This is an essay about poetic originality, about the agony of influence, about the quest for literary identity, and what it all has to do with haiku. I’m not going to pull a trick like Jonathan Lathem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” where every sentence of his Harper’s article is pilfered from other sources (but massively footnoted). Instead, we’ll go straight to the horse’s mouth, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, second edition, 1997), to see what its author, Harold Bloom, has to say. Particularly, through the following quotations and commentaries, we’ll explore how Bloom’s ideas might apply to haiku, and occasionally to notions I’ve previously shared regarding déjà-ku, or haiku that bring to mind other poems in both good and bad ways. We’ll also dig into Bloom’s proposal for a schema of poetic development and see what he means by “swerving” and “misprision” and how haiku poets might leverage literary misinterpretations in their haiku. He offers challenging thoughts, ones that at times may not seem practical in the daily writing of haiku but may offer new ways of thinking about these poems and their influences, and how haiku writers might thrust their writing into a deeper vision.
“Oscar Wilde sublimely remarked that ‘all bad poetry is sincere.’ Doubtless it would be wrong to say that all great poetry is insincere, but of course almost all of it necessarily tells lies, fictions essential to literary art. Authentic, high literature relies upon troping, a turning away not only from the literal but from prior tropes. . . . [He adds that] great writing is always at work strongly (or weakly) misreading previous writing.” (xix)
In seeming contrast, Thomas Carlyle once said, “The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity.” Lots to unpack here, and details that I won’t unpack. In haiku terms, may we extrapolate and say that all great haiku necessarily tells lies? Seriously, haiku are lies? Yet why not? Bashō himself once said “The art of poetry lies simply in the skillful telling of a lie.” This according to Makoto Ueda, translating the poet in “The Nature of Poetry: Japanese and Western Views,” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature #11, supplement, 1962 (142–148). I’ve long asserted that “authenticity” in haiku is measured by the reader through the poem’s effect (“does it feel believable?”), not purely by whatever influenced the verse in the first place (“did it really happen?”). We, as readers, willingly suspend our possible disbelief with fiction, and I think we do it with haiku too. We want to believe that what we’re reading is true, regardless of whether it is or isn’t, wanting each haiku to make us care. And many of us as writers make up bits of our haiku all the time. For me, “spring breeze— / the pull of her hand / as we near the pet store” was written near a coffee shop, but it was the pull of my girlfriend’s hand that arrested me. I set the poem in spring although it was written (and experienced) in June. But you must take my word for it that I experienced even the parts that I didn’t make up—there’s no way to prove or disprove what supposedly happened. So we are left only to consider the poem (“death of the writer” sounds its gong here), although I suggest that the name after the poem also informs our intake of haiku (so the writer isn’t dead after all). And even with poems that aren’t refined for poetic effect like my pulling-hand example (including your own haiku), there’s still a measure of uncertainty to them, an uncertainty that we willingly swallow. Here I think of W. H. Auden, who said, “Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.”
But let’s move on from that and look at the idea of literature relying on troping and turning away from prior tropes. Note that Bloom says that we also turn away from the literal, so haiku poets are immediately unsafe there—they can still write about personal experiences, whatever is literal around them as they bicycle to work or snorkel in the Aegean, but how do they turn away from that? And do they always have to turn away? I don’t think so, but nor do they have to refrain from embracing the fictional, the made up. The Zen distortions of haiku that are all too common in the West would have us believe we have to write only about our own precious experiences, but that seems overly narrow, and doesn’t match the use of imagination and empathy present in great swathes of Japanese haiku over the last century and far more.
And what does Bloom mean by tropes? Just your garden variety literary and rhetorical devices, motifs, or clichés in creative writing, ones that seem to happen all too commonly. Fresh writing turns away from saying that falling cherry blossoms are like damned snow or confetti. This is all along the lines of Pound and his minions, crying “Make it new.” [https://www.guernicamag.com/the-making-of-making-it-new/] Haiku poets can seem to breathe easy, at least for the moment. And perhaps they can also agree with Jane Hirshfield, who said “Make it yours,” which is an elaboration on being true to your own unique voice, with less emphasis on how truly new the writing might be—with the underlying assumption that the conscientious and skilled writer will have a voice that remains distinctive just by trusting itself. But then Bloom throws in a twist, that great writing is a misreading of previous writing. This is what he means by misprision, which comes up next.
