a height; Auden would look down and then from all sides. Auden also took from Hardy the use of colloquial diction which he then hammered into complex poetic edifices. Yes, Auden’s poetry is erudite; yes, it is metered; yes, he struggled throughout his career from Hardy imitations to the late-career panoramic views with multiple angles; but Hardy was his inspiration, his drawing board, from which he assimilated and synthesized an omniscient visual style that gave the reader Auden’s disturbing image of the Modern Age: the crow eyes as a roving camera, perched on the crematorium chimney with a view to the barbed wire (“Memorial for the City”). Another example of Auden’s capacity to unnerve the reader with observation is to read his poem September 1, 1939 and view the World Trade Center Buildings — but not as a statement for a cultural war, World War II or War Against Terrorism, but rather as a historical statement, a discourse, on how enemies from both sides can and will indict each other.
The late Wetzsteon was, like her predecessors Auden, Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, and Stephen Crane, a poet of the city, albeit not of an entire city. She lived and died in Morningside Heights, a neighborhood in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her foremost influence is, as I have given you to know, W.H. Auden, for which she has been criticized. I suspect that metrical poetry today is perceived as artificial and cold while turns of phrases are considered clever and witty, but Wetzsteon’s poetry is not cotton candy superficial. Many of her poems use the consistent theme of clouds and sky to mirror the insidious nature of depression without becoming confessional or dramatic. Her poems are painful in a less obvious way, as in “Love and Work,” where she wants to be intellectual and sexually attractive but is also aware that society and other women will not allow the two possibilities for their fellow women:
Wetzsteon is like Ezra Pound in that she is aware of all the personae women must use to survive in the world, but she is not polemical or political about it; she would rather it not overwhelm her within her poems while she observes discordant behavior and contradictions for the reader. Her poems are witty, light, and charming, with a hint of frivolity and occasional sadness. There is gallow’s humor in her “Mystery for Cigarettes,” knowing that the habit is unhealthy and that smoke is metaphor-rich: delusion, glamor, illusion, and self-destruction
Wetzsteon should not be compared to Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Bishop, as some critics, for some inexplicable reason, seem to do. It is true that she did not write poetry as the Baudelaire of The Bowery but she did create evocative imagery in her “Blue Octavo Haiku,” and walk the reader through, among other things, break-ups, crack-ups, an ambulance ride, and cherry blossoms in “Sakura Park.” The unfortunate thing about hindsight with Rachel Wetzsteon is that we know she read Auden, that she died, and that she left behind a legacy of poetry, but the uncomfortable feeling I get in reading her poems is the same feeling I got in reading Plath and Sexton, and that is the inevitable in her poem “Sakura Park”:
Rachel Wetzsteon, despondent over a failed relationship, committed suicide Christmas 2009, aged 42.