Learning from the Masters

By

A style is found by sedentary toil
And by the imitation of great masters.

W.B. Yeats, Ego Dominus Tuus

One of the classes I’m taking this term is a poetry writing course, and it’s been at once one of the most challenging and most delightful things I’ve ever tackled. I’ve learned so much about style and form, and I’ve been required to produce such a quantity of poetry on demand (and publish it in the course forums!), that I’m feeling rather intoxicated on words these days. It might be a stretch to say that I’m dreaming in iambic pentameter, or that my fingertips are calloused from beating out syllables on my desk—but there’s no doubt I’ve written more poetry in the last couple of months than I have in the whole past year.

I’m loving every assignment, but my favorite thus far has been an exercise in learning from the great masters. In much the same way that art students in a classical atelier learn to “see” as painters by the practice of drawing plaster casts, any serious study of poetry is going to involve identifying the masters that have inspired you and practicing the attributes you admire until you are able to reinterpret them in your own unique way. At first, we were asked merely to name our greatest poetic influences, and to elaborate on specifics of style, subject, and form which we admired. Next, we were instructed to choose a favorite poem and draft a piece of our own which attempted to incorporate some of the techniques employed by this master.

The poets I most admire are Keats, Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot, and G. M. Hopkins, and there’s no doubt that I’ve been influenced by them. Wordsworth has fed my reverence for nature, and his high tone and poetic structure is something I’ve always instinctively admired and been drawn to, though I’m only now beginning to fully appreciate just how and why as a result of this course. I love Eliot’s daring; his experiments with form; his bold commentary on life and faith: with them he has given me a framework to help me understand the structure and possibilities of free verse.

However, I would have to say that of all poets, G. M. Hopkins has most influenced both my style and my subject matter over the years. I’ve definitely imitated his alliterative bent; I’ve thought long and hard to come up with metaphors as surprising and creative as his are. He, in fact, is the one who really taught me what a metaphor is, in the truest sense, with his shocking images that at first seemed so disparate to what they were referring to, and then, all at once, were absolutely perfect. I admire, and seek to emulate, the close attention Hopkins paid to the world around him: he was known to take detailed daily notes of weather and nature to hone his descriptive powers, and this is something I need to be more disciplined about as a writer. I’m also challenged by his deep honesty with regards to both sorrow and joy. Both subjects take great courage.

Hopkins has inspired me to find my own voice by expressing his unique one so beautifully, and I think that this is the most profound way I’ve sought to make the values I’ve found in his poetry my own. Shakespeare taught me how to write a sonnet, but Hopkins taught me to love them.

The poem I chose as my source of inspiration was G. M. Hopkins’ exquisite sonnet, Hurrahing in Harvest. It’s written in his characteristic sprung rhythm, and like many of his sonnets, depicts a profound experience in which he celebrates the presence of God “within the world’s splendor and wonder.” The first stanza in “Hurrahing” is purely descriptive, the second more than hints at that presence, and the third expresses his encounter with the Divine in jubilant terms.

My attempt sought to follow this pattern somewhat. But giddy as I was over this experiment, I found it to be the most challenging assignment to date. What came of it in the end was a hard-wrung and highly imperfect draft, within which I learned to admire Hopkins’ genius more than ever. The debt I owe him is enormous, past all my powers of expression. As I was reminded, drawing on the riches of the masters’ experience is not merely imitation: it’s part of an arduous process of finding our own voice.

Autumn-Anthem

Lift, lift up, your molten-maple gladness, trees,
Your ambered arms and age-wracked fingers ringed
With yellow gold! Cerulean sky, your firstborn sapphire sing!—
As down your favor kingly falls on all you see.

Beneath blue hazes, violet-veilèd meadows dream, till seized
With wakeful western fire, upstirring wingèd
Embers from the brume. To Grace in all this glory, rememb’ring
Earth lifts chaliced ‘thorn, decanting praises on the breeze.

Dear dying world, such seasoned glories seem twice fair
As those with which your youth was clothed in April’s mirth.
This death a likeness of that sorrow none could bear
But He; this beauty vouchsafe of that birth
Which follows death. Mark, my soul, such sweetness in the air!
What secrets in decaying leaves and sodden earth!

 

So what about you? Who are your masters? How have their works helped shape your style, subject matter, and vision?

Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.


14 Comments

  1. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I think anyone who knows me well knows my writing is almost crippled by the influence of H. P. Lovecraft and Tolkien—in both style and content. I say “crippled” because I sometimes enjoy the mimicry too much and find that I have to edit my writing back from the brink of indulgence.

    That said, though, I used to fear my influences, worrying that if I leaned on them then I wasn’t being original. But that’s not the case at all. “Original” is a phantom. The older I get, the harder I’m learning to lean, and the more writers I’m learning to include in that list. The result being that all the influence gets stirred around until it congeals and comes out as A. S. Peterson. If someone tastes a dash of Lovecraft in the mix, well then all the better 🙂

  2. Aden S

    Your poem is beautiful! I’ve been raking, literally, thousands of leaves for the last few days, and “Autumn Anthem” has struck me so deeply.

    I would say one author/poet that has really stuck with me, besides all the heroes mentioned here on the RR, is Isaac Watts. His clarity of thought and progression is astounding and it is something I attempt to mimick, though it usually ends in muddy disaster.

