Thursday, May 30, 2019

“Good Poets Borrow, Great Poets Steal”

It turns out that T.S. Eliot never said the phrase often attributed to him, “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.” According to a blog I read recently, what Eliot actually said was, “mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Either way, the phrase sings the praises of literary theft, which on the surface is an incredibly odd statement, particularly in the realm of the arts, where originality counts for so much.

T.S. Eliot
Eliot might have been thinking of works like his poem “The Waste Land.” That classic is, to a great extent, a collage of snippets “stolen” from a variety of sources, including Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, what U.K. bartenders say at closing (“HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME”), the Upanishads, and dozens of others. For Eliot and the poets who were close to him, like Ezra Pound, borrowing from the literary canon, as they read it, was a necessity, a way of showing that you knew your lineage. But to my mind, there is something terribly elitist about that way of looking at the poet’s calling, since the lineage that those poets acknowledged consisted only of certain types of writings by male poets in the Indo-European tradition, with a bit of Confucius thrown in for good measure.

What the phrase “mature poets steal” means to me is something different from what it meant to Eliot and Pound. At a certain point in my life as a writer, I developed a mania for originality. This was useful when I was attempting to free myself of all the influences that I’d cluttered my work with, when I first began writing. By prizing originality over anything else, I was challenging myself not to sound like T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound or my favorite poet of the month, but to write from my own voice and experience. Easier said than done—finding that individual calling as a writer is a lifetime’s work.

What that fixation on originality left out was literary community. I eventually came to realize that I could take my work only so far on my own. I needed a community of writers to provide insight into my writing, and to sharpen my abilities as an editor of the work of other writers, and myself. The reality is that one pair of eyes can only see so much. Many pairs of eyes can see a much wider panorama.

I belong to a wonderful writers group that meets once a month for a potluck brunch and a round robin where we all read our latest poems. I hardly trust myself to finish a poem until I’ve run it past that group, called Thirteen Ways, because I highly respect their judgment. Even if I don’t take all their suggestions, I need to hear their reactions to my work to know if I’m headed in the right direction. I also show my work to other peers.

At first I was hesitant to take any specific suggestions that other writers gave me. I was still fixated on the need for originality. In time, I came to realize that finishing well the works I initiated was much more important than my personal claims as the author. If a member of my writing group read a line of mine that fell short in some way, s/he might suggest another wording. Originally I would note that down, but insist on altering the offered wording, to avoid stealing. Now, if I feel that the suggested wording is just what the poem needs and wants, I sometimes take the phrase word for word. It’s much more important for the poem to be as good as it can be, than for me to have written every single word in it. “Mature poets steal.”

Of course, if someone suggested completely rewriting my poem, and gave me all the specifics, I wouldn’t accept that. But one line, or a title?—I thank my lucky stars that I have such good literary friends, and I insert that gift into the poem. I know that I can’t always be the best editor of my own creations, and I am grateful that I have other writers I trust who can help me improve my work when I need it.


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

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Working with a Writing Mentor
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Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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