“The anxiety of influence comes out of a complex act of strong misreading, a creative interpretation that I call ‘poetic misprision.’ What writers may experience as anxiety, and what their works are compelled to manifest, are the consequence of poetic misprision, rather than the cause of it.” (xxiii; Bloom calls this “the central point of this book”)
As an example of what he means, Bloom says “Wallace Stevens, hostile to all suggestions that he owed anything to his reading of precursor poets, would have left us nothing of value but for Walt Whitman, whom Stevens sometimes scorned, almost never overtly imitated, yet uncannily resurrected” (xxiii)—then Bloom quotes a few Whitmanesque lines of Wallace Stevens. In a way, haiku poets can be said to write haiku how we do by deliberately not writing the way Marlene Mountain does, or John Stevenson, or Chad Lee Robinson. Except of course for those times when we might choose to write like them, even if not consciously. “Any adequate reader of this book,” Bloom says, “will see that influence-anxiety does not so much concern the forerunner but rather is an anxiety achieved in and by the story, novel, play, poem, or essay,” and adds that “The anxiety may or may not be internalized by the later writer, depending on temperament and circumstances, yet that hardly matters: the strong poem is the achieved anxiety” (xxiii). These are challenging concepts, and Bloom offers an entire book to confuse you further, but I take him to mean that the “influenced” writer may not be conscious of the influence (or maybe he or she is), but readers may still see that influence in the work itself. The question of influence therefore seems to create an angle of tension in the work, for some readers, where they read the poem or novel not just on its own terms (which is hard to do even for the least sophisticated of writing) but in contextual terms (with the knowledge, history, and baggage we bring to each text we read). As such, since all poetry is a conversation, each new poem is an answer to the question of an earlier poem—or an earlier text of some other sort. In haiku terms, we don’t just read a single haiku but partake of it in the context of everything else we know about haiku—all the poets, all the other poems, the targets, the bad choices we’re supposed to avoid, the aesthetics, our misunderstandings, our preferences. “‘Influence,” Bloom says, “is a metaphor, one that implicates a matrix of relationships—imagistic, temporal, spiritual, psychological—all of them ultimately defensive in their nature” (xxiii). It’s that defensiveness that makes us apprehend influence in “anxious” terms—even to the point of agony. And yes, I think Bloom is suggesting that we don’t have to be anxious. As I say about many examples of déjà-ku (though not all), we can celebrate their similarities because they demonstrate the sharedness of experience itself, manifesting a stance of empathy in both the writing and reading of the haiku art. The anxiety of influence is perhaps not an anxiety at all, but a perceived anxiety where the “guilt of indebtedness” (117) helps to give exemplary work energy while attempting to prove itself.
“Origins are of peculiar importance for strong writers. No great poet ever has journeyed as far from his origins as Shakespeare.” (xxxiv)
The point here seems to be that the greater the writer, the farther he or she has moved from his or her origins—that is, their influences. This does not mean we do not have influences—we all do—but what have we done with them, consciously or not, and how far have we moved along and moved away? And yet, as Bloom emphasizes a few pages later, “Shakespeare would take from anyone and everywhere, with both fists, but his daemon or genius drove him” (xlvii). “‘The daemonic,’ in poets,” Blooms says later, “cannot be distinguished from the anxiety of influence” (103). Ultimately, as Bloom notes, “Shakespeare, swerving from Marlowe, created distincts. Poetic influence has no greater triumph” (xlvii). So, as haiku poets, what have we done with our influences? How have we moved along and moved away? Can we create effective art by deliberately journeying as far as possible from our origins, and at what point does the journeying result in poetry that is no longer haiku but something else? And how much is it even necessary to deviate from others to establish our own identities?
What we’ve read so far are excerpts from Bloom’s preface to the 1997 second edition of his book, the first edition originally written, his preface mentions, in 1967, and first published in 1973 (xi). Now to the meat of the book, which may engage a little repetition. Bloom says that “poetic influence” is “the story of intra-poetic relationships” and how “one poet helps to form another” (5). He argues that “poetic history” is “indistinguishable from poetic influence” (poetry as conversation) and that his concern is “only with strong poets, major figures with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death” (5). “Weaker talents idealize,” Bloom says, countering that “figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves” (5). It’s a matter of having vision and being ruthless in getting yourself to that vision. But this “appropriation” does not stop just there but takes new work to transformative levels. As an example, he cites Oscar Wilde, “who knew he had failed as a poet because he lacked the strength to overcome his anxiety of influence” (5–6). Which is all to say, if you worry too much about how your work is similar to that of others (as with some cases of déjà-ku), then you may not be paying enough attention to your own vision. You must strengthen your writing muscles and gain a stronger vision for your work (something I talk about in my essay, “Spiritual Freedom: Learning from Wassily Kandinsky”). The point is to have a goal, and if you aim for it resolutely, all else falls away.
