Poetry Ancestry

Last week I went to see three grande dames of literature at Arizona State University: Joy Harjo, Rita Dove, and Sandra Cisneros, hosted by Natalie Diaz. These are writers whose works I taught to college students for years, but this was the first opportunity I had to hear them talk in person. They were seated on stage in a conversation area–a couch and armchairs. What I hadn’t realized was that they are all graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has long been considered to be the top place to earn an MFA in writing. These women all know each other–and Harjo and Cisneros were friends in grad school. I felt I was eavesdropping on their conversation with each other.

Since these women are all poets, but have published prose as well, I was fascinated to hear what they had to say. Their voices come from disenfranchised groups–Harjo is Native (Muskogee Creek), Cisneros Chicana, and Dove African American–so it’s important to listen carefully and sympathetically in order to hear things from a variety of perspectives. They were also talking about timing, and how timing was very helpful to them in achieving the level of success they have had. You can look them up if you want the deets. In fact, Dove mentioned that when she was a grad student she didn’t know the work of a lot of poets who were mentioned in her classes. She would surreptitiously write down the names so she could find them in the library and read their work. In that way, she was partially self-taught.

I’m leading up to something here.

Of all the wonderful ancedotes and tips I heard that Saturday afternoon, the one that stood out the most to me is one from Harjo. She said she teaches a course about poetry ancestry. It’s studying the genealogy of your poetry writing. You look at the poets who most influenced your own writing. Then you see who influenced them. And go back as far as you can, studying the work that turns up in your research!

I wanted to see where I could go with this, but it will take time. I’ll just start by mentioning some of my poetic influences. Keep in mind this is NOT an exhaustive list by any means.

  • Sylvia Plath: there is no doubt that I found her big mouth and aggressive imagery very liberating
  • Emily Dickinson: her spare and sometimes wry writing appeals to me, but the downside is she keeps herself out of most of her poems, and that is too convenient for me
  • A. R. Ammons: I so admire his oneness with nature and spirit and his very smart use of language
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins: his spirituality and fresh imagery speak to my heart
  • Linda Hogan: like Ammons, her oneness with nature and spirit inspires me
  • Adrienne Rich: she broke the ice at the top of the ocean she dove into in Diving into the Wreck
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay: maybe the first poem not written for children that captivated me was Millay’s “Renascence.” When I was a kid, I took an LP record out of the library and listened to her read it over and over and over and over and over again.
  • classic children’s poetry of the 20th century, as well as nursery rhymes: these are what first instilled a love for poetry

Do you notice anything about my little list? Lots of women, not too much diversity (except Hogan who is Native and Rich, a Jewish lesbian). But what else? The poems I read that first inspired my writing were written mainly before 1980 all the way back to Dickinson who was writing before and during the Civil War! Of course, I’ve read a lot of contemporary poetry over the years, but poets who first influenced me were not my contemporaries or even those just a little ahead of me. They were considered masters when I read them, except for maybe Hogan.

I’m thinking I need another list of poets whose works next influenced me–people writing after the poets listed above. That might then offer more of a platform for the “family research.”

Do you know who your first influences were for your own writing? Have the type of influences changed over time? For instance, if blogging is your main writing format, who were your first influences?











Filed under #writerlife, #writerslife, History, Inspiration, Poetry, Reading, Writing, Writing Talk

49 responses to “Poetry Ancestry

  1. This is a really intriguing question, and I look forward to unspooling this thread. Thanks, Luanne–and I’m jealous of your time with three wonderful writers!

  2. Sounds like this was a wonderful event to attend, especially for you as a poet. I suppose my very first influence as a writer was Stephen King. He drew me so deep into his world that it made me want to be a storyteller. Not necessarily a literary writer, but a storyteller. Of course, there are many other writers out there who have influenced me since, but he was the earliest.

  3. My early inspirations were Michener (I loved the way he developed a character — and my mother didn’t know I was reading him at age 13!) and Erma Bombeck (I could always relate and I’m a humor writer). There were many, many others. Some authors I don’t remember but with every good read I pick up something.

    • I was thinking about Michener when I was thinking about books I read from a young age that really inspired me. I read many of his books when I was in high school. My favorite class was one where we just read novels (I always read Michener or Vonnegut) and got credit for the # of books we read. Woohoo. They need to do that today. Make kids sit butt in chair, reading. So my favorite Michener, hands down, was The Source. I loved it. And I always imagined I was the girl who tamed the first domesticated dog.

  4. A fascinating follow up to what must have been an exciting afternoon for you. It was the late Fr, John Harriott who introduced me to Fr, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Before submitting this comment, I checked Fr. John’s spelling on Google, and, blow me, this was the first entry on the page: https://derrickjknight.com/2014/11/27/teenage-creativity/

    • What a coincidence! Hopkins is really at the top. The top of the top. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love his poetry once they are introduced to it!

  5. Loved your in-depth reporting, Luanne. You gave us enough detail to feel we also were eavesdropping. Edifying and inspiring!

  6. It sounds as though you were in your element at this event, Luanne. My earliest influencer was Laura Ingalls Wilder, then so many more followed.

    • I felt like I was back in the saddle ;)! What female writers today WEREN’T influenced by Laura Ingalls Wilder?! I kept searching for more books after I was done reading them all ;). So I had to start over, reading them in order the second time around.

    • Isn’t Nellie Oleson the model for every mean girl written since?

