Final Thoughts on Wilbur's Prose Pieces
Catbird has, additionally, two essays about Poe, not one, as I previously mentioned. Having had my fill of EAP, I skipped them. Most of the subjects about whom he writes do not draw me, so I will take a pass on the bulk of them; I forced myself to read his introduction to Witter Bynner, simply to educate myself historically, but was not enthused. Even his short, short piece on Longfellow, while harmless, did not satisfy my desire for something more. So both books will go back, Responses read entirely and enjoyed, Catbird looked at a little.
Going back to Responses, I found much more of generalized substance than in the later book. His essay "Poetry and Happiness" has some food for thought; and then there is a piece about literary influences titled "Poetry's Debt to Poetry."
It is an endlessly interesting topic, though of limited value, in the way gossip can be interesting but valueless. Recently—the "project" to which I have referred—I busied myself writing an essay about a poet who has influenced me greatly: it should appear online next month if the editor accepts it and does not demand much change. Otherwise, it will appear here for sure.
Wilbur begins with a description of a party at which every one of a bunch of artists told the story of what turned them onto the art—and it was always seeing a painting or hearing Bach played on the organ etc., never in any case, "the turmoil of first love, the song of the thrush, or the Bay of Naples." (I can't quite say my personal experience corroborates this: my first poem was written at age eleven based on a sixth grade classroom assignment, and recall no prototypes having been shown us—but this would require a separate essay to delve into.)
The essay morphs into a more general piece on literary influence. Wilbur says:
All of these open admissions of poetic indebtedness are attractive and useful; they reminds us that art is ultimately a loose collective enterprise, and they tell us something of the particular writer by exposing his affinities. Still, they must not be taken too simple-mindedly: it is not of much interest to assign Ezra Pound to someething called the “Whitman Tradition,” and let it go at that. Pound’s poem of capitulating praise should move its commentator to discern what in Whitman Pound could actually use, what was not to his purpose, and what he still could not stand. Literary historians, in their taxonomic fury, often talk as if the process of influence were like decalomania, as if writers simply copied each other’s productions, as Macy’s might match Gimbel’s in item and price; but such is not the case, and that character in Borgès who was so influenced by Cervantes as to write Don Quixote is fictitious. To be sure, there are people other than scribes, plagiarists, and forgers who copy art or try to; they are not in the full sense artists, and they cannot help it. Think of those who have aped the spare and additive Hemingway sentence, without having the peculiarly resigned sense of life that required it; or those who, with no apparent sense of its function, have copied that long Faulkner sentence which is so suitable for conveying simultaneities of awareness and action. And what of all those instant Welshmen of twenty years ago, who dropped everything and wrote in the distinctive rhapsodic manner of Dylan Thomas? We cannot remember their names, and the reason we cannot is that Wordsworth was right: art must grow naturally, like a plant, from its own roots and in its own soil and climate. A plant may be pruned or trained or grafted to advantage, but only within the limits of its own nature. The saddest epitaph I have ever heard was spoken by Robert Frost; he said of another writer, “He wanted to be me.”
[P]oets do not always go about being influenced in the way in which critics and scholars would have them do. Critics and scholars, if I may be flippant about them for a moment, like literature to be organized sensibly in schools and streams—on the one hand, the Sons of Ben, on the other the Spenserians; they think it convenient for writers to be explainable by reference to immediate forerunners and major contemporaries. How wistfully scholars speak of the possibility that the paths of Milton and Donne may have crossed, when Milton was an adolescent student at St. Paul’s, and Donne was dean of the Cathedral; but if it happened, it brought nothing about, and Milton went stubbornly on to elect such outlandish influences as Cardinal Bembo. It is always that way with the best poets—they do not travel in gangs, and they make surprising decisions as to who shall teach them. Not all our hindsight can make it seem predictable that Ezra Pound, in such and such a year, should have turned to Gautier for inspiration.