This is all a good and acceptable kind of appropriation and is not meant to cavalierly excuse cases of plagiarism and what’s called cryptomnesia (a sort of “accidental” plagiarism where you remember a text but forget the source). Benjamin Franklin apparently said that “Originality is the art of concealing your sources,” but that does not excuse cryptomnesia or plagiarism. Nevertheless, as playwright William Inge once noted, with a nod to the unavoidability of influence, “Originality is undetected plagiarism.”
“Poetic influence need not make poets less original; as often it makes them more original, though not therefore necessarily better.” (7)
The key point here, I think, is how we process our influences. First, have we read the literature? Do we know the key poets, even from generations that preceded ours? Do we know the books, the anthologies, the essays of exploration from the earliest years of haiku and subsequent growths? And is learning all this precedence a pleasure or a chore? Do we have a “canon” of haiku poems in our heads as best as we are able to manage it, and does that work energize us or intimidate? I imagine poets of any stripe go through a transformation, from awe and intimidation (even if not admitted) to enervation. To read a poet who is new to us, and delights us, can be a tugging rope drawing us into the fray of creative expression, whereas for some readers, at a certain time in their development, the same poet might be a barrier to growth. And yet, we must tell ourselves not to be paralyzed. Who can top Shakespeare? Accept that you can’t, hoe your own row, make it yours, and knock our socks off, even if gently. And go with Donald Hall’s advice to young poets, from Breakfast Served Any Time All Day (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003, 174): “No growth without contradiction.”
“Poetic influence, or as I shall more frequently term it, poetic misprision, is necessarily the study of the life-cycle of the poet-as-poet.” (7)
I quote this to emphasize the connection between poetic influence and misprision, which still warrants further unpacking, as we shall see. The development we go through as poets, our life-cycles, as it were, is one of unfolding influences, changes of context and experience, and how we internalize and adapt as we go along, shedding the skins of each new writing. Bloom thus begins to introduce “six revisionary movements” of the “strong poet’s life-cycle” (10) that describe “how one poet deviates from another” (11). These six “revisionary ratios,” as Bloom calls them, are as follows (14–16):
Clinamen, which is “poetic misreading of misprision,” with the Latin name for this movement taken from Lucretius, “where it means a ‘swerve.’” Bloom explains that “A poet swerves away from his precursor, by so reading his precursor’s poem as to execute a clinamen in relation to it.” If this is not clear, it may be understood as a sort of bias or inclination inherent in the poet.
Tessera, “which is completion and antithesis,” with the word taken from mosaic-making, a “token of recognition, the fragment say of a small pot which with the other fragments would re-constitute the vessel.” As such, Bloom explains, “A poet antithetically ‘completes’ his precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough.”
Kenosis, a defense mechanism “against repetition compulsions,” or “a movement towards discontinuity with the precursor.” Here, in superficial terms, I can’t help but think of the technique of linking and shifting in renku. In a sense, tessara is the fragment of a preceding verse in a renku that we link to with our new verse and kenosis is the shifting away, the new added to the old.
Daemonization, or “a moment towards a personalized Counter-Sublime, in reaction to the precursor’s Sublime.” In other words, whatever transcendence may arise from the precursor influence launches us into further sublimation or transcendence. “Freud,” Bloom noted earlier, “recognized sublimation as the highest human achievement” (9). Here, “The later poet opens himself to what he believes to be a power in the parent-poem that does not belong to the parent proper, but to a range of being just beyond the precursor.” Or, as Bashō said, “do not seek after the masters, but seek what the masters sought.” I also think of Richard Hugo’s “triggering town,” something that has seen better days, but can take you somewhere beyond even when you glimpse it briefly, such as from a car window as you drive past. It’s a point of departure that also provides at least a hint of a vision for where you might go with it. You may have to decide for yourself what this means in haiku terms.
Askesis, or “a moment of self-purgation, which intends the attainment of solitude.” Bloom says he takes the term “from the practice of pre-Socratic shamans like Empedocles.” If that does not help you, askesis is simply self-discipline borne out of asceticism. The intent is typically spiritual growth, but here we might think of it as poetic growth. It need not mean physical solitude, or isolationism, but an achievement of aloneness, of being one’s true self. In this movement, the influenced poet “does not . . . undergo a revisionary movement of emptying, but of curtailing.” Might this be a step towards learning what to leave out, surely the root of the haiku art? At the very least, as Bloom explains, the poet “yields up part of his own human and imaginative endowment, so as to separate himself from others, including the precursor.”