  7. i saw Joy Harjo’s name in the first paragraph and had to continue writing. as an indigenous poet i have a growing collection of indigenous writers, and Joy Harjo was one of my first inspirations. other early influences are Leslie Marmon Silko and Marilyn Dumont. since then the list has grown immensely. there’s so many indigenous writers now. it’s stupendous!

  8. What a fascinating talk to attend, and what a fascinating topic to pursue.
    Gosh, I honestly don’t know who has influenced me. Something I will have to think about.

  9. In grad school, I had to make a list of literary works that influenced my writing, and I figured that I was expected to list a lot of Pulitzer Prize winners. But that just wouldn’t have been true. I had strange bedfellows like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Hardy Boys, and “Fancies and Goodnights.” Did these works influence me, or did they just make a strong impression? I donno. Anyway, I like the idea of finding my influences influences….if it’s not too much work.

  10. Luanne, what a great way to spend an evening. I somehow missed this event. I had the privilege of listening to Sandra Cisneros years ago in Texas. I am certain these three poets had so much to share. Glad you attended.

    • That must have been wonderful! She’s so unassuming, isn’t she?! So cool when she talked about her first thinking about a “house” and its meaning before she ever started The House on Mango Street!

  11. What a fascinating blog Luanne, and what trains of thought you set up…I need to do a lot of mnid-searching ,,, but the first writing that blew my mind was George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss when I was ten… it moved me so powerfully that I thought my heart would burst, and did’nt know how to cope with the feelings it aroused in me…
    and now… a real sit down to search the past and the poets !!!

    • I think I’ve read all of Eliot except Adam Bede. Silas Marner was infamous in my house when I grew up. My father always said being forced to read it as a kid turned him off reading. I couldn’t understand as I loved it (and I read it on my own). But Daniel Deronda is my favorite, not because it was the best, but because it was unique. Keep us posted on what you come up with, Valerie!

  12. I get the Erma Bombeck similarity a lot. I can remember the first piece I read of hers, it was about trying to sell her house while living in it, with all her kids, and real life. I was in high school at the time, but I’ll never forget it.(I was never young, I swear.) In time I came to realize that while I want to write beautiful prose or use striking language, my natural voice is one of storytelling from the kitchen table. I’d also add that Mary Karr is my idol for memoir.

  13. Luanne! First, congratulations on being at this very special event with Joy Harjo, Sandra Cisneros, and Rita Dove. I’m so envious! I’d love to hear Rita Dove speak – I’ve got her Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry that I dive into now and then for inspiration, which she edited – and one of Harjo’s poems is a favorite (in that volume) – “She Had Some Horses.” I’ve read Cisneros’s _House on Mango Street_, which was interesting. Kudos!

    I love the idea of tracing back one’s writing genealogy this way; some years back there was a writing workshop in our MFA program encouraging us to do this with prose or whatever we wrote. Often in prose you get back to the Bible, Shakespeare, Homer, etc., eventually. Good to know!

    Some of my inspiring poets, if I may list them? – W. S. Merwin, Robert Frost and Carl Sandberg, Langston Hughes, Shel Silverstein, Maya Angelou, William Carlos Williams, and I like Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov & Maxine Kumin, Gary Snyder & Lucille Clifton, Leslie Marmon Silko. I try to get acquainted with a mix of male/female, white/of color, older/contemporary, etc. A lot of these poets I’ve met through the Poetry Foundation’s “Poem A Day,” where I click over to their biographies and see what their lives were like. 🙂

    Wonderful post!

    • I love that you have Muriel Rukeyser on your list, too. I don’t even know why I didn’t put her on my list since one of my dissertation chapters was devoted to her!!!! So the assignment you had is essentially the same assignment that Harjo was talking about–except it was for prose instead of poetry. Very very cool. Yes, back to Shakespeare, except that wasn’t prose hahaha. Nor was Homer. Poets both. Shows you that poetry is a basic building block of good writing :). Thanks, Theresa!!! Hope your holidays are merry and bright bright bright!

      • Ah, you are totally right, poets both (Shakespeare and Homer). Ah, the lost art of the looooong epic poem. Something to keep in mind! Hope your holidays are wonderful, Luanne!

  14. This post is wonderful, Luanne. As you can tell, I have been so occupied with the jewelry business that I haven’t yet caught up on all my blog reading, as I am prepping to revive it. As for blogging, you are my first influence! After that, your blogger friends are my influences! Thanks to all of you. I love the idea of making such a list, and yours has a few that mine would have (Dickinson and Plath mainly). I will look forward to working on that. Just yesterday, (on the train), I was reading Harjo’s poem, “This Morning I Pray for my Enemies.” Love her poetic voice. Must have been a great live panel with all three of these poets there.

    • Carla, you would have LOVED being there. That is the sort of thing I miss from grad school (haha, other than you and a few others, that is about it). I feel as if I had a dream about Plath recently, but can’t recall it. Drats.

  15. Ha ha! 🙂 I am hoping to attend UCR’s Writer’s Week this year to hear some of the panels. We’ll see if I can free myself from the usual busyness!

  16. How exciting to have your favorites right on stage chatting and letting you know a “confirmation” (of sorts) of searching into ancestry can lead you into topics far and wide. 💞
    I liked Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, the humor in Canterbury Tales, the gallantry of the Ilead and the long journey in The Odyssey. I also loved my poetry anthology including Lewis Carroll and Christina Rosetti. My Mom recited to us “The Ride of Paul Revere,” “Up on a Swing” by Robert Louis Stephenson and others. . .
    I am like you, looking at mainly a list of pre-1980’s! Hugs, Robin

Leave a Reply