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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Words for the Taking

In an interview, poet Eliot Khalil Wilson discussed students who were horrified when he suggested a word change in the poems, not because he had critiqued them, but because they couldn’t use the change as it was his word and not theirs. Wilson’s reply was simple: “I don’t own the language.”


I find the idea of ownership of language a bit interesting, especially in the world of poetry, when the lines between inspiration, allusion and outright plagiarism are so easily blurred. For example, a common writing prompt given to students is to take a famous poem, break it down to its parts of speech, and then use that form as a sort of inspirational madlib to create a draft for a new poem. For example, taking the opening lines of “Disillusionment Of Ten O'clock” by Wallace Stevens:

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.


one would get


:article: :plural noun: :verb to be: :adjective/past participle:

:preposition: :adjective: :plural noun:.

:pronoun: :verb to be: :adjective:

:conjunction: :adjective: :preposition: :adjective: :plural noun:

:conjunction: :adjective: :preposition: :adjective: :plural noun:

:conjunction: :adjective: :preposition: :adjective: :plural noun:.


and then fill in the blanks, focusing on a completely different topic than Stevens, but using his phrasing to create a new piece. The purpose of this prompt, of course, is to teach students to think in terms of phrasing, and to explore non-formal phrasings which clearly work and get them to ask why or how they work. Also, lessons like this teach the importance of word choice with in a phrase, line and poem. This sort of exercise can produce some very stunning poems; however, no matter how successful the new piece, there is still a dependence on the original poet and his or her line breaks, phrasing, etc. Has the second poet, then, stolen from the first in some way?


Another example would be poets who take a line or stanza from another poet, and then create an entirely new piece based on that line. Sometimes the line is used as an epigraph, or the opening line, or imbedded in the poem itself in quotation marks and possibly a footnote acknowledging the original author. Sometimes, though, there is no acknowledgement at all. Has the second author, then, stolen something from the first?


I am brought to the idea of jazz music, and things like covers and standards. These are tunes that are famous for the fact that their multiple versions and interpretations, no two alike. They are widely known by jazz musicians and enthusiasts, and need no acknowledgement beyond, perhaps, a liner note. No one in the jazz community, for example, eschews Miles Davis or Ella Fitzgerald for their versions of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” but appreciate and celebrate the aspects which they brought to the piece. In the same way, as a poet who has lines taken for inspiration, I do not begrudge the poets who have used my lines for inspiration, but take the compliment and celebrate the new takes which those other poets bring to the words.

On the other hand, as a poet who has taken lines and phrasings from other poets, I do not feel as though I am thieving from those other poets, but simply adding my take to their standards. To extend the metaphor, I am simply taking their basic chord progression or melody and adding my own nuances to it to create an entirely new piece. Either way, no crime has been committed.


At what point, then, does this become an issue? I’m thinking here about certain ideas like Cut-Ups and Found Poetry. Cut-Ups are literary aleatorisms based on the destruction and reconstruction of other texts. In the most basic form, a person takes a text, such as a page in a book, and literally cuts it into four pieces, then rearranges those pieces to create a new text based on disjointed sentence structure and new combinations of language. It is a technique popularized by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, but can be traced back to experiments by surrealist artists in the 20s and 30s. The issue, of course, is whether or not this new piece can, in anyway, be considered a theft from the original text or author? To what point must the text be deconstructed for it to be considered an original piece. For example, what if I take the following passage from Ecclesiates:


Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full: unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.


and cut it into quarters, and rearrange it as a poem using minor edits and line breaks:


Rivers come, thither they return

again. All things are full of vanity

saith the Preacher, vanity of seeing,

the ear filled with hearing, the labor

which he taketh under the sun. One

which is done is that which shall be

done: and but the earth abideth forever.

The sun also: whereof it may be said, See,

this is new? It hath where he arose.

The wind goeth toward the south, and there

is no remembrance of former things; neither

shall the wind returneth again according

to vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man

of all his sea not full: unto the place from whence

the generation passeth away, and another generation

cometh of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye

is not satisfied, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth

to his place thing that hath been, it is that which shall be

etc.


Ignoring the weak line breaks and lack of craft in this piece for the sake of example, have I stolen something? While the KJV is not a copyright text, what if, instead, I took a paragraph from Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and did the same thing? Have I created a new poem or have I committed a plagiaristic crime?


Found poems are even more tricky. In a found poem, the poet simply lifts entire words, phrases and sections from another text (usually not a poem), then frames them as poetry using minor word changes and line breaks. A great example of this is Hart Seeley’s “The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld,” which takes exact sentences, word for word, from Rumsfeld’s speeches and presents them with line breaks as poetry. Has Seeley stolen from Rumsfeld? What if, instead of political speeches, Seeley had chosen a literary text under copyright? Would the inserted line breaks be enough to create a new work?


I am encouraged by Eliot Khalil Wilson’s thoughts that one does not own language, but I’m also trepidacious when it comes to submitting the successful results of more experimental forms like cut-ups and found poems for publication. As a poet, I don’t make enough money to get sued, but do feel that I have created new texts based on current works that, thought they maintain some allegiance to the original text, are unique enough to stand on their own. I’m curious to know where others stand on these sorts of issues or if anyone even thinks about them at all.

3 comments:

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Say, I like that Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld site you linked to! (Especially the poem about glass boxes... so true, so true. But the other ones are pretty good, too.)

Shelley Chernin said...

"The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism." Jonathan Lethem in
The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism, Harper's Magazine, Feb. 2007.

Jesus Crisis said...

"Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief. / All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief." - Bono, from U2's "The Fly" on Achtung Baby

Cited...

The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau