Writers who shaped the consciousnesses, and influenced the styles, of Scholars and Rogues.
The most influential writer and book of my life didn’t influence my writing style one bit (thank God!), but he and his book changed completely changed my life. Most deeply rural, Southern kids back in the day were exposed to no ideas outside the generally accepted ones of their fiercely insular society. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land was my first look at American social institutions and mores from outside the mainstream, and it instilled in me a voracious appetite for moving my frame of reference outside the superego to get a wider, and extremely useful, perspective.
Tolkien, Twain, Thompson. That is all.
This is a tough one for me. As a prose writer I’ve read and absorbed so much that I’d be hard put to name influences, although I could give you a list as long as my arm of those I admire (Twain, for instance, who I revere for his relentless verve, and Hawthorne for way he manages the rivers of torment surging through his soul).
On the poetry side it’s a little easier. We could talk about any number of writers, but when it boils down to influence there a mainly four names to consider: T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas, and Charles Wright.
Each works in different ways. Wright is the only contemporary in the pack, and I was mightily influenced by how powerfully his poetry works at an intuitive level. Even when I’m not able to follow the overt narratives, it’s exactly as one of my former classmates put it: “I don’t know what it means, but I feel something.” Of course, meaning isn’t limited to the bounds of the rational. We live in an anti-intellectual culture where unenlightened emotion is routinely allowed to substitute for thought, but when pursued properly — as with Wright — the intuitive takes you beyond the rational, adding dimension upon dimension to how we can perceive our world.
His formal style was also very important for me — the way he breaks lines halfway, and allows his words to cascade down the center of the page, for instance, opens up my verse and gives it room to breathe.
Next, Dylan Thomas. I have, unless my grandmother lied to me, a smattering of Welsh in me, so maybe that’s why the music in Thomas’s words seems to affect me in ways I can’t quite grasp. For him, words were nothing short of the components of magic, and with them he transformed what looked mundane to most into something transcendent. I have tried desperately to emulate this style, and regret that I’ve had not much success.
Then there’s Yeats, who’s certainly the greatest poet in the history of the English language and quite possibly in any language. (Of course, I’m not fluent in most languages, so I can’t really say for sure, can I?) Words bow down before Yeats and worship him. They accede to his will. They do the most remarkable things, but the most remarkable thing of all is that it is all accomplished so effortlessly. Yeats shapes language in ways I have tried to mimic, and I’ve decided that it’s like watching Tiger Woods play golf: he makes the impossible, the sublime, look so easy that it’s maddening when we can’t do it ourselves.
As a result of this, I’ve come to view Yeats as someone I admire instead of someone who has influenced me. After all, if I can’t do it, if I can’t point to moments where that inspiration shines through in my own work, how have I really been influenced?
But something odd happens occasionally, as it did when I was seeking feedback on my last book. A couple people remarked at the obvious Yeats influence. I have no idea what they saw or where, but in my entire life as a writer I’ve never heard greater praise.
Finally, Eliot, who I think has had a very obvious and lasting influence on my writing. I began imitating his style the first time I read “The Waste Land,” I think, and while I’m hardly the master he was, my own work has been well served by lessons he taught me about voice. With Eliot, sometimes it’s like walking through a crowded market and recording the words you hear, regardless of who’s speaking them. Voices trail off and are replaced by others, entirely disconnected, in mid-thought, and the result is a cultural melange, a pastiche that somehow crafts a penetrating picture of the whole out of a few disconnected individual snippets.
I think Eliot also taught me that it’s okay to loosen the reins and let the darkness and despair have its head. As a result of his influence I’m comfortable abandoning preconceptions and letting the poem lead me where it wants to go. Few lessons in my life have been more valuable than that one.