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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 acknowledgment 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 acknowledgment 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



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, though 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.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 16th, 2010 02:33 am (UTC)
If you like that idea, I'd recommend doing it with works by Denise Levertov, too. She really understands phrasing and how to use a line.
Mar. 30th, 2010 03:06 am (UTC)
hey Josh, i finally posted the review of Intrinsic Night. nice stuff!
Jun. 14th, 2010 09:33 pm (UTC)
words to play with, words as window
Josh, we talked about the art of writing as either a clear window or a beautiful screen, and your discussion above brings this question to the fore again in my mind.

You are talking about moving words around to create an effect. That's cool. But the effect comes after the words. It's not about something in the dark that the poet can feel and tries desperately to translate into mere words.

What if your aim is starting with the Thing in the Dark and trying to use words the best way you know how to get the Other to understand?

Is poetry about the art of making beautiful patterns with words, or is it the art of using the words to get a feeling or experience or concept from one human being to another? I think these are two different ways of looking at the art of poetry.

I admit I like shuffling words around to see what happens. It's rewarding and often emotionally arousing, both to myself and to a potential reader. But as a writer who at one time was infatuated with confessional poetry, I try to make language a vehicle of what's in my head and limbic system. The subject of the poem exists, at least to some extent, before the poem exists. Nicholson Baker (you know the book) says think of the best thing that happened in your day, and that's your poem.

A love of windowpane, transparent writing sometimes results in very spare language. (E.g.. never use a latinate word if a common English one will do,) But it can also result in very dense writing. The challenge is to make it work on all levels, emotional, intellectual, auditory, etc. Truth before beauty, but beauty whenever the poor poet can achieve it.

I think using Asimov's dictum as a representative statement of this stance last week was maybe a poor choice on my part. Asimov was not a stylist.

So here's another writer's statement of the same stance. This is Jack Kerouac, and I think it's okay to quote, because it's for scholarly purposes:

Belief and Technique for Modern Prose, a list of thirty "essentials".

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside your own house
4. Be in love with your life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Don't think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see your exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You're a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

I was going to point out which principles particularly emphasize what I'm driving at, but the truth is, except for the warning about not getting drunk away from home, they all do.

Just something to think about.
Jun. 15th, 2010 03:07 am (UTC)
Re: words to play with, words as window
"What if your aim is starting with the Thing in the Dark and trying to use words the best way you know how to get the Other to understand?"

Then one would use a completely different set of techniques to write said poem. I could see using the "Mad Lib" technique listed above, but even then, depending on the moment of inspiration, the results would certainly vary.

These techniques are certainly not the end all and be all of poetry writing, and not even techniques I ascribe to all the time, so your assertion that, at times, poetry is "the art of using the words to get a feeling or experience or concept from one human being to another" works just as well as deconstructing a text to attack the language virus. My concern is/was that, when those attacks are made, will the corporate parasites that claim ownership of words/phrases/etc. come gnawing, and if so, does any vaccine exist to sterilize writers and readers of their presence?
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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