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Long, long ago, not long after I started this blog, I published a list of authors whom my favorite authors had pointed to as influences on their work. It was just lists of names, nothing more than that. So today, I’d like to update and expand upon some of those entries, guided by the words of the writers themselves.
The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself—as a vocation and an elevation almost. I began as a school teacher in Belfast in 1962. I taught for one year in St. Thomas’s Secondary Intermediate School. I had a good degree in English at Queen’s University and felt that I had some literary possibility, but I had no real confidence. . . . My pseudonym at Queen’s, in the magazines where I published, was Incertus—Latin for uncertain—I was just kicking the ball around the penalty area, not trying to shoot at the goal. Then in 1962 the current began to flow. I remember taking down Ted Hughes’s Lupercal from the shelves of the Belfast public library and opening it at “View of a Pig,” and immediately going off and writing a couple of poems that were Hughes pastiches almost. The first one was called “Tractors”; I remember a line that said “they gargled sadly”—which pleased me a lot at the time. So I sent it out to the Belfast Telegraph—not the greatest literary journal in the world, but even so, it published that poem. And that was of immense importance because I knew no one at the paper, which meant that the thing had been accepted on its own merits, such as they were. [From The Paris Review‘s “Art of Poetry” series.]
On first discovering Gerard Manley Hopkins as a student in Catholic school:
It was a matter of sensation, little ricochets and chain reactions within the nervous system. Like “As tumbled over rim in roundy wells / Stones ring” or “rose-moles all in stipple upon the trout that swim; / Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings.” I once said it was like getting verbal gooseflesh. And, naturally enough, when I wrote my first poems as an undergraduate a few years later, I wrote in Hopkins-speak.
What you encounter in Hopkins’s journals—the claustrophobia and scrupulosity and religious ordering of the mind, the cold-water shaves and the single iron beds, the soutanes and the self-denial—that was the world I was living in when I first read his poems.
So yes, you’re right that it wasn’t simply a matter of the phonetics taking over, it wasn’t just the fireworks in phrases like “shining from shook foil.” It was the fact that the height and depth of Hopkins’s understanding matched my own. [From Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, pages 37 and 38.]
R. S. Thomas
When I read him first, I enjoyed the self-conscious element in the writing—very artful versification, slight affectation of direction, a touch of Crowe Ransom fastidiousness. But what made him especially attractive was the fact that a potential dandy was being suppressed by a very strict, very frugal censor. And then there was the sheer familiarity of his subject matter in those Welsh hill-farm poems. . . . He got very far as a poet, a loner taking on the universe, a kind of Clint Eastwood of the spirit. Every bit as unsmiling as Clint, but in either case you couldn’t be sure there wasn’t really a wild comedian lurking in there somewhere. [Stepping Stones, pages 112 and 113.]
C. S. Lewis
G. K. Chesterton
It was here [in an army hospital during World War I] that I first read a volume of Chesterton’s essays. I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some “second cause” of a very obscure kind, quite overrules our previous tastes when it decides to bring two minds together. Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love. I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. His humor was of the kind which I like best—not “jokes” embedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure) a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humor which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the “bloom” on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly. For the critics who think Chesterton frivolous or “paradoxical” I have to work hard to feel even pity; sympathy is out of the question. [Surprised by Joy, pages 190-191]
Read almost any interview with Ray Bradbury and you’ll probably find at least a dozen mentions of writers whose work he loved. One of his favorite ideas to return to was “the train,” which he described in an interview with The Paris Review in 1976 (republished here):
Bradbury: A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. But it burns with a high flame. I’ve had my “literary loves,” too. I like to think of myself on a train going across midnight America conversing with my favorite authors, and on that train would be people like George Bernard Shaw, who was interested in everything, interested in the fiction of ideas. He himself on occasion wrote things that could be dubbed “science fiction.” We’d sit up late into the night turning over ideas and saying, “Well, if this is true about women in 1900, what is it going to be in the year 2050?”
Interviewer: Who else would be on that train?
Bradbury: A lot of poets. Hopkins, Frost, Shakespeare. And then writers like Huxley, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe.
Interviewer: How has Wolfe helped you?
Bradbury: He was a great romantic. When you’re nineteen, he opens the doors of the world for you. We use certain authors at certain times of our lives, and we may never go back to them again. Wolfe is perfect when you’re nineteen. If you fall in love with Shaw when you’re thirty it’s going to be a lifetime love. And I think that’s true of certain books by Thomas Mann as well. I read Death in Venice when I was twenty, and it’s gotten better every year since. Style is truth. Once you nail down what you want to say about yourself and your fears and your life, then that becomes your style and you go to those writers who can teach you how to use words to fit your truth. I learned from John Steinbeck how to write objectively and yet insert all of the insights without too much extra comment. I learned a hell of a lot from John Collier and Gerald Heard, and I fell madly in love with a number of women writers, especially Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. I still go back and reread Edith Wharton and Jessamyn West—The Friendly Persuasion is one of my favorite books of short stories.
Or sometimes, he didn’t need the prompting of an interview to come up with a list of favorite authors. From his essay collection Zen in the Art of Writing:
You have your list of favorite writers; I have mine. Dickens, Twain, Wolfe, Peacock, Shaw, Molière, Jonson, Wycherly, Sam Johnson. Poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Pope. … Think of all these names and you think of big or little, but nonetheless important, zests, appetites, hungers. Think of Shakespeare and Melville and you think of thunder, lightning, wind. [“The Joy of Writing,” pages 3-4]