“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” T. S. Eliot said.
I know what he meant. We who write, be it poetry or prose, know that whatever talent we possess, grows out of our influences.
A powerful cord “snakes back and connects one writer to the next, to the next, to the next,” writes Carole Burns in “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings and Everything in Between.” The book, just out, is a selection of some of the interviews that Burns has conducted since 2003 with writers about the writing process for the “Off the Page” feature of washingtonpost.com.
Many of the authors, who spoke with Burns, cited renowned writers as their muses. Paul Auster, author of 13 novels, named, among others, Cervantes, Joyce and Shakespeare.
E. L. Doctorow, author of “The March,” winner of the 2006 Pen/Faulkner Fiction award, said that he was influenced by literary giants ranging from George Eliot to Tolstoy to Melville. (He gets points from me for saying, “A book I wish I could have written is Cervantes’ Don Quixote.” I wish I could write a poem, a haiku–or a line–as memorable as Don Quixote.)
Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana, author of “Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe,” whose fave writer is Toni Morrison, reads Nigerian author Ben Okri.
Now don’t get me wrong. I adore these writers as well as Sappho, Frank O’Hara, Anne Sexton and Robert Bly among many poets.
But, I really began connecting with the writers in “Off the Page,” when I got to Michael Cunningham, author of “The Hours.” “Wallace Stevens and Virginia Woolf are part of my consciousness,” he told Burns, “as are Pamela Lee and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I write from everything that influences me, Woolf and Stevens being two of the more presentable.” At last, I thought, I’ve hit the mother lode!
I don’t doubt that Doctorow or Auster or Baingana or myself are influenced by great writers from Sappho to Shakespeare to Tolstoy.
Yet, we have other muses. Our creative consciousness emerges from other sources than The Planet of Great Lit. Like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
In my case, unlike many of my peers, I didn’t become a writer to save the world or a poet to create bold or new images or forms. I picked up my pen because, growing up, I was a “Leave It To Beaver” fan. In one episode, the Beav, in his diary, wrote that he wanted to be a scribe when he grew up.
Yes, falling in love, experiencing grief and reading (Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, etc.) influenced the formation of my creative consciousness. But, other cultural figures from Groucho to Betty Boop to Ted Baxter mingled with my muses.
Why am I telling you this? Because, we poets and artists, sometimes, refuse to acknowledge the influence of seemingly “low-brow” art forms (such as TV) on our creativity, let alone the value of such work.
Recently, a buddy of mine, recounted to me a conversation he’d had with a poet friend. When he’d mentioned the television show “24,” his pal responded, “I never discuss TV shows.” It was as if TV, as an art, was so far removed from the Mount Olympus of poetry, that it could never be put on the radar screen. As if, to paraphrase Cunningham, “24,” just wasn’t presentable enough to be in the room.
This attitude, I find, to be far from unique among certain cultural mavens, who appear to want to keep poetry away from what Virginia Woolf called “the common reader.”
Not that, as Seinfeld would say if he ever wondered into a Jorie Graham style poetry reading, there’s anything wrong with brilliant opacity.
Yet, I wonder, are Michael Cunningham and I the only writers whose consciousness is formed in part by TV shows and personalities? I love Cunningham’s work, so if only this were so!
But, I can’t believe that I’d be so lucky.
Writers and poets have often been influenced by, and sometimes contributed to, the popular art forms of their culture. Some of O’Hara’s best poems are about the movies. Joyce’s “Ulysses” is filled with pop references–such as ads for potted meat that Bloom reads while in the bathroom. (If that’s not low-art mixing with high-art, I don’t know what is.)
Woolf envisioned what it would have been like if Shakespeare had a sister.
During the recent TV writers strike, when I like many of us had time on my hands, I imagined, Shakespeare marching on the picket line.
If Will were alive today, he would write plays. But, he’d also pen scripts for sit-coms and TV dramas, and, if he were short of cash, maybe even reality shows. Was he not the Aaron Sporkin of his day?
Putting the question another way, didn’t some of the episodes of “The West Wing,” (before the show jumped the shark) have the wit, dialogue and tension of Shakespearean drama?
True, there are many bad (far more wretched than good) TV programs.
Yet, the writing in the best TV shows, should be the envy of any poet worth his or her salt.
Who among us can come up with the verbal surprises, the virtuoso turn of phrase of Ted Baxter of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show?” I doubt if I could ever in a poem, subvert a cliché as cleverly as Ted did one day when talking to Lou Grant. Describing the suit that he’d worn that day, he told Grant, “it was neither fish nor nuts.”
I’m not saying that poets should idolize TV or not take poetry seriously. I just wish that more of us would let the “low-brow” arts into the living room or our creative consciousness.