room to be yourself

“For the power you so dearly aspire to, Levine, you must turn to the master, Milton, the most powerful poet in the language, though you might do well to avoid Latinate vocabulary. Have you studied Latin? Levine: “No.” “You might consider doing so; that way you’ll know what to avoid when you’re stealing from Milton. Do you have another favorite among your contemporaries?” Levine: “Dylan Thomas.” Berryman: “It doesn’t show, Levine, it doesn’t show. You’ve done a superb job of masking that particular debt. How have you managed that?” Levine: “I didn’t. I wrote through my Dylan Thomas phase and quit. It was impossible for me to write under his influence and not sound exactly like him except terrible.” Berryman: “Levine, you’ve hit upon a truth. Certain poets are so much themselves they should not be imitated: they leave you no room to be yourself, and Thomas was surely one of them, as was Hart Crane, who probably ruined the careers of more young poets than anything except booze. Levine, you might go to the source of Dylan’s own lyrical mysticism, and who would that be?” Silence. “Mr. Justice?” Justice: “Blake.” “Exactly, you might go to Blake, who is so impossibly lyrical and inventive no one in the world has the talent to sound like him.” In an unusually hushed voice he recited all of Blake’s early “Mad Song,” ending:

     I turn my back to the east
     From whence comforts have increas’d;
     For light doth seize my brain
     With frantic pain.

“Better to learn from a poet who does not intoxicate you,” said Berryman, “better to immerse yourself in Hardy, whom no American poet wants to sound like. A great poet seldom read.”

—Philip Levine, “Mine Own John Berryman,” The Bread of Time (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)

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