The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (ISBN 0-19-511221-0) is a book by Harold Bloom, published in 1973. It was the first in a series of books that advanced a new "revisionary" or antithetical approach to literary criticism.
Bloom's central thesis is that poets are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they necessarily maintained with precursor poets. While admitting the influence of extraliterary experience on every poet, he argues that "the poet in a poet" is inspired to write by reading another poet's poetry and will tend to produce work that is derivative of existing poetry, and, therefore, weak. Because a poet must forge an original poetic vision in order to guarantee his survival into posterity (i.e., to guarantee that future readers will not allow him to be forgotten), the influence of precursor poets inspires a sense of anxiety in living poets.
Thus Bloom attempts to work out the process by which the small minority of 'strong' poets manage to create original work in spite of the pressure of influence. Such an agon, he asserts, depends on six revisionary ratios, which reflect Freudian defense mechanisms and the tropes of classical rhetoric. Later books, especially Kabbalah and Criticism and A Map of Misreading connect each ratio to the Kabbalah.
Prior to writing this book, Bloom spent a decade studying the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. This is reflected in the emphasis given to those poets and their struggle with the influence of John Milton. Other poets analyzed range from Lucretius and Dante to Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery.
In The Anxiety of Influence and other early books, Bloom claimed that influence was particularly important for post-enlightenment poets. Conversely, he suggested that influence was not as much of a problem for such poets as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. He since has changed his mind, and the most recent editions of The Anxiety of Influence include a preface claiming that Shakespeare was troubled early in his career by the influence of Christopher Marlowe.
The book itself is divided into six major categories, called "six revisionary ratios" by Bloom. They are: clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis, and apophrades.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
The Uses of Influence
Is "influence" of a direct kind from the work of an admired writer a good or bad thing? Something to embrace or avoid?
With all the usual qualifications, it is a good thing, to be sure. Michael Moorcock has suggested that as an exercise writers should compose an entire novel based on the style of another author; I think Moorcock had Joseph Conrad in mind when he made this suggestion. While I wouldn't go so far as to copy a style in this way--I am happy enough playing with my own voice--the suggestion can lead to some interesting places.
Tally-Ho, Cornelius! might fit in this category of exercise, although the major "influence" I am working with in this novel isn't actually Moorcock, whose Jerry Cornelius and Second Ether provided much inspiration, as well as patterns that I could "invert" (itself a technique to be found in the JC material).
Considering the feel, the sensibility and the politics of Tally-Ho, Cornelius!, I trace the most significant influence to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who I would assert is our greatest American author, for the depth and breadth of his perspective, the sureness of his scholarship, and also for the way, amongst all of my country's authors, he brings together aspirations, theology and a political understanding that can be uniquely styled "American." He is the American Homer, Aeschylus and Aristophanes rolled into one.
Harold Bloom has written a book on the subject of influence. Although I often disagree with Bloom in the details, on the large scale his ideas are always interesting and serve as good points of departure for rewarding speculation.
Here's the Wiki article on his thesis: