Thursday, November 15, 2007

Creative theft ...

... among other things: `In Poetry the Immediate Pleasure is Physical'. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Yes, indeed. The Beatles knew where to pilfer - though Lennon and McCartney did not write "Here Comes the Sun." That's a George Harrison song.
Update: Grey Malkin kindly ogs my aging brain to remind me that "Golden Slumbers" is indeed Lennon-McCartney. Why I thought it was part of "Here Comes the Sun" is anybody's guess - though it may have something do with the state of my mind when the song was released.

Readers may recall that Bob Dylan's borrowings have got him in trouble from time to time. There was his use of material from Junichi Saga's Confessions of a Yakuza for lyrics on his album Love and Theft. You can read about that here. Then there was his borrowing from Civil War poet Henry Timrod in lyrics for his album Modern Times. You can read about that here. And there's more.
Putting aside the question of plagiarism, it is worth noting that literary modernism made the appropriation of other writers' material respectable. T.S. Eliot was a skillful practitioner. I assume that when he incorparted the line "Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song" into "The Waste Land" he assumed his readers knew he was quoting Spenser's "Prothalamion." But how many readers could he expect to catch the allusion to Mallarme's "M'introduire dans ton histoire" in the line "Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bessed axle-tree" in "Burnt Norton"?
Earlier poets, when they made allusions, were counting on their readers knowing what they were alluding to. Which is why classical and Biblical references abound. I suspect that many modern poets expect quite the opposite. Hence, the idiosyncrasy of their allusions.

By the way, I naturally second Eric Ormsby on this point:
“This is the poetry of protest and in many ways is typical of much of the poetry written in the United States and Canada over the last few decades. Often discursive, generally outraged, indeterminate as to form, such poetry is a poetry of opinion and message; we tend to like or enjoy it in proportion to the correspondence of our own opinions with those of the author rather than for any overriding literary reason; indeed, it is almost invariably bad as poetry.”


  1. While I agree with Ormsby's last phrase—most political poetry really is bad, as poetry—I also detect within his comments the usual neo-formalist complaints about kinds of music other than their own. "Indeterminate as to form" is a telling line, since it is used here as part of a blanket condemnation.

    One of my best composition professors in music steal was of the opinion that lesser composers quote, while gerat composers steal outright. What he meant, I think, is that he wasn't worried about influence: good ideas are good ideas.

  2. Anonymous3:41 PM

    Though the golden slumbers line is used in the song Golden Slumbers by Paul McCartney, not in Here Comes the Sun.

  3. Thank you, Grey. I have duly added an update.
    And yes, Art, good composers do steal - and then improve, as Bach was want to improve on Johann Caspar Fischer. The protest poems, though, usually are wanting in music, as well as much else.

  4. Anonymous6:14 PM

    Though steal is a word of very much negative connotation. I imagine the Golden Slumbers poet would be delighted at this resurrection of his lines, & such seems to me more in the nature of homage or admiration than theft.

  5. Well, I'm not sure, Grey. Given that Dekker spent a good number of years in debtors' prison, he might have wanted a share of the royalties. And those Elizabethans could be a tough bunch.