In most fiction, the aim is to convey the reader to actual and imaginary places, often a mix of the two; and if such places are rendered vividly enough—readers often filling in the blanks to heighten the illusion—then the reader’s memory of a novel is closely linked to the contours of the novel’s places. Miss Lonelyhearts’s room, Bloom’s Phoenix Park, the cheap motels along the highways Humbert Humbert travels, Hemingway’s boat—scores of such places make up the maps of our reading.
But poets are exempt from the duties of social realism, including the credible rendering of place. If poems lead us anywhere beyond their own endings, they lead us into the consciousness of the poet, a map, you might say, of the poet’s intelligence, feeling, perception, intuition, and mannerisms.
When one poet reads another poet, it is like one explorer studying the maps of a predecessor. If the complete works of a poet are a world map of his own making, then to be influenced by another poet is to have the map of his writing placed over your own. Every time another strong influence is experienced, another map is placed on top of a growing pile of maps, which adds up to a weight of influence. And then, if the poet is lucky enough, he discovers his own way of writing, and at that point all the accumulated maps of his reading become transparencies, through which we look into the palimpsest of the new poet’s psyche. Voila!