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.

Poetry on Aging

“Old grandmother with gray hair and a wrinkled face closing her eyes in black and white.” by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Aging is the sort of inevitable, non-negotiable topic that fascinates poets. Birth, school, work, death, in the immortal lyrics of The Godfathers.

Some of us fight aging. Some of us embrace it. Whichever approach is yours, though, aging beats the alternative. In the immortal words of someone.

People in my family die young. Maybe that’s why I’ve always wanted to be old. Or maybe it’s because I’d hoped to be old and wise, to stop making the same foolish mistakes over and over again.

That hasn’t happened yet, but aging has made me lazier, meaning that I now have no energy at all to boss other people around about how to spend their days. It’s all I can do to manage my own days.

One of my favorite poems that examines aging is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, even though I harbor great resentment against Eliot for his efforts to turn poetry into an elitist art form.

W.B. Yeats’ poem “When You Are Old” is about aging, but it’s also a love poem, sort of. “Warning” by British poet Jenny Joseph starts with the famous, exuberant line, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.”

The poem below, originally published in Poet Lore, is not particularly exuberant.

When It Descends

Winter, tell me how my body
makes changes without me. You know.
Your beautyberry is gone again, eaten by cardinals.

The nights grow longer and call me to their altars:
bedsheets I stroke like a lover’s skin,
bedside table piled with books, breeding

beside a cup of ginger tea.
I pray for sleep, and when it descends,
my two husbands trade places in my dreams,

as if they’re only stand-ins
for limitation, when I know they were more.
Tell me how my body changes without me,

and I’ll tell you how I learned
to speak a loving thought out loud.
If only I’d stopped right there.

Poetry: Personal Mythologies

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash
If you’re like me, you’ve created a personal mythology, starring YOU, the protagonist.

It sounds so boorish, so self-aggrandizing, but some psychologists (and novelists) say we all do it. Carl Jung, who wrote exhaustively about the function of myth in the human psyche, generated a host of followers who expanded this idea.

The arts can be one way to access or untangle our personal mythologies — the tales we tell ourselves, the stories that help us make sense of chaos and then survive through difficult times, the ones that also, sadly, encourage us to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Writers including Diane Wakowski have written treatises on using the personal mythology in creative endeavors, and poets including Albert Goldbarth have written poems titled “Personal Mythologies.

A little introspection can help us see at least an outline of our personal myths. The story patterns will sound familiar: the rags-to-riches waif, the loyal but jilted lover, the abandoned child, the powerful but tender man.

Our lives can resonate with more than one myth. I see myself as the abandoned child, but I also see myself as the survivor.

Some poets use astrology or tarot to locate their personal myths. Others use literature or film, or meditation, or hypnosis.

Here’s a poem where I critique some of my personal mythologies — in the context of a fungal disease. Occasionally, I get quite tired of those old myths of mine. The poem was originally published in Mezzo Cammin.

Heart Rot

Effective measures don’t exist to treat
this malady attacking hardwood trees.
Prevention by avoiding injuries
can minimize the harm, but not defeat
the possibility. Twice this week

a fallen tree has blocked my way. The first
one shocked a city street, the second burst
in view more secretly beside a creek,

and cut across my path’s trajectory.
My mind suggests these trees are messages

for me; here come the hackneyed images
that feed my personal mythology:

abusers, festering with wrongs they did
to me, and still my memories forbid
free passage. Such is metaphor’s temptation.

I learn that healthy trees wall off decay
in tissues injured on the wounding day,
and grow around the rot, and rarely will
uninjured wood fall prey to fungi. Still,
it’s hard to see which limbs were scraped or mauled,

and harder still to tell which heart holds walled-
off rot behind some calloused acclimation.

Poetry in Form: Villanelle

“Two pigeons nuzzle on a wall in the Trocadéro, the Eiffel Tower visible in the background” by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash
The word “villanelle” is from the French, although the form itself probably originated in Renaissance Italy. Originally, it was not a very structured form, but the villanelle we know today plays by a long list of rules.

It’s ironic that poets, who are so often iconoclasts, have been and continue to be drawn to the limits imposed by form.

Some poets say those limits free them from their mind’s repetitive patterns. I’m in that camp. For example, writing in form forces my brain away from the patterns it wants to follow. It forces me to find and choose words I might not otherwise use. Those two things alone will force me to come up with new ideas.

So instead of form and order being the enemy of the fresh and the new, the order imposed by form can actually push the brain out of its ruts into something entirely new.

The Academy of American Poets gives this complicated but thorough definition of the villanelle:

The highly structured villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2.