Apophrades, or “the return of the dead.” Bloom says the term comes from “the Athenian dismal or unlucky days upon which the dead returned to reinhabit the houses in which they had lived.” The application to poetry, Bloom explains, is that the later poet, “already burdened by an imaginative solitude that is almost a solipsism, holds his own poem so open again to the precursor’s work that at first we might believe the wheel has come full circle.” Here, Bloom says, “the poem is now held open to the precursor,” where “the new poem’s achievement makes it seem to us, not as though the precursor were writing it, but as though the later poet himself had written the precursor’s characteristic work.”
This is all heady stuff, with elaborate terminology, and may seem impractical to the writing and appreciation of haiku. The application of these movements to déjà-ku may be limited, too. But what we have is a six-stage cycle of apprehending a precursor work (even misunderstanding it as a means to a creative act), the empowerment of the fragmentary influence as a prompt for expansion, an urge to avoid repetition, a reaching for a new or extended transcendence, an assertion of solitary self-confidence (so confident that it does not even need to be aware of its confidence), and a reconnection with the precursor text for the sake of larger consideration. And so, what can we do with this? For the haiku poet it may be as simple as learning the literature, of trying out what has been done before, of considering the opposite or some variation, of feeling what’s right for us. But ultimately, it’s an elaborate description of a method of sowing our oats, so to speak, of internalizing the canon, learning what works for us in our own writing, and finding our own vision. Indeed, as Bloom puts it later in the book, “the poet, in writing his poem, is forced to see the assertion against influence as being a ritualized quest for identity” (65).
The chapters that follow in Bloom’s book consider each of the six movements more deeply. As such, as Bloom notes to begin the next chapter, “Shelley speculated that poets of all ages contributed to one Great Poem perpetually in progress” (19). This reminds me of the idea that the only true definition of haiku—which is so greatly burdened with bickering definitions—may indeed simply be the sum of all poems ever written in the name of haiku. We are invited to join the conversation, and to be conscientious as we go about it.
“Even the strongest poets were at first weak, for they started as prospective Adams, not as retrospective Satans. Blake names one state of being Adam and calls it the Limit of Contraction, and another state Satan, and calls it the Limit of Opacity.” (23–24)
We may interpret this, in haiku terms, by thinking of the contraction as precision, the small, the intimate, the personal, the here and now, the detail of haiku. Is this contraction therefore the opposite of opacity? Is this what some avant-garde gendai haiku are after with their seeming opacity? Is it fair, in haiku terms, that opacity be associated with Satan? Is the daemon a source of energy? Bloom explains that “Adam is given or natural man, beyond which our imaginations will not contract. Satan is the thwarted or restrained desire of natural man, or rather the shadow or Spectre of that desire” (24). In this sense, opacity represents a temptation towards a larger perceived potential, but we may want to be careful lest we extend the metaphor too carelessly upon haiku and risk dissolving our poems into such abstraction and opacity as to simply be self-involved.
“The word ‘influence’ had received the sense of ‘having a power over another’ as early as the Scholastic Latin of Aquinas, but not for centuries was it to lose its root meaning of ‘inflow,’ and its prime meaning of an emanation or force coming in upon mankind from the stars.” (26)
With this meaning in mind, who would not want to seek influence, an inflow from the very cosmos itself? In haiku terms, we may take this to mean an inflow from personal experience through our five senses, and our intellectual and emotional interpretations thereof, and separately an inflow of the full range of the haiku literature we engage in. If we see this inflow as not having a “power” over us, and thus not think that our work is merely derivative, then we can reshape that possible power over us into empowerment for us in our haiku creativity. Bloom says that we can choose to break free from the sort of slavery that believes influence restrains us. “To be enslaved by any precursor’s system, Blake says, is to be inhibited from creativity by an obsessive reasoning and comparing, presumably of one’s own works to the precursor’s. Poetic Influence is thus a disease of self-consciousness” (29). Though it may be both “gain and loss” (29), Bloom suggests that we can break free of this self-consciousness to turn anxiety into empowerment. Empowerment is my term here, please note, as Bloom would surely not use such a term, which smacks of feel-good motivational superficiality. Rather, it’s a gaining of vision, a way of seeing a path for ourselves through the weeds of all writing that has gone before us.
