Rhyming the Living with the Dead
On a walk about a month ago, lines from an older poem of mine, “The Waters of Separation,” ran through my mind repeatedly:
we wait riven
to the rocks peeling back,
black in the water.
I find you, my darling,
knelt down and stung
Why was I singing my own line? The stanzas sounded like another voice, not my own, but one just out of grasp. “My darling” seemed so cloying, yet I never could revise it out of the poem. Something about that “back, / black in the water” built to a grandiose and over-dramatic edge as well. Where had I found those cadences? Then I heard Anne Sexton’s distinct voice:
My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we touch entirely. No one’s alone.
Of course, these are lines from Sexton’s well-known poem, “The Truth the Dead Know,” which I’ve listened to as a Poetry Speaks recording hundreds of times, a poem I have memorized. Sexton wrote “my darling” into her elegiac poem. “Truth,” dedicated to Sexton’s parents, who died a month apart, appears strangely similar to “Waters,” which I think of as a preparatory elegy—it’s a poem about how a river can separate the living from the dead. I had channeled my Anne Sexton voice without knowing it. Both scenes contain similar content—water, stones, rumination on the beloved and loss.
In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom outlines an argument that writers, in essence, must divorce their influences, their forbears in literature, in order to create strong, original work. He continues to say influence is so pervasive that most authors concede and incorporate others’ voices, thus creating weak writing. However, I cannot see my poetic scope as anything other than inclusive of influence. My work is girded with my fathers and mothers in poetry. Instead of divorcing my predecessors, I would rather marry them or at least take up their causes. In fact, I am currently writing a book of poems centered on influence, loosely titled “Menageries,” in which each poem takes a line or the title from another poet’s poem and incorporates it into a new piece. Sometimes the poet is mentioned by name within the new poem and thus is called directly into the room.
Of course, unintentionally or intentionally integrating another poet’s rhythms and vernacular into one’s poems is not a practice uniquely my own, but one common in contemporary poetry. When I write book reviews or read manuscripts-in-progress, my first instinct is always to rattle off a list of influences—books the writer might have read in order to produce the work. This is why certain lines ring in our heads—they are not wholly ours; they chime with other voices. In short, we rhyme with the dead.
One contemporary American poet who is unabashed in invoking his predecessors is Jason Koo. His second full-length collection, America’s Favorite Poem, name-drops not only poets and prose writers, but also musicians such as Stan Getz and Jay Z. In lines like, “I’m feeling all of them, Whitman, Kang, Crane, move through me,” from the poem, “Struck from the Float Forever Held in Solution,” Koo’s transcendentalism is showing, and it is a refreshing look. He’s obviously not afraid to “contain multitudes,” as Whitman says, when he includes Hart Crane, another Brooklyn resident like Koo, and Younghill Kang, an early Korean-American novelist, among his named influences. In fact, Koo mentions with great bravado that “Kang surely imagined me” as a part of his legacy. The author flashes some arrogance naming his book America’s Favorite Poem, but maybe this Whitman-esque title is not entirely bombastic. It’s vulnerable, too. Whitman struggled with crippling insecurities, perhaps most famously seen in his question, “What good amid these, O me, O life?” and Koo echoes him at the end of “Struck from the Float:”
…I can’t help but worry, don’t worry
…whether I’ll ever do enough to return to what you gave me,
Whether I’ll screw this up, whether I’ll ever feel like I have enough,
Whether I am enough.
Like Whitman, Koo’s speaker wonders, “Whether I am enough,” while simultaneously taking on the task of proving that he is. This is a case in which Koo carries his poetical history like one does a family history; it may be a burden, but it is one worthy of rumination.
Kristina Marie Darling, another favorite contemporary poet of mine, also shows her predilection toward invoking influence in her new collection, Fortress. In fact, Fortress is bookended with erasures of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain. In the first of these erasures, which comprise both the Preface and the Epilogue of the book, we are told “this book has only / circles…” I see these circles as echoes of others’ voices throughout the poems. In first page of the Preface, Darling’s erasure reads,
pain it finds a voice, it begins to tell
Despite Darling curating these lines from Scarry’s text, the passage also seems to call up Louise Glück’s meditation on suffering in the title poem of The Wild Iris:
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
The influence of Iris can be seen in the four “Books,” or sections of Fortress as well, since the evolution of Darling’s setting, a mansion and its gardens, become a way to trace time.
Darling’s unnamed speaker enters pain in a way that also reminds me of Sylvia Plath. This connection is enhanced in the many images of flowers, including poppies, which dot the scenery. When Fortress’ narrator states, “I could not endure the boxed geraniums beneath every window, their long stems like dried insects under glass,” I envision Plath’s “Tulips:”
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Fortress speaks to many Confessionals and their predecessors, the Romantics, who explored intersections between physical and emotional pain. Darling is only one of many contemporary female poets who showcase their influences in order speak more eloquently on these themes.
Another young poet loosely in this vein might be Ansel Elkins, whose Blue Yodel I’m reading currently. The last lines of the poem, “The Girl with Antlers,” catch my ear: “I saw my reflection in the water, / I touched my face. / You are fearfully and wonderfully made.” The oldest voices speak here: the psalms and Greek myths wafting their rhythms through the midnight air. I read Elkins’ lines and see contemporary poems as plated with influences—their words, their works—and our lines sing out not in spite of the poets before us, but because of our ancestors’ songs.
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Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a debut full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications (2015). She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry and lyric essays, including the forthcoming Sight Lines (Speaking of Marvels Press, 2016) and Heart Radicals (ELJ Publications, 2016) as well as A Detail in the Landscape (Eating Dog Press, 2014) and The Canopy (MWC Press, 2012). Sandra’s poetry appears widely in Subtropics, Ecotone, Green Mountains Review, Word Riot, Blackbird, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. Her essays can be found at The Rumpus, Words Without Borders, Mid-American Review and in other venues.