Poetry: Imitation vs. Stealing

Photo by Ugur Akdemir on Unsplash

T.S. Eliot (why do I keep bringing him up when I claim to resent him?) is credited with saying “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Of course, it’s plain wrong to plagiarize, and Eliot’s statement shouldn’t be taken as a license to lie. In fact, if we practice good research habits and read the statement in context, it becomes clear exactly what he meant by “steal.”

One of the surest of tests [of excellence] 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. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

So, it’s okay to “steal” an idea or feeling from another poem as long as (to quote another much-resented writer) we “make it new.”

Modernists like Eliot and Pound were not the first to grapple with the distinctions between imitation and theft. Generations of poets have been influenced and inspired by their forebears.

The literary critic Harold Bloom devoted an entire book to what he called “The Anxiety of Influence,” arguing that all literature is a response to the work that preceded it. The book, published in 1973, was the literary equivalent of the Biblical dictum, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

What creative person wouldn’t become anxious at the idea there is no possibility of creating anything wholly new?

Maybe mature creative persons don’t become anxious. Readers of poetry may come across epigraphs that openly acknowledge the influence of other artists. Those epigraphs are usually framed as “After Jane Doe.” Or, sometimes the title of the poem tells us who the poet is imitating, as in “After Horace” by Carolyn Kizer.

Here’s an attempt of mine to “make it new,” originally published in Mezzo Cammin. It’s an imitation — or theft — of a poem by Louise Bogan titled “The Changed Woman,” which got me thinking about how not changing can be a way to accomplish change.

The Unchanged Woman
— after “The Changed Woman” by Louise Bogan

Again she bears what she once bore,
And not because she has forgotten
The weight. Asleep, she opens the door
To peace: a single chair, pale cotton

Shift, empty pages. No fuss.
Awake, the garden reminds her of
Her choices: dahlias, hibiscus
Weighed down by honeybees’ love,

The way some women bend below
Their children’s weight. Not her. She dead-
Heads blossoms past their first hello
And brushes past the bees that spread

Their busy legs and baskets, winnowing
Out pollen she doesn’t wish to capture.
Her burden isn’t in the finishing,
Or mundane seeds that once were rapture.

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