“Poetic influence—when it involves two strong, authentic poets,—always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence . . . is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.” (30)
Aphorist Mason Cooley once said, “Mistakes are the only universal form of originality.” And James Joyce said, “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” This is the notion of misprision, which Bloom says is a “way of misapprehension, though this tends to be indeliberate and almost unconscious” (30) or “creative interpretation” as he describes it later (43). Indeed, I may be misapprehending Bloom’s ideas myself, but perhaps producing some benefit in the interpretations I offer. On the next page, Bloom asks, “what is Poetic Influence anyway? Can the study of it really be anything more than the wearisome industry of source-hunting, of allusion counting, an industry that will soon touch apocalypse anyway when it passes from scholars to computers?” (31). Here I think of my own source-hunting with examples of déjà-ku, and I confess to a fascination with it, of connecting the dots, driven by the motive to help haiku poets deal with the occupational hazard of how to deal emotionally with instances of similarity that may at times be uncomfortable, yet to also encourage the celebration of independently created similarities when they occur. But again, what is poetic influence or, more specifically, misprision? It could be mishearing something someone says in the hallway at work, or misinterpreting a poem you read, and letting either experience generate a new poem. Or it could be a more conscious observation of a poem or a phrase and trying to do something different with it, a sort of jazz riff that carries on the same energy but in a new direction. Here Bloom invokes T. S. Eliot, who proclaimed that “the good poet steals, while the poor poet betrays an influence, borrows a voice” (31). The clue here is the method by which one might betray the influence—that is, to give the game away, in some fashion, to let the scaffolding show. Bloom also quotes Emerson, who said “Insist on yourself: never imitate” (31), which I would say speaks more to having a vision that sees beyond or through influences. As Bloom mentions later, “Good poets are powerful striders upon the way back [to origins]—hence their profound joy as elegists—but only a few have opened themselves to vision” (36). Bloom notes that poetic influence is connection yet also discontinuity; “poetry must leap,” he says, “it must locate itself in a discontinuous universe, and it must make that universe (as Blake did) if it cannot find one. Discontinuity is freedom” (39).
“The clinamen or swerve . . . is necessarily the central working concept of the theory of Poetic Influence, for what divides each poet from his Poetic Father (and so saves, by division) is an instance of creative revisionism.” (42)
In practical terms, how then does the haiku poet “swerve” away from prior poetry? Perhaps the method is up to each poet, but once at least given this validation, this invitation, then the opportunity to explore may provide its own answer. Unconscious or accidental swerves are also among the options. Yet we may not be able to prevent ourselves from going down the same road as others. Bloom says that “the recurrence of vision is itself a law governing exceptions” (42). Later, we are presented with the question: “Why is influence . . . more generally an anxiety where strong poets are concerned? Do strong poets gain or lose more, as poets, in their wrestling with their ghostly fathers?” Bloom says, “revisionary ratios that misinterpret or metamorphose precursors help poets to individuate themselves, truly to be themselves” (88). And yet, we may also consider Kandinsky’s thought that “art for art’s sake” is a “vain squandering of artistic power” and extend it to the idea that invention for invention’s sake is also a kind of vanity.
“I propose not another new poetics, but a wholly different practical criticism. Let us give up the failed enterprise of seeking to ‘understand’ any single poem as an entity in itself. Let us pursue instead the quest of learning to read any poem as its poet’s deliberate misinterpretation, as a poet, of a precursor poem or of poetry in general.” (43)
Later, Bloom says “Criticism is the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem” (96). This idea could also be extended to the informed reception of art—including the reading of poems—not just the criticism of it. And yet I don’t think knowing these hidden roads means that the critic (or reader) “understands” the poem. As Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” There’s a different sort of empowerment here. We may typically seek to get the “meaning” a poem, as if that’s how we “understand” it, and assume it’s saying something by itself. But if we see a poem, especially one that’s hard to understand, as a deliberate misinterpretation of some precursor, even if unintentional, what doors might that open for us, for that poem, for haiku, and for poetry in general? What if we see each poem, or at least some poems, as revisionary swerves? I’m not sure I know, but I’m attracted to the mystery, the openness this might entail. Indeed, Bloom says that “the true history of modern poetry would be the accurate recording of these revisionary swerves” (44).