    Thank you for your post. It is surely something I will ruminate on while raking a few thousand more leaves over the next couple of days! 🙂

  3. JoeB

    I wish I could say “Tolkien and Lewis” but I find their command of language and the ability to summon image and emotion so masterful and beyond my ability I cringe at the claim of influence but do aspire to them. Poe too, his ability to sneak into your psyche using only words and fan emotions before the reader realizes he is in there. My greatest influence is probably King.. yeah Stephen King. His ability to unfold a story is comfortable reading, like putting on a well worn pair of blue jeans. I’m not so much a fan of some of the unbridled cruelty and meanness of some of his characters but I am of the ability to write stuff that is so easy to read it’s almost like watching a movie. I probably mimic his style the most, at least attempt to.

    I would love to try some of those exercises with Poe. Beautiful poem Lanier!

  4. Alyssa K.

    I’ve read this post twice, and I might as well admit that I plan to read it again. Thank you Lanier, I needed this.
    As a young painter, there is so much I need to learn from the masters. Perhaps the most influential to me have been Gustave Dore, with his incredible attention to detail; Beatrix Potter, who combines science and childhood so beautifully; Rembrandt, who teaches me the value of every person’s face; then finally Van Gogh, his paintings seem to dare me to do the unexpected. They all make me look at the world differently. Again, thank you so much Lanier for sharing!

  5. Laure Hittle

    This is a great question, and one i find is harder to answer than i expected. It’s easy to name writers who have ignited my imagination, whose words have sunk into my soul. But how have they influenced my imagination? And more, how have they influenced my style? i am not even sure that my style is consistent enough to identify consistent influences. i am also a chameleon who enjoys conscious mimicry.

    At the moment, the influences that i can most readily identify are Joss Whedon and Matt Slocum. i don’t write either screenplays or lyrics, but the aesthetics of snarky dialogue and melancholy introspection are certainly there. Lewis has to be in there somehow—goodness knows i’ve lived in his books. But how is he visible? i must gloan upon this ere we speak again.

    (This year’s annual award for throughly crippling my writing is Thaddeus Glapp.)

    Joe! 🙂 i haven’t even read anything of yours (yet?), but after hearing you talk about your story, King makes perfect sense. What you were describing to me does sound like his storytelling.

  6. Erica C.

    In the wake of a low-key challenge “just write” in November, I shared this post with a few friends yesterday. It also turned out to be the day of the passing of a wonderful and beloved professor from our undergrad year; she was a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of our masters. http://www.roanoke.com/news/virginia/chatham-s-literary-luminary-va-poet-laureate-claudia-emerson-dies/article_0ac25adf-e31b-5645-818c-f0d55b3ad9ca.html

    Her poetry is worth exploring and enjoying: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/claudia-emerson

    There is melancholy in our hearts at the thought of the absence of new creative expressions or the availability of Claudia’s kind instruction and mentorship to future students. May the clear tones of her work and influence ring on.

  7. Lisa

    Great food for thought, Lanier. I am struggling to answer your question, though, I find my self agreeing with Laurie. I’m not exactly sure what my”style”is, it seems too lofty a word for my fumbling prose. The list of authors who inspire me is long, I’m sure all of them influence me in ways large and small.

  8. David Mitchel

    @

    Beautiful post and terrific questions, Lanier.

    My first master was Tolkien; he performed for me the imagination-baptism that MacDonald performed for Lewis.

    Lewis was my second master. By example he taught me how to argue (use vivid word-pictures), and also how to evaluate arguments.

    My third masters — for they worked on me in similar ways — were St. John the Evangelist and George MacDonald. They showed me the art of the simple but unfathomably deep statement. Not that my writing shows much of their influence, but when I need someone to rouse me, to correct my field of vision, their profound simplicities always help me. 1 S John 1:1-4, in particular, has pulled me back from the brink of self-destruction several times.

    Finally, the master before me, the one I aspire to be like, is St. Luke, who ever hides his diverse excellencies in plain sight. Historian, physician, expert in law, and always an artist walking in wonder.

  9. Laure Hittle

    i have lately gloaned and shortly thereafter relished, and i am still not sure where my style(s) came from, but i can identify another influence in terms of my imagination: George MacDonald. i was at most seven when i first read his Curdie books, and they and his Double Tale have sunk deeply into my soul. In particular, what is working on my imagination now is the way he uses female wisdom figures. That is actually a place of intersection between his writing and Matt Slocum’s—Sixpence’s Sister Wisdom suite on their self-titled album has also been working on me for years. i blame finals for the fact that i didn’t think of this immediately; Lady Wisdom and her manifestations in these two writers have had a defining effect on my own writing.

    Lucy Maud Montgomery is another huge influence. Her influence goes well beyond my writing to the way i live into the world. She taught me beauty and wonder—and not only to recognize it; it was Anne who began to teach me to say it. i’m still learning.

  10. aimee

    Playwrights who inspire you?

    About a year ago someone asked me who my favorite playwrights were and to my chagrin, I couldn’t think of any. A year later, I’m still without an answer.

    I had great teachers who gave me Shaw, Tennessee Williams, Chekhov, Stoppard, Sam Shepard, Arthur Miller and many others and I’ve been reading back through all of them this year but even though I appreciate them, I don’t LOVE them. Not like I do Lewis, L’engle, Tolkein, or DiCamillo. So I continue to wonder what master playwrights I would like to emulate in my script writing.

    Shakespeare, of course, will forever be inspiring with his big themes and spot on language, so of course I’ll keep reading him.

    But, ahem, beyond Shakespeare? Anyone?

  11. David

    Aimee: Hmm . . . Dorothy Sayers. T.S. Eliot (I’m not a big fan, but I always think that’s my fault more than his). I’ve learned much from Mary Chase’s peaks, especially her wonderful rabbity play Harvey. Wodehouse. GKC. The book of Job.

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