Crafty Green Poet tagged me with an Influential Writers meme. I’m not sure that I could name 25 writers who have influenced me, but let’s start with the question of what exactly influence means. Almost all beginning writers, consciously or unconsciously, imitate writers they admire. This was probably true in my case, but since none of my very early writing survives I find it hard to be certain – I’m talking nearly 50 years here. As a writer matures, an individual voice emerges, and it becomes harder and harder to identify specific influences. And there are several different types of influence – stylistic, choice of subject matter, underlying philosophy usw.
So all I can do is list some influences that occur to me:
1. John Coltrane. Although I played alto rather than tenor, I can recall several phases of Coltrane that impressed me, from his ‘sheets of sound’ technique with his 1957 quartet, through his fantastic work with the Miles Davis Quintet (listen to So What or Freddie Freeloader) to his soprano sax playing on Africa/Brass. That made the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I first heard it.
2. Thelonious Monk. I never played piano, but Monk’s spiky melodic sense and rhythmic pulse are things I still love today.
I’ve included these two great jazz musicians as an illustration of Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’. I could have become either a musician or a writer, and I chose writing, but I still love listening to the music.
3. T S Eliot. I’m almost certain I imitated his style back in 1962 or thereabouts. I wouldn’t do it now. I loved ‘Gerontion’ more than The Waste Land, about which I’m now more ambivalent. Much of it is pretentious nonsense. I like Four Quartets though.
4. Norman MacCaig, for two things: his awowal of the importance of communication in poetry, and his choice of subjects. It’s not easy to say complex things in a way that people can understand, without over-simplifying or dumbing down, but MacCaig succeeded, and in my own lesser way, I try too. His love of nature is something I share, as also his love of humanity, and his awe in landscape. And Assynt is a shared love too.
5. James Joyce. I took Ulysses to the Auvergne as a holiday read, and finished it very quickly. Finnegan’s Wake took me a bit longer. Wouldn’t dream of writing like him.
6. Samuel Beckett. I like the novels – especially Murphy, and Molloy – but Waiting for Godot was a revelation. I first heard it as a radio play, and hearing the final stage direction – “They do not move” – stunned me. I’ve seen several productions, and I’m constantly inspired by its humour as well as by its darkness.
7. Dylan Thomas. I love the sonority of his lines. My favourite poem of his is ‘Over Sir John’s Hill.’ I also loved Under Milk Wood when I heard it on radio.
8. Günter Grass. The Tin Drum is one of my all time favourite novels.
9. Brother Antoninus (William Everson). I encountered his poetry in 1961. I was enthralled by the richness of his lanbguage, and the depth of his spiritual response to nature. He saw nature as a reflection of the majesty of God’s creation, whereas my Buddhist response is simply a recognition of the wonder of existence – creation doesn’t come into it. Our philosophical differences don’t matter, however. Our responses are equally authentic.
10. Bits of the Beats. Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues has moments of off-the-wall genius; Ginsberg’s Howl is powerful, and Corso’s lyricism pushes my buttons.
11. Basho and other haiku masters. Although my own haiku style is probably closer to Shiki’s than to Basho, I love reading him.
12. Hiroshige. Japanese woodblock prints of the 19th century are a particular influence on my artistic taste. A print by his son-in-law, confusingly called Hiroshige II, is on the cover of Sushi & Chips.
13. Einojuhani Rautavaara. His Cantus Arcticus interweaves a spare and beautiful music with recordings of migrating Arctic birds. It epitomises ‘North’ for me, and I’m more attracted to that compass point than to the softer South.
14. Ian Gass. Ian was the first professor of Earth Sciences at the Open University. I was one of the first OU students and first graduates, and it enabled me to move from a public library career to scientific librarianship, specifically in 1973 to the British Geological Survey. My geological studies gave me an eye for landscape informed by a knowledge of underlying processes, and that illuminates some of my poetry.
15 Gary Snyder. One of the 1956 San Francisco poetry revival, and sometimes associated with the Beats. His poetic response to nature is the Zen equivalent of Brother Antoninus. It’s not an either/or situation though. I like both.
16. John Updike. I include him for the silkiness of his prose style, and for the example of how writing about sex needn’t make it prurient or smutty.
17. William Dunbar. He probably took his name from his home town, now my adopted home. He was certainly associated with the family who lived at Biel, near Belhaven. His poetry is varied, lively and inspirational.
I think I’ll leave it there. There are many other possibles – Wallace Stevens, Chinese landscape poets – but I have other things to do today, “And miles to go before I sleep.”