One of the usual defenses of reading widely in the Western tradition (or, say, in 20th century poetry) is that it improves your writing—that it’s the legwork necessary for the great flights. Being well-versed, and widely conversant, with the literature of the past is a crucial part of a writer’s education.
How false this idea is, the Western tradition itself teaches us. The truth of the matter is that the dead white males of Western literature frequently operated in ignorance of their predecessors. There’s a striking historical ignorance of Western literature on the part of Western literature’s shining lights. What I mean is: Shakespeare, according to most scholars, never read Homer or a single Greek tragedian, in translation or the original. Likewise Dante, who knew many of the famous Greek poets he placed in Limbo entirely through reputation. He had read Virgil, not Homer; Statius’s Thebaid, not Sophocles’s Theban cycle.
Even when language or manuscript availability wasn’t a problem, poets routinely throw out entire sections of the poetic tradition that precedes them. English poetry’s “founding father” Geoffrey Chaucer broke with centuries’ worth of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse and adopted French methods of versification, like rime royal. This would be paralleled, centuries later, by T. S. Eliot’s (partial) repudiation of 19th century English verse technique and his embrace of the vers libre of the French poet Laforgue.
In fact, terrible as this feels to point out, we have clear instances where reading the past too reverently has actually hindered or ruined a poet. Too much in-depth reading of ancient drama seems to have ruined Ben Jonson for the Elizabethan stage; his comic instincts, which were considerable, were constantly tripped up by his yearning to follow a Latin model. Shakespeare, with his “little Latin and less Greek,” neither knew nor cared what was funny in Rome in the 1st century B.C. Shakespeare’s verse plays in turn stunt the efforts of Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson in the same genre. John Milton is so well-read that he has become, over time, increasingly unreadable: This is our fault as a readership, yes—but it’s also his as a writer. By basing a near-majority of his effects on an interplay with ancient literatures and foreign languages, he was hitching his wagon to a star that was waning even then. Today that star is nearly burned out.
So is this a defense of willful ignorance? That’s one way of phrasing it, I suppose. It would be more accurate to say I’m describing a phenomenon that was originally described by Emily Dickinson:
The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—
Some doors are shut to poets because of historical circumstances (like the absence of ancient Greek manuscripts in 13th-century Tuscany). But poets shut doors on their own, anyway, excluding by creative aversion what they have no use for. You could hand a poet like Kay Ryan a volume of Allen Ginsburg; she could read it through, and she might even enjoy it, or parts of it; but it is unlikely to “influence” or “inform” her poetic practice. The tastes and specific ambitions of a writer tend to guide that writer’s readings from our fine excess of available books and poems. We absorb and internalize kindred poets differently than we do poets whose aesthetic choices please us less. We shrink the “canon,” any canon, whether the Western one or that of some “alternative tradition” or another, according to our own needs as writers and tastes as readers.
Which may well scuttle the usual advice to writers. A young writer should read widely and reverently in the tradition he wishes to be a part of, the pedagogical wisdom goes. But the history of poetry suggests that you really don’t have to, and that it may well benefit you not to. The maxim should be amended to encourage a creative, Shakespearean ignorance which frees a writer to high-handedly reappropriate past tropes as he wishes, and discard them where they don’t suit his taste or his audience’s. In other words: Read whatever you like, deeply and irreverently.