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Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za

Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Mini-seminars

Big Book Chain Chat #8: Closing the circle

Ingrid Andersen - 2010-09-02

As it turns out, I happened upon Richard de Nooy’s engaging post about the influences on his writing while I was in the process of thinking about my own. Richard wrote:

I often feel uncomfortable when I am asked which authors or artists have inspired me. The only honest answer I can give is: all and none. I am a sponge, constantly absorbing the experiences of the real world and then gently squeezing out a trickle of fiction that looks and tastes real and clear, but only because all the imperfections have been filtered out.

Recently, I’ve been coming to understand who has influenced me as a poet. I studied English literature at Wits in the mid-1980s, while South Africa was struggling to get out from under the threatening finger of PW Botha. It was a time when it was usual for teargas to drift in at lecture theatre windows. No doubt my lecturers and tutors gave me a thorough grounding in the canon of English literature. It was more than two decades ago, so I remember very little, except the writers with whom I went on to form a lifelong relationship. I do remember loathing Milton.

While my studies broadened my understanding, they narrowed me as a writer. I had been writing poetry since childhood, but it took the study of literary criticism to silence me. I did what I could to emerge from under my education. In the years up to the publication of my first collection, Excision, in 2004, I was, to all intents and purposes, finding my voice again. I read extensively. As time went on, I wrote poetry that was more visual, terse and lean. I pared away the unnecessary, I made words work hard. For me, poetry was a visual art form in which one could see through the image or the object to meaning.

My earliest memory of reading a poem that delighted me utterly was of reading Mervyn Peake’s poem “Conceit” in that heavy tome of a biography. Peake grew up in China, and one can almost see the sparse black ink brush strokes:

I heard a winter tree in song
Its leaves were birds, a hundred strong;
When all at once it ceased to sing,
For every leaf had taken wing.

Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”, WCW’s “This is just to say” and Eliot’s “Preludes”, likewise, had captured my imagination. My childhood was saturated with art galleries, art books and prints on the walls. For matric French we immersed ourselves in the painstaking translation into English of the French Romantic poets - Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé and others. I was seduced by the sensual richness of the imagery.

When reader comments on the manuscript of Piece Work, my second collection of poetry due out in September from Modjaji Books, made comparisons with Imagist poetry, they brought me, full circle, back to literary theory. My amnesia was thorough: I could remember nothing about the movement. Some quick searching in my university’s library surfaced Pratt’s definitive anthology, The Imagist Poem, and two or three other books. Sparse pickings.

To my surprise I found that many of the poems that had delighted me over the years and had appealed to my imagination were to be found in this anthology. Pound, early TS Eliot, Williams, Sandburg. I read what I could find about Imagism and about the kindred Objectivist movement. I enjoyed some of George Oppen and Lorine Niedecker’s poetry. Reading Pound and Hulme’s writings on Imagist Poetry was almost eerie – I felt a physical jolt of recognition. Here was the muscular, hardworking, visual poetry I strove for – although my subject matter was broader, and I certainly did not relate to all of the poetry in the movement.

Which leaves me musing. Did I, although I don’t remember it, absorb the principles of Imagism during my years of studying English literature only to find it resurfacing later? Or did I find my way unwittingly along a path similar to that travelled by the Imagists by absorbing the visual richness of art, reading the French Romantics and Bashō, only to discover that I was connected across a century to a group of people who met at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in London’s Soho?

I cannot know. Nevertheless, it intrigues me.