ArtSunday: Impressionism exhibit offers a lesson in tradition and rebellion

[An artist] should copy the masters and re-copy them, and after he has given every evidence of being a good copyist, he might then reasonably be allowed to do a radish, perhaps, from Nature. – Edgar Degas

I went to see the “Inspiring Impressionism” exhibit yesterday at the Denver Art Museum and came away struck by how remarkably it addressed questions of influence and originality in art, issues that have long been central to my own thinking and writing. As a poet, I’ve long been aware of the debt I owe the masters whose genius has shaped my own work, and if my efforts pale in comparison, they’re at least less meager than they would have been had I not spent so much time in the company of Donne, Shakespeare, Yeats, Hopkins, Wright, Thomas, and perhaps most especially, Eliot.

Degas would no doubt be pleased with my early days, where I was a relentless copyist. Not a great one – very few of us are great at anything at that age – but a dedicated one. If you look at things I wrote in my early 20s you can see an obvious reverence for Eliot mingled with a desire to emulate the music Thomas’ language and an almost breathless obsession with young Yeats as he conjured Ireland’s mythical past. These days my work is probably regarded as unconventional – I’m certainly working hard not to be like my contemporaries, and my rejection record suggests that I’m succeeding admirably – so maybe I’m something of a “rebel.” Which is fine, except that I’m a rebel who owes his soul to tradition. Odd, that. (More…)

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