Reading Life Closely

It’s freshman year of high school, and, lacking a driver’s license, I am riding to campus in the passenger seat of my sister’s car. Bored and cranky, I protest her choice of radio station with all the little brother petulance I can muster.

“They all sound exactly the same,” I complain.

“Deal with it,” she snaps back, cranking up the volume.

One after another, each pop song sounds like a distorted echo of all the ones that came before it. They begin with a strong hook (so you don’t change the channel), then transition into a few quick verses until, finally, cascading into an undeniably catchy chorus with a chord progression that has topped every chart since -. Rinse, then repeat. My “alternative” teenage eyes roll so hard they almost cut a sunroof into this ‘97 Camry.

For many former edgy high schoolers, this story likely brings back memories.

Though I’ve since come around on pop music, I see this attitude as a crucial part of my self-discovery. My clumsy attacks on “norms” and “fads” were experiments I conducted to figure out who I was in relation to others. I saw my selective music taste as proof of my own unique identity — a stake that I could place in the ground to define myself in a crowd.

Whether I wanted it to or not, this mindset inevitably carried over into my first attempts at artistic creation. With memories of my hatred for sound-alikes, fresh in my brain, I felt a deep desire to say something that had never been said before, something truly original.

But then I read Wallace Stevens. And Frank O’Hara. And Amiri Baraka.

I’ve realized that that whole originality thing is easier said than done. At every turn, I became a superfan of new poets, and with each new influence, my anxiety built. These writers, it seemed, had said everything I wanted to in better words than I could ever write.

I wrote about my anxious thoughts, but I couldn’t produce anything more precise than Stevens’ line, “It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.” Then I wrote about the bustling city, and Frank O’Hara’s descriptions of New York life gazed right back at me. I knew I would never write poems as frenzied and perfect as his, with lines like, “I was in such a hurry / to meet you but the traffic / was acting exactly like the sky.”

From an artistic perspective, I was effectively paralyzed. Everything I wrote felt derivative of my influences, a cheap gimmick. I felt doomed to repeat their exact thoughts in an inferior way, like a cavern echoing back every word shouted into it.

Amid this sea of voices, comfort came from an unexpected one — the voice of famous literary critic Harold Bloom.

In 1973, Bloom wrote a controversial book called “The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.” In it, he argued that most of the greatest poets of the last 300 years did not become literary giants merely because of divine abilities. Instead, each of them struggled with anxieties about sounding like the writers that influenced them, and each of them found unique ways to push against their predecessors. The staying power of a poet, for Bloom, comes not simply out of pure talent, but from effectively separating one’s own voice from those that came before.

For me, this was a revelation. Though I still had no idea how to separate myself from those who had touched me so deeply, it gave me a sense of distant camaraderie to know that the people I adored may have felt the same during their lives.

Unfortunately, this sense of comfort had more staying power in 1973 than in the present day. After all, through the magic of the internet, not only am I presented with enough beautiful influences to shrink my ego down to size, but I also get constant access to the voices of my contemporaries — all of us writing in relative obscurity, searching for audiences mostly in vain. On top of Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence,” technology has added new anxieties of hiddenness, of being a single voice in an endless cacophony.

Truthfully, these are anxieties that I still haven’t kicked. I see contemporary poets praised for their originality but, when I sit down to write, I feel like I’m scribbling in crayon on the wall of an art gallery.

Maybe Bloom was right, and this is how they all felt. Maybe Wallace Stevens’ typewriter looked just as foreboding to him as this blank Word document looks to me. As he struggled against the ghosts of his influences, perhaps he also saw himself fading into obscurity.

For now, all I can do is read his words and let them change my life, grateful that he didn’t let his anxieties guide his hand.

Anthony writes the Monday column on literature and life. Contact him at [email protected].