There's a quote attributed to T.S. Eliot that says, "Good poets borrow, great poets steal." What he actually said appears in a critical essay he wrote on playwright Philip Massinger and his potential "indebtednesses" to passages Massinger borrowed from Shakespeare. In writing on the determination of a poet's indebtedness to another, or a poet's inferiority or superiority, Eliot writes:
One of the surest tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.(T.S. Eliot, "Philip Massinger", from The Sacred Wood)
T.S. Eliot, Master Thief
What Eliot discusses here is not, as some have interpreted the statement, plagiarism, but the act of engaging in artistic conversation. And being part of that conversation includes using the same language--borrowing from one another. It is an act of theft ... but theft that we all, as poets, understand to be necessary.
So what should poets steal? If you're going to commandeer something, it had better be good. In the realm of poetic cat burglary, there are (at least) five things we should all pick-pocket from time to time:
|You, too, can become a Word Thief.|
When another poet uses a word you love the sound of, or when you read new and compelling or beautiful or sonically resonating words, steal it. Write it down. Tuck it away in your brain. One of my new favorite words has been hinterlands. I don't remember where I first saw it (I don't think it was even in a poem), but it has stuck with me. But other words stick with me, too--language of birds and wings and flight, eggs and fruits--especially clementines--and water. And I'm not afraid--and neither should any poet be--to use them over and over again. One thing a lot of poets start to pick up on is repeated words across several poems by a poet. In Paisley Rekdal's The Invention of the Kaleidoscope, the language and images of winged things (birds, moths) and red fruits (cherries, strawberries) pop up again and again. Terrance Hayes's Wind in a Box is full of repetition. It's not a crime. And if a word simply sticks in your craw, maybe it's trying to tell you something. Something you won't learn, something you can't figure out, until you pull it from the shelf and cradle it in a poem.
It's pretty imperative that poets greedily peruse the poetry section of a bookstore, or browse the Poetry Foundation archives, or talk to other poets, to discover new people to read. The more you read, the more you understand what it is that works for you in poetry. The more you can discover what it is in those other poets that makes their poetry blossom. And the better you know these people and these things, the better you will know yourself and your words and your poetic impulses. Discover new poets. Read them often. Rob them blind.
|Read books by poets you discover and love for inspiration.|
Some poets I'm reading (and robbing) right now: Bob Hicok, Matthea Harvey, Kevin Young, Sandra Beasley, Yusef Komunyakaa, Nicole Walker, Lucille Clifton, Nikky Finney
|T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"|
|When you listen, poems will come.|
5. ideas and themes
|Stealing ideas is easier than stealing|
candy from a baby. And nicer.
Whatever you steal, steal it well. Borrow with purpose. Reinvent. Re-frame. Re-envision. Make it new. Make it yours. And own it.
|Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told |
You About Being Creative
by Austin Kleon
A manifesto for creativity and creative thievery