07 April 2012

thievery: 5 things poets should steal

...great poets steal...

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:
T.S. Eliot, Master Thief
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)

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:

1. words
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.

2. names
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 HicokMatthea Harvey, Kevin Young, Sandra Beasley, Yusef Komunyakaa, Nicole Walker, Lucille Clifton, Nikky Finney

3. lines
T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
Some poets may think "borrowing" lines is amoral. To them I give poets like Kim Addonizio, and her poem "The First Line is the Deepest" from the collection Lucifer at the Starlite. Addonizio, in an interview with The Pedestal, discusses some of the negative reactions to the poem because of the collaging she did with lines borrowed from Eliot, Frost, Ginsberg, and so forth, and argues that perhaps some people don't "have the equipment to understand all of it, the sensibility or the cultural background to understand [what I was doing]. I guess you speak to the people you can speak to, and that's not everybody. And that's all right. It shouldn't be everybody." Borrowing lines can often do something very powerful, and speak to things better than simply putting it in new words that perhaps aren't as powerful or eye-catching. And maybe not everyone will understand what you're doing when you borrow a line--but if you are doing something important, borrow that line. And borrow another. I would also give line-borrowing-naysayers the Cento, a poetic form that is literally a collage, or "patchwork", of found-lines.

4. conversations
When you listen, poems will come.
Because we've all overheard that uniquely profound, or absurd, or morose, or hilarious snippet of somebody else's conversation. I have poet friends who walk around with a notebook at all times, and are constantly pulling them out to jot down things that other people say around them. I took a poetry class with Barbara Anderson (Junk City, 1-800-911) in which she constantly extolled the benefits of carrying a notebook to write down the brilliant things people say every day. There are millions of people, billions of people, surrounding us--just think about how much daily inspiration they can offer. I once heard a child describe an upset stomach as, "It feels like there's a circus going on in there." When I was an undergraduate student working in the campus dining hall, I overheard the following from a young man trying to understand why a girl would not go out with him: "I know I'm hot. You know I'm hot. They [gesture to the feasting student population] know I'm hot. Hot girls know I'm hot. That girl [gesture to me] knows I'm hot. So I don't get it. If I'm not her type, what is?" I heard that conversation somewhere between six and seven years ago--I still remember it verbatim. Because words matter. Conversations matter. And they are constant sources of poetic inspiration. If you don't borrow from them, they'll just go to waste.

5. ideas and themes
Stealing ideas is easier than stealing
candy from a baby. And nicer.
One of my favorite poems I ever wrote came from thinking about the themes in Hansel and Gretel. Breadcrumbs, childhood innocence, survival, faith. I gathered them up like breadcrumbs of my own and wrote a poem called "Memento mica crustum". It borrows not only from the fairy tale, but also from the Bible, and words that resonated from other poems I had read, and at least one essay on the tale itself. A few weeks after writing the poem, I read about a book of poetry in which the poet was questioning the themes of Hansel and Gretel. I've since forgotten what the title of the collection is, because at the time I absolutely refused to so much as glance at it; deniability was my objective against the dreaded "You know what this reminds me of?" question. But I didn't give up the themes, and I most certainly didn't give up the poem. Just because some other poet--or several--beat me, or beats you, to publishing the poems we're still scratching out in our brains doesn't mean we should automatically give them up. Find inspiration in the ideas other poets use to create their works--be it themes, forms, current and/or life events, or anything else.

Whatever you steal, steal it well. Borrow with purpose. Reinvent. Re-frame. Re-envision. Make it new. Make it yours. And own it.

Recommended Reading:
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told
You About Being Creative

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