Anxiety of Influence

You may have heard of the poet Patricia Lockwood. Her poem Rape Joke made quite a stir in 2013, and her recent book, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals was reviewed widely (see, for example, The New York Times, Slate, and The Rumpus, and, for commentary on the discomfort of male reviewers of the book, The Toast). Over 50,000 people follow her on Twitter @TriciaLockwood.

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By Leanna Petronella

She’s one of the scrappy up-and-comers in the contemporary poetry world, and while “Rape Joke” has deservedly garnered much attention as a cornerstone of her book, there’s another poem in there that keeps blowing my mind for its wildly irreverent, wildly thoughtful treatment of literary ancestry. This poem is “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics.” In this long poem, Lockwood declares Walt Whitman is the “mother” of American poetry and Emily Dickinson is the “father.” She turns the question of influence on its head with her gender-bending, hilarious, oddly touching reverie on narcissism, writing, and American poetry.

Every writer struggles with what Harold Bloom termed the Anxiety of Influence. We wonder if we stray too far away from literary traditions or if we stagnate within them. The brains of other writers sit on our shoulders like slimy, lumpy, terrifying birds. Lockwood’s poem uses the outrageous metaphor of “tit-pics” to mull over the impact of the two biggest icons of American poetry. The poem begins with Emily and Walt (the poem uses a first-name basis, so I will, too) having returned from the dead for a day. They climb out of their graves and their first act is to exchange tit-pics with each other. Then Lockwood says,

When you want to say a poet is mysterious, say, “Very few tit-pics of him exist,” or “Reading his letters and journals, we are able to piece together a pic of his tits—they loved butter and radishes and were devoted to his sister.”

Here, “tit-pics” act as a metaphor for some private internal secret that is the “key” to Emily and Walt’s poetry. The phrase suggests that our hunt of this key, or our exposure of it, is unseemly. In terms of literary influence, this excerpt implies that our relationship with those who came before us is prurient and inappropriate. We want too much from them. We need to stop acting as paparazzi to their souls.

Lockwood builds on the tit-pic metaphor when she turns her camera towards the speaker. She says,

I admit that I brought them back from the dead because I was standing in front of the mirror taking picture after picture of my tits in order to establish once and for all time what a tit actually looks like, since according to the dictionary lots of things can be a tit, even including a bird and an idiot.

Now the tits seem to represent poems and poem making: the speaker wanted pictures of the poets’ tits (their poems!) so that she can make her own best tit-picture (her poem!). This ridiculous metaphor refuses to be only ridiculous, though—it’s trying to tell us something about how writers use writers, and how that use is fraught.

The poem gets even stranger when Lockwood reverses Emily and Walt’s genders. She turns Whitman into quite the exhibitionist with,

Walt Whitman with a bra on his head, which is keeping his thoughts from being totally bare. The bra is too small and the bra is made of lace and his friends are saying, “Walt you are falling OUT” and “Wow Walt you are giving everyone a show” and “Why are you giving away the cow for free when I only wanted to hear the moo.”

Are the poems still tits? In that case, is this a form/content dichotomy, in which tits equal content and form, as the scrap that’s barely restraining the breasts, is the bra? Whitman’s lines are long and meandering, so is Lockwood slyly insinuating that his form is minimal? Lockwood spends a long time lovingly details Whitman’s breasts, declaring,

 I mean he’s had two hundred years to develop them.

 Perhaps that’s why breasts have gotten bigger, because American poetry is accumulating in our lungs and has to push its way out somehow.

Lockwood is insisting that we view American poetry through the lens (fatty tissue?) of the breast, and yet that comment about lungs rescues the image from total silliness: breath gathers in our lungs. Breath is part of speaking. We have so much breath in our lungs, so much American poetry, that it is desperate to get out.

Tit-pics as anxiety of influence, tit-pics as narcissism, tit-pics as American poetry—Lockwood keeps turning and turning her metaphor-wheel. I find the metaphor to be quite gutsy. While some critics might brush it off as reveling in shock value, I think it’s building towards an argument about how we use our literary heritage (a boob-bard thesis, if you will). I’d argue that Lockwood actually uses these two primary figures in American poetry to do something not particularly related to these poets. She’s using them, but not in imitation: she’s creating her own idiosyncratic argument about influence.

The poem ends with Walt and Emily dying again. They are once more inside the grave. Lockwood says,

Above them floating their tit-pics.

And floating above their tit-pics our eyes.

If the tit-pics are, in some sense, Emily and Walt’s own self-reflection (the metaphor wheel still spins!), then our eyes gaze at their introspection. It’s a pretty apt encapsulation of what many writers (perhaps especially poets) do with the Keats and Bishops of their pasts: they stare obsessively at others’ words, which are allegedly mirrors to the soul.

Is that what writers do with other writers? What’s the problem with having a relationship with these foremothers and fathers, any way? It seems easy enough to see the problem in zealous imitation. At the very least, this produces unoriginal work; at the very worst, plagiarized. Yet don’t most creative writing teachers assign imitation exercises? At what point do these exercises stop being generative? I wonder, too, how the market plays into this. As a poet, I find that many literary journals seem to publish the same kind of poetry, in the same kind of style, with the same kind of content. If the same kind of poem appears everywhere, it means this poem is getting published. A poet who wants to make a living off their poetry (read: residing in academia) needs to have published a book, and, often, in order to publish a book, needs to have a healthy number of published poems. I don’t know any poet who consciously writes to the Fad Poem, but does it seep into us unconsciously?

These, in my mind, are some of the dangers and issues of investing in a reading relationship with current and past poets. What about the other way around? Can a writer have too shallow a relationship with authors of yesteryear? I always recommend Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell to my beginning poetry students who write in a Confessional vein. But why do I do this? I suppose I assume it’s wise for a poet to be familiar with their ancestors, but to what ends? So they don’t repeat what’s been done before? In other words, do I want my students to familiarize themselves with similar styles and subject matters in order to depart from them? Maybe. Or maybe I want them to join the voices, to riff off of past members of the school. That kind of riffing, though, would only be evident to a very select group of well-read readers. By cultivating a relationship with our literary ancestors, do we risk insular, elite readership?

At the same time, if we don’t cultivate that relationship, it seems like we risk sounding ignorant. Perhaps we lose out on inspiration. Ultimately, perhaps influence, or even cross-pollination, is simply inevitable. While I didn’t find Lockwood’s poem to be in the vein of Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, I did wonder about John Donne. Lockwood’s poem essentially turns on an extended metaphor, known otherwise as a conceit. The metaphysical British poet John Donne was known for wacky conceit-driven poems such as “The Flea,” which uses a flea as a metaphor for sexual intercourse. To me, a flea representing sex is no stranger than a tit-pic representing American poetry. Does it matter that Lockwood’s conceit recalls Donne’s? If so, in what way? Perhaps I feel like I understand the poem better. Clearly, it makes me begin to invent a sequence of literary heritage. I know that in my own poetry, I find it useful when others see echoes of certain poets, as it helps me frame myself to myself. It gives me a reflection that is not overwhelming, a small pool of poets that I can try to swim around in. Perhaps knowing who your influences are is as much as knowing who they aren’t. To make my own (terrible!) metaphor, in a vast sea of porn (contemporary poetry!), it helps to know which tit-pic is actually going to turn you on.