[Quoting Goethe] “‘Do not all the achievements of a poet’s predecessors and contemporaries rightly belong to him [the poet]? Why should he shrink from picking flowers where he finds them? Only by making the riches of others our own do we bring anything great into being.’” (52)
Goethe also said “There is all this talk about originality, but what does it amount to? As soon as we are born the world begins to influence us, and this goes on until we die. And anyway, what can we in fact call our own except the energy, the force, the will!” (52). Bloom responds by saying “what does the anxiety of influence concern but the energy, the force, the will?” He also ponders: “Are they one’s own, or emanations from the other, from the precursor?” (52). We can choose to accept influence, to tame it perhaps, and let it enrich us through the energy and will that we ourselves exert. We can dance on the shoulders of giants.
“The anxiety of influence is so terrible because it is both a kind of separation anxiety and the beginning of a compulsion neurosis. . . . Poems, as criticism has always assured us, must give pleasure. But . . . poems are not given by pleasure, but by the unpleasure of a dangerous situation, the situation of anxiety of which the grief of influence forms so large a part.” (58)
Bloom offers the thought that “art rises from shamanistic ecstasy, and the squalor of our timeless human fear of mortality” (58). He gives a personal motive for his exploration of these topics: “Because my interests are those of the practical critic, seeking a newer and starker way of reading poems, I find this return to origins inescapable, though distasteful” (58–59). Yet through this distaste, this danger, this grief, this neurosis, I believe Bloom also believes that these tensions can energize creative expression—not just personal expression, which is open to anyone, but truly creative expression, even originality, which is open, it would seem, only to those who embrace these tensions. And through it all, the haiku art is one of shamanistic ecstasy, or so it often feels.
“The strong poet . . . is both hero of poetic history and victim of it. This victimization has increased as history proceeds because the anxiety of influence is strongest where poetry is most lyrical, most subjective, and stemming directly from personality.” (62)
With haiku, which so often leans towards the objective, perhaps the anxiety of influence is lessened. Yet I’m not sure I agree that the anxiety is strongest with the lyrical and subjective. Bloom raises the perspective, however, that “in an advanced lyrical poem the spirit is so separated from the sensuous [the five senses] that art is at the point of dissolving into religion” (63). In such a context, then, it would seem that influence rears an uglier head because of the increased impetus to be “original” with one’s poetry. But Bloom says, “no strong poet . . . can accept this Hegelian view” (63). “If he himself is not to be victimized,” Bloom insists, “then the strong poet must ‘rescue’ the beloved Muse from his precursors” (63).
“In the tessera, the later poet provides what his imagination tells him would complete the otherwise ‘truncated’ precursor poem and poet, a ‘completion’ that is as much a misprision as a revisionary swerve is.” (66)
This is a matter, I think, not just of consuming poems but of internalizing them, of interacting with them. Haiku, as what Seisensui called an “unfinished” poem, already demands more interaction from the reader than most other poems (because of how much is left unsaid, and because haiku employs techniques that might not be obvious to the uninformed), but it is still possible to consume haiku in an insufficiently thinking/feeling way. We can enter the poem and feel what the poet felt, see the image and the moment, but we may well go further and ask ourselves how we can expand on the poem—perhaps not each specific haiku, but types of haiku, or poets. This is perhaps akin to the improv actor who responds to any scene by saying “and then?” The hidden agenda of the improv actor, too, is not just improvisation but maybe even improvement.
“Antithetical criticism must begin by denying both tautology and reduction, a denial best delivered by the assertion that the meaning of a poem can only be a poem, but another poem—a poem that is not itself.” (70)
Here I think of Archibald MacLeish, who said “A poem should not mean / But be.” And thus, the meaning of the poem is something else, and perhaps lies in each individual receiver rather than in the poem, the giver. Robert Frost was apparently once asked the meaning of a poem he’d just read, and in response he simply read the poem again. Billy Collins, in his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” says that his students want to tie the poem to a chair and “begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.” So, what is the meaning of a haiku? The poet may have intention, and his or her craft may well prevent misreadings (I do not mean misprisions at this point—that might come later), but here we come to the deliberate unfinishedness of haiku, a state of existence that invites and maybe even requires that the reader enter into each haiku to complete its images, its ideas, and ultimately its emotions. But that meaning is not the haiku—it is something else. Such an understanding may help to validate our self-sufficient interaction with all the books of haiku on our nightstands or coffee tables.
