Poem Development Part II: Borrowing and Stealing

Poetry has long been agreeable to the borrowing and outright theft among poets. In this perhaps it is far ahead of other forms of writing. Much is made about ‘originality’, but all work springs forth from the same common ground. Jane Hirshfield has some great thoughts on originality in her book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. She talks about how art encourages copying and reinvention and has since its inception.

“Before the invention of photography, copying was an integral part of every visual artist’s training. The purpose was not just to make exemplary works more widely available for study- in the process of making a copy, it was understood and new forms of vision could arise.”

In music, “Sampling” is a valid art form- remixing older works to create something new.
-Making comes before meaning.
-Form follows function.
Years of art school are coming back to haunt me.

Theodore Roethke has perhaps the most well-known essay on the subject, “How to Write Like Someone Else”.

“Imitation, conscious imitation, is one of the great methods, perhaps the method of learning to write. The ancients, the Elizabethans, knew this, profited by it, and were not disturbed. … the most original poets are the most imitative… if a writer has something to say, it will come through. The very fact that he has the support of a tradition or an older writer, will enable him to be more himself – or more than himself.”

So why is writing exempt from this training ground? Is it because we expect writers to create by divine inspiration alone? Or is the slavish quest for originality a result of cultural conditioning? On one hand, we say copying is stealing, on the other, we reward musicians for remixing, Andy Warhol for re-envisioning. Why can’t writers do the same?

Originality is an odd duck. We claim to want it but are sanctimoniously appalled when the conventions of our society are broken or bent. We jump on the new and different bandwagon, at least long enough for it to become cliché. Then we jump to the next best thing. Perhaps it has to do with a culture of anti-intellectualism that is prevalent today. A good grounding in your craft and its history gets no respect while the shocking- and let’s face it- work by the young garner accolades. It takes time for a poet to feel comfortable with his/her craft, but in our society, if you aren’t a Poet Laureate by age 30, your career is over.

That’s what they would like you to think.

We credit Walt Whitman with being the leader into free verse, breaking away from the pack of traditional form poets with something new and unique. There were likely others before him, but Whitman was persistent enough to change the aesthetics of the time and get away with it.

Borrowing may be making a comeback. Cento poems are poetry’s version of musical sampling. Although the Cento is from Roman times, it seems to be making a comeback of late. To create a Cento, you take a line here and there from other poets and reassemble them into a new poem. You also credit the poet and poem at the end where you pulled the lines from.

I haven’t tried one yet, but I find the idea intriguing. When stuck for inspiration, I often start reading some of my favorite poet’s work. A line will strike me in a certain way and I will have the makings of a poem to play with. A sequence of words will play themselves through my mind over and over. I have to think about the deep dark meaning I want to convey before I write. Sometimes the poem percolates so long I forget what my original inspiration was. I’ve never knowingly stolen from another poet, but I definitely use them as a source of stimulation.

In art, I find myself drawn to images by Rothko and Hopper and Kandinsky. I study them, play with my own versions of color and form. In the end, I paint my own painting. Homage aside, it will never be mistaken for a Rothko. I bring different experiences to the table and filter them through the lens of my own making. So it goes with poetry. Eventually, all source material all comes back out in the form of an ‘original’ poem of my own. Did I borrow, steal, or imitate? Probably. Is that wrong? You tell me.

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