2016, Archives, March 2016, The MFA Years

A Map of Influence

Image: Pietro Bellini

To complete the first semester and thus 50% of this MFA program, we had two final projects. One was the first draft of the thesis (!!!!!), and the other, a curated collection of 35 poems—not our own—that are personally important in some way.

The anthology was to be modeled after Robert Pinsky’s book Singing School, in which each poem is accompanied by a brief annotation explaining its inclusion. We in the cohort exchanged our anthologies with each other; this was so we could learn about the diverse influences that drive our group and see where there may be intersections. Surprisingly, there were very few—no one poet, other than our professors, was included in everyone’s anthology. It was a testament to the expansiveness of the poetic tradition, as well as the diversity of our group.

I found this to be a super helpful exercise in mapping out my influences and articulating their impact. It was also humbling to realize the limitations of my reading: the plurality of poets I’d selected were living white American males. Even though the promotion of writers of color is a subject dear to me, and I thought I’d put an active effort into reading more, they’re still largely outweighed in my reading history. It also got me thinking on how my writing may be influenced by reading largely American poets, and poets born in the 19th century.

In my annotations, usually I tried to identify how the poem can be used as a model for a particular craft aspect. Other times, I commented on what the poem means to me on an emotional level. The best poems are instructive in both of these dimensions.

I titled my anthology “Huge Strange Thoughts”, after a line in Rilke’s “The First Elegy” (Stephen Mitchell’s translation). It’s meant to be a living document that’s added to for years to come. Here are five of the poems I’d chosen and my commentary on them.

“Guilty of Dust” by Frank Bidart: Typographical innovation explodes the tension between outward silence and mental tempest. This tumultuousness is expressed through line breaks as well: the isolated “REVOLT AGAINST IT” reflects conflict encased in conviction.

“Ballad in A” by Cathy Park Hong: Hong performs verbal acrobatics with skill under the Oulipian constraint of univocalism. This poem demonstrates an extreme of sound’s impact: reading it aloud feels like a mouthful of chewing tobacco.

“Harbour” by Norman Pritchard: This poem is a reminder to consider the construction of the word, in addition to sound and etymology. As words are broken into their constituent parts, the serene sailing scene becomes ominous (see “clever feather limbs” transformed, culminating into the unsettling “eat her limbs”).

“Having It Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon: The compression of emotion into simple and sometimes clinical language embodies the paradox of melancholy, or depression: feeling everything and nothing all at once.

“Atlas” by Kay Ryan: The final trochees at the end of several of the lines mimic the exertion of strength, followed by collapse. They are later dispensed with in favor of perfect rhymes, as if the burden has been shrugged off.

What are some poems or other texts that have been important to you? More importantly, why?

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