“By ‘poetic influence’ I do not mean the transmission of ideas and images from earlier to later poets. . . . These are fair materials for source-hunters and biographers, and little to do with my concern. Ideas and images belong to discursiveness and to history, and are scarcely unique to poetry. Yet a poet’s stance, his Word, his imaginative identity, his whole being, must be unique to him, and remain unique, or he will perish, as a poet.” (71)
Or, as Hirshfield said, “make it yours.” And note the emphasis here, that poetic influence is not a mere transfer of ideas or images. No one owns experience, as I’ve said before. What we can own is the expression of experience, which is why one cannot copyright an idea, only the expression of an idea. To thine own self be true. Be yourself. Trust your voice, and let that voice arise naturally. We may extend the virtue of one’s stance to one’s vision, and too many haiku poets seem not to grapple with this opportunity, this obligation. Furthermore, as Bloom notes later, “Strong poems that too explicitly re-write precursor poems tend to become poems of conversion, and conversion is not an aesthetic phenomenon” (108). Poetic influence is more than that, having more to do with ecstatic vision and transcendent alteration, it seems to me.
“Critics, in their secret hearts, love continuities, but he who lives with continuity alone cannot be a poet.” (78)
Bloom expands on this thought by saying that “Poetic misprision, historically a health, is individually a sin against continuity, against the only authority that matters, property or the priority of having named something first” (78). “Most of what we call poetry . . . is this questing for fire, that is, for discontinuity” (79). As Bloom says later, “Discontinuity, for poets, is found not so much in spots of time as in moments of space” (86). For haiku poets, then, the challenge may lie in moving beyond the exploration of spots of time, those so-called haiku moments, and to rise (or fall) to other perspectives for haiku poetry.
“Night brings each solitary brooder the apparent recompense of a proper background, even as Death, which they so wrongly dread, properly befriends all strong poets.” (79)
“Continuities start with the dawn,” Bloom proposes, saying that no poet “could afford to heed Nietzsche’s great optimist injunction: ‘Try to live as though it were morning.’” Instead, Bloom says the poet “must try to live as though it were midnight, a suspended midnight” (79). Lorca’s dark joy of duende ripples into view here, making every haiku not just a one-breath poem but a last-breath poem. Later, Bloom gives us the idea that “any poem may be defined as a side-stepping of a possible death” (102), but this does not mean that a strong poet has not befriended death.
“Where it, the precursor’s poem, is there let my poem be; this is the rational formula of every strong poet.” (80)
How might haiku poets apply this thought? Think of classic haiku in Japanese and English. Where does your poem (individually) and your poetry (collectively) fit in? How might your work have a conversation with these precursor poems, and do they exist in the same territory? This predisposes you, of course, to know the literature and to recognize precursor poems of sufficient value. This recognition can be either of the existing haiku canon or freshly from your own point of view, even if idiosyncratic, a stance that may even help to inform the canon. But the central question remains, how does your work fit in with—or flail against—prior work?
“Every poet is a being caught up in a dialectical relationship (transference, repetition, error, communication) with another poet or poets.” (91)
As has been said, poetry is an ongoing conversation. As part of this game, how do haiku poets transfer, repeat, make errors, make corrections (if beneficial), and communicate with other poets? Through our reading and writing, obviously, but less obviously through our social and intellectual interactions with other haiku poets, including those who write very differently from us.
“If to imagine is to misinterpret, which makes all poems antithetical to their precursors, then to imagine after a poet is to learn his own metaphors for his acts of reading.” (93)
Bloom is reframing imagination in his book. It’s a sort of invitation to play, to offer one’s self crazy ideas, to see what sticks to the ceiling when you throw it around, to move away from where other poems have been before—even away from where your own poems have travelled.
“Poetry, despite its publicists, is not a struggle against repression but is itself a kind of repression. Poems rise not so much in response to a present time, as even Rilke thought, but in response to other poems.” (99)
I’m not sure I agree, for surely poems do arise out of response to present time—the formality of Victorian times, world wars of the twentieth century, civil unrest and aesthetic freedom in our current time, whatever the times might offer. But maybe, in addition, they also respond to other poems. Theodore Roosevelt is reported to have said, “I am a part of everything that I have read.” The opposite is surely also true, that what we have read, conscientiously, is part of each of us. Furthermore, as Thom Gunn has said, “A literary influence is never just a literary influence. It’s also an influence in the way you see everything—in the way you feel your life.” Perhaps this is a way to contemplate each poem we read, asking what other poems it might be responding to, even if unknowingly.