Oy vey. And yet, the interlocking nature of the villanelle is so like the obsessions we return to over and over again in our lives. Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” is perhaps the best example of how the form can illuminate — and acknowledge — obsession.

The villanelle below is an attempt to illuminate one or two of my obsessions. When performing it at a reading, I always introduce it as a gardening poem. But of course there’s another level. “Datura” was originally published in The Hypertexts, and also appears in my book, Back East.

Datura

I choose datura from the racks of seed
And nurture them with care, although they’ll grow
Up poisonous and beautiful. I need

Their syrup-scented trumpet-blooms. Their weed-
Like vigor cures me of the winter, so
I choose datura. From the racks of seed

I choose some others, too — the hearts that bleed
In spring, the columbine, and these will grow
Not poisonous, just beautiful. These need

A simpler kind of care; such flowers breed
With ease. I need the razor’s edge, and so
I choose datura from the racks of seed.

Surprise — their family, Nightshade, Jimsonweed
And Belladonna visit me. I grow
Accustomed to poisonous beauty, need

Hypnotics causing death or merely greed
For sleep, for nature’s death-defying show.
I chose datura from the racks of seed,
As poisonous and beautiful as need.

Poetry from Wordplay

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash
Maybe all poetry is all about word play — we bounce meter and rhyme, catch line breaks and stanza breaks, model concrete poems, imagine long abecedarian poems, play dress-up with erasure poems . . .

The most famous word-playing poet may be Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame. His real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodson, and he was also a mathematician. Here are some lines from his poem “Jabberwocky”:

 

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Play is creative; wordplay is no exception. In “Jabberwocky,” the nonsensical words somehow make a certain sense to our brains, perhaps because they are inserted into traditional syntax. We, the readers, create meaning out of nonsense. For example, we may make “slithy” into an adjective that describes the noun “toves.”

Erasure poems happen when poets play with a given text, erasing parts of the text to reveal and create a poem. One contemporary practitioner of erasure and other types of found poetry is E Kristin Anderson, who’s done some remarkable work with novels written by Stephen King.

The poem below, originally published in Hermeneutic Chaos (sadly, this beautiful journal is on hiatus), started out as a way of playing around with two different meanings of a Latin word.

Os

In ancient Latin, the word for bone — os —
was spelled the same as os, the word for mouth.

Once there was a mouth that shrank with age
to a pocket the size of a pea, with no more room

for food, or drink, or teeth, or even a tongue.
It grew smaller and smaller until it became

completely untethered: a small hole
floating in the night sky,

through which only bones spoke,
but only the bones of stars.

Poetry on Marriage

“Elderly man and woman touch foreheads in black and white photo” by Lotte Meijer on Unsplash
The rush and blush of a new love often kickstarts the poetic impulse, but it’s so easy to fall into cliché (at least for me) in one of those I-just-fell-in-love poems.

On the other hand, long-term relationships of any type develop complexity as time passes. That complexity creates a depth and richness that can defy cliché, even when writing of a romantic love relationship.

The Academy of American Poets website has an entire section devoted to poems about marriage and partnership, containing dozens of fine poems. Not all of them are happily-ever-after, but as I’ve heard, marriage is not for the faint of heart.

My second husband and I celebrated our tenth anniversary of marriage this year. I am his fourth wife, so between the two of us, we have a good bit of experience! One of the things I love best about him is that he never tries to censor me — a good habit for someone in a marriage or partnership with a writer.

The poem below was originally published in 2017 in Passager, a journal founded in 1990 in Baltimore, Maryland. Passager only publishes work by writers who are at least 50 years old. They put out beautiful issues, and one of the best things for me about turning fifty was that I could finally submit poems to them.

Marriage Bed

Where sleep renders us equally
introspective and inert, equally

irrational and helpless, unaware
of resentments, or mice rustling,

or branches scraping,
or even of the other’s sleeplessness —

each, in wakeful turn, alone with wakefulness
and envy, astonished at the other’s insensibility.

What luck settles the sleepless partner at last?

The knees unbend as if the body has been lifted up
from face-down prayer. The ligaments extend,

the spine lengthens and the body surrenders
to the heft of the quilts,

to the warmth of the other,
to the mesh of breath,

heft and warmth and mesh tied together
in a poultice, drawing restlessness

from that knot between the shoulder blades.
May we meet in sleep again. Helpless. Disburdened.

Poetry: Making Use of Classical Mythology

Pandora-1879 Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pandora, 1879. Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Classical mythology continues to fascinate us. It never seems to lose its relevance.

So many poems make use of classical mythology, it’s hard to choose examples. And, of course, the ancients themselves often wrote about their myths in poems.

