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Sunday, May 27, 2007

On Influence & Literary Thievery

I often write, think, and talk about the work by other's that has influenced me. Key Bridge owes much to the work of C. S. Giscombe, Charles Olson, and George Oppen, and I rarely -- if ever -- downplay that influence.

And I often refer to some version of the quotation attributed to Eliot about "bad poets borrowing and good poets stealing" as a way of explaining (justifying?) the echoes of other poets' work within my own.

Here, by the way, is the entire Eliot quotation:

"One of the surest of 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 into 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."

I talk openly about my influences as a way to recognize and repay my debt to those writers. I also do it so that I can show other people other ways in: "if you like this, see this...."

But I realized that attributing my work in that way has been in part from modesty. It's not that I no longer want to be modest, but I do want to and have been thinking about influence lately and thinking that while I owe a debt to those writers that I should also think more about where my thinking fits into that writing.

Much of my writing arises from my response to the work I read -- I read something, am troubled by it (not in a good/bad way), and then I start writing. My aim is not imitation though; I'm almost always trying to understand something in the original work through my own writing. So my work ends up having points of overlap with the other work but is also very much the product of my thinking.

Good art helps its audience see other places that they can put their attention, good art is a door to a hall with more doors. So if someone reads Harryette Mullen and begins to write poems seemingly full of surface descriptions, surface descriptions that explode into a labyrinth of criss-crossing connotations, if someone opens that door, that's the point, right?


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