“Each poem is an evasion not only of another poem, but also of itself, which is to say that every poem is a misinterpretation of what it might have been.” (120)
Bloom observes that “Though we have idealized Western poetry almost since its origins . . . the writing (and reading) of poems is a sacrificial process, a purgation that drains more than it replenishes,” saying before this that “In the process of poetic misprision, sacrifice diminishes human vitality, for here less is more” (120). What the poem sacrifices, what it evades, is what the poem chooses not to be, the routes it chooses not to take, in seeking at least one chosen or accidental identity—the roads not taken.
“Empedocles held that our psyche at death returned to the fire whence it came. But our daemon, at once our guilt and our ever-potential divinity, came to us not from the fire but from our precursors. The stolen element had to be returned; the daemon was never stolen but inherited.” (139)
We are nearing the end of the strong poet’s life-cycle, dwelling in the last of the six “revisionary ratios”—apophrades, or “the return of the dead.” What is borrowed or stolen must be returned. But the spirit, that which the masters sought, in not returnable, because it is our inheritance. It is, we may assume, to be passed on, as we ourselves received it. But it is not just our achievements that must be surrendered. In addition, Bloom says, “The mighty dead return, but they return in our colors” (141). Bloom notes that “strong poets keep returning from the dead” (140), adding that “How they return is the decisive matter, for if they return intact, then the return impoverishes the later poets, dooming them to be remembered—if at all—as having ended in poverty, in an imaginative need they could not themselves gratify” (141).
“The mystery of poetic style, the exuberance that is beauty in every strong poet, is akin to the mature ego’s delight in its own individuality, which reduces to the mystery of narcissism.” (146)
What are we to make of this, that a poet’s narcissism is to be praised? Or that it cannot be avoided in the poet’s maturation and individuality? I think of E. E. Cummings’ “oneliness.” Is narcissism or perceived arrogance an occupational hazard that arises out of developing an unwavering vision for oneself or one’s work? Is this a price to be paid for having the strongest of poetic visions? Bloom notes that “The strong poet’s love of his poetry, as itself, must exclude the reality of all other poetry, except for what cannot be excluded, the initial identification with the poetry of the precursor” (147). He expands on this idea to say that “every exercise of a revisionary ratio [the six stages of the poet’s life-cycle], away from identification, is the process generally called poetic development” (147).
What conclusion may we come to in all of this? Bloom observes that “the covert subject of most poetry for the last three centuries has been the anxiety of influence, each poet’s fear that no proper work remains for him to perform” (148). As Ecclesiastics tells us, there’s nothing new under the sun—a truism offered two millennia before Bloom’s last three hundred years. Indeed, as Bloom reminds us, “When we open a first volume of verse these days, we listen to hear a distinctive voice, if we can, and if the voice is not already somewhat differentiated from its precursors and its fellows, then we tend to stop listening” (148). So that may be the fate that befalls the poet who does not embrace the anxiety of influence, the opportunity of misprision, and the life-cycle of poetic growth, at least as Bloom is offering it. Only then, it seems, can the poet move beyond anxiety. As Edith Wharton once said, “Another unsettling thing in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before.”
Is there a practical application to these musings? Is the haiku poet’s head just launched into thunderclouds with these ideas, and no longer able to simply write a damn haiku? Perhaps no slight should be made of paying attention, of sensing, of describing, and then of sharing—as Mary Oliver said, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” This is how a haiku makes its way into the world. And it is no great concern, at least beyond basic conscientiousness, to worry much about excess similarities. Such calamities are a negative kind of déjà-ku, but they need not be a concern, especially if the strong haiku poet trusts the image, trusts the self and his or her stance towards the image, and trusts each experience that begets many haiku. But this discussion is not ultimately about each poem on an individual level, but more about the poet, and the poetry, on an aesthetic, conceptual, and developmental level. It’s a discussion, I believe, about the role of vision in one’s haiku, and thus identity, and the responsibility one might choose to accept in realizing that vision.
What we come to, in the end, is the necessity, as Harold Bloom says, that we must, in the words of Antonin Artaud, “Let the dead poets make way for others. Then we might even come to see that it is our veneration for what has already been created . . . that petrifies us” (154). Yet if we embrace the anxiety of influence, in all its agonies, it may cease to petrify but energize. As a result, the rituals of creation may transform from a quest for identity to a finding. Bloom wags a finger and reminds us that “the dead poets will not consent to make way for others.” So, what are we to do? Bloom says, “The precursors flood us, and our imaginations can die by drowning in them, but no imaginative life is possible if such inundation is wholly evaded” (154). Let us therefore not just embrace the anxiety of influence, but drown in it, evading nothing.