One contemporary poet whose use of myth I very much admire is A.E. Stallings. She’s an American classics scholar who now lives in Athens, Greece. One of her poems centered on ancient Greek mythology is “Actaeon.” Her sonnet “Fairy Tale Logic,” which refers to more modern myths, is one of my favorites, but she’s written many, many fine poems.

Myths often explore the relationship between the individual and the larger community. And, they are often modulated to better fit changing times. The myth of Pandora, for example, is one that’s undergone changes.

Originally, the myth’s story was that Zeus gave a jar (later called a box) to Pandora and told her it was full of gifts for the humans she loved. But Zeus was lying — in fact, the jar was full of demons. Over the years, Pandora changed from a woman who’d been fooled by the ruler of the gods to a woman who was stigmatized because her nosy, disobedient nature compelled her to open a box she knew was dangerous.

Back in 2004, I was diagnosed with hepatitis C, and the stigma surrounding the disease soon became apparent to me. Ultimately, I wrote a lot of poems about this, many in the form of conversations between the stigmatized individual and the virus, and between the individual and the community. The poems, including the sonnet below, were published in an audio chapbook, Virus Conversations, which streams for free on Bandcamp and other platforms.

Elegy for Pandora

Because you are like me — a woman scorned,

defined by your mistakes, a woman whose

mistakes hurt others, whose otherness has turned

her speechless — you know the story’s other side:

God made the jar. He filled it. Then, he lied:

It’s full of gifts for all mankind. Good news!

And you, in innocence, believed. You pried

it open. A host of miseries unfurled

before you slammed it shut with Hope inside,

a doughy, unarmed caterpillar curled

beneath the lip. Pandora, my body is what

I opened. Disease is what I spread. I shut

my mouth and chew on hope. It’s not about

to grow its wings. I cannot spit it out.

Poetry: Imagining Conception

Newborn baby. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

As an adoptee who never met her mother, it may be easier for me to imagine my conception than it is for others — because I have no predetermined story to go on.

But imagining conception of any kind can be a fertile beginning (pun intended) for a poem. Think, for example, of the poems that imagine the conception of the world, or of a piece of fabulous music, or a metaphorical conception, even poems that imagine the beginning of other poems.

Beginnings are powerful, whether they are the beginning of the day or the beginning of night, the beginning of a marriage, or the beginning of old age. But imagining the beginning of something you know well is, perhaps, even more powerful. Imagining such a beginning makes you the co-creator of the something.

The poem below was originally published in Paper Nautilus.

Perfection is what we have to deal with

I see them coming together beside the palmetto thicket at the river,

my father hurrying from the sugar refinery, and my mother

from anywhere but school, tripping over Virginia creeper,

but keeping to the path, knowing what she wants,

although her word for it — love — won’t come close

to describing the brambles setting barbs on her shins,

her caught breath, her matted hair, the sweat between their skins,

the moss that chokes her when he turns away,

the brief secret of her belly swelling,

the not again, for heaven’s sakes hissing of teachers and neighbors,

her move to a distant cousin’s home where the taste

of sweet tea turns bitter on her tongue, or how she pushes me

out of her body with all her tiny might, right into this world

of loss, this universe of no mistakes.

New poems up at Mezzo Cammin

Mezzo Cammin Summer 2018

I’m honored to have two poems in the Summer 2018 issue of Mezzo Cammin: an online journal of formalist poetry by women, edited by the amazing Kim Bridgford. This is my seventh appearance in the journal — the first was in 2007, when poets were still skeptical about online publication, if you can imagine that! Now, the most influential journals in the world publish online.

poetry by the sea

Kim Bridgford is a brilliant, incisive poet in addition to being a visionary publisher and conference organizer. For poets with the time and means to attend poetry conferences, Poetry by the Sea, hosted in a lovely New England coastal town, seems perfect! It’s a thoroughly inclusive conference featuring readings and craft panels. In 2018, the keynote speaker was Rita Dove.

Of the two poems of mine published in this issue, one is about my feet, and the other is about girlfriends. Here’s the foot poem – check out Mezzo Cammin for “Girlfriends,” and all the other fabulous poems in this issue.

Defective Mirror Image 

I hate to say that one of you
has disappointed me. In lieu

of that, I’ll say you’re different.
One perfect, one discontent

as hell. To think, I bragged on both
of you, and decked you out in hosts

of toe rings, fancy shoes and polish.
You’ve stuck together in your smallish

way, resorting to irony.
My left foot won’t embarrass me.

But this right one—she isn’t right at all.
Bunion, hammer toe, odd ball.