Jack Foley: From 'Under the Influence,' definitions & prelude

[The following is from a remarkable essay by Jack Foley, which presents a much needed counter proposition to ideas about “influence” & its “anxieties” that have been present without sufficient opposition in a prominent wing of American criticism & literary studies.  The complete essay continues at full throttle & in a meaningfully personal way to a discussion of the influence of the work of three canonical or near-canonical writers – Thomas Grey, James Joyce & Robert Duncan – on Foley’s own early work as a solid contributor to our developing sense of a new/old poetry & poetics.  The larger essay has yet to be published, and in the interim I will post it, as needed, section by section, on Poems and Poetics.  (J.R.)]


“I derive from every known source.”

—Robert Duncan at a lecture


“Fluid moves in Robert Duncan’s favored sense of literary derivation,

a word whose etymology indicates the channeling of influence into a new flow of water.”

—Peter O’Leary, “Talking Cosmos: Influencing Ronald Johnson, Deriving Robert Duncan”


INFLUENCE: Here are two definitions/etymologies from the Internet:


Late Middle English: from Old French, or from medieval Latin influentia ‘inflow,’ from Latin influere, from in- ‘into’ + fluere ‘to flow.’ The word originally had the general sense ‘an influx, flowing matter,’ also specifically (in astrology) ‘the flowing in of ethereal fluid (affecting human destiny).’ The sense ‘imperceptible or indirect action exerted to cause changes’ was established in Scholastic Latin by the 13th century, but not recorded in English until the late 16th century.





Late 14c., an astrological term, “streaming ethereal power from the stars acting upon character or destiny of men,” from Old French influence “emanation from the stars that acts upon one’s character and destiny” (13c.), also “a flow of water,” from Medieval Latin influentia “a flowing in” (also used in the astrological sense), from Latin influentem (nominative influens), present participle of influere “to flow into,” from in- “into, in, on, upon” (see in- (2)) + fluere “to flow” (see fluent). Meaning “exercise of personal power by human beings” is from mid-15c.; meaning “exertion of unseen influence by persons” is from 1580s (a sense already in Medieval Latin, for instance Aquinas). Under the influence “drunk” first attested 1866.

              —Online Etymological Dictionary


One thinks of the Tao Te Ching (Chapter 8): “Highest good is like water.”




It’s the world—life!—that “flows into us,” so that “influence” is inescapable. A walk down the street involves multiple influences: trees, people, vehicles, air—all the populace of our sensoria. But the emphasis in this piece is on literary influence—perhaps even on what Harold Bloom famously referred to as “the anxiety of influence.” Wikipedia:


(Quoting Harold Bloom) “Poetic influence, as I conceive it, is a variety of melancholy or the anxiety-principle.” A new poet becomes inspired to write because he has read and admired the poetry of previous poets; but this admiration turns into resentment when the new poet discovers that these poets whom he idolized have already said everything he wishes to say. The poet becomes disappointed because he “cannot be Adam early in the morning. There have been too many Adams, and they have named everything.”


In order to evade this psychological obstacle, the new poet must convince himself that previous poets have gone wrong somewhere and failed in their vision, thus leaving open the possibility that he may have something to add to the tradition after all. The new poet’s love for his heroes turns into antagonism towards them: “Initial love for the precursor's poetry is transformed rapidly enough into revisionary strife, without which individuation is not possible”…Bloom attempted to trace the psychological process by which a poet broke free from his precursors to achieve his own poetic vision. He drew a sharp distinction between "strong poets" who perform “strong misreadings” of their precursors, and "weak poets" who simply repeat the ideas of their precursors as though following a kind of doctrine. 


Bloom’s Oedipal theory of the literary tradition has been criticized by many—brilliantly by Jerome Rothenberg, who, significantly, is as Jewish as Harold Bloom claims to be. In any case, it is surely the critic, not the poet, who is likely to feel “anxiety” in the face of someone else’s writing, the critic who will be afflicted by the sense that his “precursor” (the poet the critic is writing about) has “already said everything he wishes to say.” Bloom’s notion—which admittedly produces some insights in some cases—is probably an instance of criticism as unintentional (even scandalous) autobiography. Bloom’s friend Paul de Man formulated the notion of “blindness and insight”—the idea that every authorial insight carries with it a secret blindness, apparent to others but not to the author. Perhaps Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” holds true not for the poet but only for the critic—and particularly for the academic critic whose livelihood depends upon his finding something new to say about authors whose works are a given.


Further: we tend, like Bloom, to think of “influence” as a one-way street: there is the precursor, the “influencer,” and the influenced, and Bloom postulates an Oedipal, father/son struggle between them. But I would suggest that it is only because of certain changes in ourselves that we are able to experience what the precursor has to offer: that is, the precursor is “discovered” only because we are looking for an embodiment of things that are already happening within us—things that precede the discovery of the precursor. As Voltaire said of God, “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” The same may be true of the precursor. It is possible that we already are the “precursor” when we narcissistically discover him “outside ourselves.” He is a mirror, not an antagonist. 1/




1.  But cf. Hegel’s description, in The Phenomenology of Mind, of the encounter between two self-consciousnesses:


Self-consciousness has before it another self-consciousness...This has a double significance. First it has lost its own self, since it finds itself as an other being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for it does not regard the other as essentially real, but sees its own self in the other.


            It must cancel this its other...First it must set itself to sublate the other independent being, in order thereby to become certain of itself as true being, secondly, it thereupon proceeds to sublate its own self, for this other is itself...Each must aim at the death of the other, as it risks its own life thereby; the other’s reality is presented to the former as an external other, as outside itself; it must cancel that externality.



Bloom’s Oedipal struggle certainly seems relevant here. As Hegel describes it, the struggle is an attempt on the part of each self-consciousness, faced with its own reflection, to show “that it is fettered to no determinate existence, that it is not bound at all by the particularity everywhere characteristic of existence as such.” Hegel’s story, like Bloom’s, is compelling in many ways, but it is not the only possible story. His fundamental understanding of existence is a version of war: thesis (an existing army); antithesis (attack by another army); synthesis (the peace treaty).


But, if de Man is right, it is also possible (even likely) that I too am “blind,” and that someone other than myself will have to point it out to me.


Under the Influence/Being in the World.