Just Another Word for Plagiarism But, Hey, What's wrong with that!

by Linda Lerner

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       The early 90's. A poet I'd just met introduced me to Kenneth Patchen's work. "An amazing poet," he said. "You must read him." I did. Yes, amazing -in poem after poem lines from the other man's poems sprung out at me. When I confronted him about it, his rational ranged from having done it unconsciously to the purposeful: how it would introduce people to Patchen's work.

        Jump ahead about 18 years-- a poetry reading at a venue in Brooklyn. The featured poet began reading a couple of poems I thought were quite interesting until-was it my imagination, or did I hear a line from ee cummings? A Wallace Stevens image jumped out at me from another poem I'd recently taught in a literature for composition class. When I broached the subject to him, his response was, "no one here but you would have known that," a reference, I guess, to my part time college teaching. I mentioned this to someone who said that a poet, closely connected to him, recently asked someone to repeat a line from a poem she'd just read because she might want to use it in one of her own poems.

        2013--An East Village venue. A recent MFA grad is reading a very long poem. Once again, lines from Eliot, Yeats, and others were clearly mixed in with his own work. Someone explained to me that the technique is called "mashing;" he assured me that credit to the poets is given in his book. But, no attempt to reveal this was made during the reading.

       A few weeks later the same thing happened at another poet's reading I attended. There was Elliot again-a popular poet to steal from-(I've long wished I could have come up with that line from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,"-- "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons") and Yeats, etc. When I asked her about it, she smiled proudly, and said, "Yes," as though she did a good job because I was able to identify the poets. She didn't call it "mashing," as the other one did, but appropriation. No attempt was made to conceal or to reveal it.

       Ezra Pound's oft repeated cry, "make it new," was not, I believe, a signal for poets to usurp lines they like when failing to come up with their own. He was referring to the use of literary allusions, references to other works, and probably to the college technique Elliot used in The Waste Land;" he wanted to publish a poem without notes because, Eliot said, it distracts from the poem.

        Is this just taking it one step further? I went on line to see if what I had witnessed were just isolated examples or if this was a new trend emerging. Unfortunately, the latter seems to be the case.

       Kenneth Goldsmith's article, "It's Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It's 'Repurposing'" (The Chronicle Review, 9/11/2011-Web) quotes critic Marjorie Perloff as using the term "unoriginal genius" to describe poets who are just "moving (around) information."

        I've long thought that the exercise driven MFA workshops contributed to this tendency now made easier through our reliance on technology and the Internet whereby poetry becomes a game. Perloff says, "Today's writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius..." more "a writing machine."

       It would be naïve to believe that the new centuries' digital age would not impact poetry, as it has every other area of our lives. I can imagine hearing a 16th century poet raising strong objections to the free verse being written today. Poetry will undergo changes, as it always has, and continue to evolve into new forms. But, that does not mean we have to become mere "programmers" or machines.

       The joy in writing for me has always come from the images and combinations of words I can create to convey the feeling I want in a poem. For the poem to move someone else. For it to feel alive, not perfectly crafted, but be a little rough edged.

       Toby Fitch concludes his essay with a reference to the first line of John Ashbury's, "The recent Pastgoers: "Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination." Perhaps all poets should think about that when writing, when the temptation to steal another poet's lines, instead, strikes them.

                       (first appeared in the May/June. '14
                       issue of Small Press Review)

David Gershator
Island-Profiles: Blue