Discussion → Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal

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    Ann Bogle
    Apr 29, 06:42am

    A statement attributed to T.S. Eliot, Nancy Prager, Esq. researches its source at her weblog, A Blog That Works:


    The source of Eliot's statement is:

    T.S. Eliot (1888–1965). The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. 1922.

    Philip Massinger:


    He writes:

    "We turn first to the parallel quotations from Massinger and Shakespeare collocated by Mr. Cruickshank to make manifest Massinger's indebtedness. 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. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne. The two great followers of Shakespeare, Webster and Tourneur, in their mature work do not borrow from him; he is too close to them to be of use to them in this way. Massinger, as Mr. Cruickshank shows, borrows from Shakespeare a good deal. Let us profit by some of the quotations with which he has provided us—


    Can I call back yesterday, with all their aids
    That bow unto my sceptre? or restore
    My mind to that tranquillity and peace
    It then enjoyed?


    Not poppy, nor mandragora,
    Nor all the drowsy syrops of the world
    Shall ever medecine thee to that sweet sleep
    Which thou owedst yesterday.

    "Massinger's is a general rhetorical question, the language just and pure, but colourless. Shakespeare's has particular significance; and the adjective "drowsy" and the verb "medecine" infuse a precise vigour. This is, on Massinger's part, an echo, rather than an imitation or a plagiarism—the basest, because least conscious form of borrowing. "Drowsy syrop" is a condensation of meaning frequent in Shakespeare, but rare in Massinger."

    How do you relate to Eliot's statement in the course of writing fiction?

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    Sam Rasnake
    Apr 29, 09:36am

    Great thread, Ann.

    I've only ventured briefly - and am continuing to try my pen there... poetry is my brew - into fiction, but I think Eliot's point is as true for fiction as it is for poetry. There are only so many stories that can be told anyway - seven - or so I've always believed. Imitation is bad - stealing's a must.

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    Edward Mullany
    Apr 30, 02:01pm

    I agree. Was it Dostoevsky who said, "We all came from Gogol's overcoat"?

    Maybe inspiration is both cumulative and instantaneous. All the things we've read that stayed with us contain things we can take and try to make new. But sometimes we'll be shocked into action by a new kind of work we've never before encountered. This inspiration might be stronger, but more fleeting.

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    Ben White
    Apr 30, 04:39pm

    Edward, I agree, especially with the idea of being shocked into action. If something resonates with me in the moment, I immediately want to capture that in some form in a few sentences of my own. The impulse doesn't last, but it can be dramatic.

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    Brian Mihok
    May 02, 11:04am

    I would also say that imitation is useful, though as a means to an end. It is helpful to the student (amateur, I suppose), but will have to be surpassed to mature.

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    Ann Bogle
    May 02, 09:01pm

    On the way from the store today, I passed a moving-picture billboard that said: "Stolen Paintings? Call the FBI." I realized that I'd seen more Monets and Van Goghs in the Lake Minnetonka area than in any city where I'd lived, yet I hadn't wondered -- until seeing the billboard -- whether any could have been stolen from their "original" owners. Art is gift. Snatched art is like kidnapping. Eliot's use of the word "steal" is in passing, is matter of fact, and he doesn't elaborate on it as he does with the word "borrow." I think banking has to do with it! Ezra Pound wrote about emulation, but I haven't been able to relocate the passage (about a mountain).

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    Gabriel Orgrease
    May 16, 11:43am

    Yesterday I was reading about academic plagiarism in a right-wing diatribe against Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan that led me to Standing in the Shadow of Giants: plagiarists, authors, collaborators, by Rebecca Moore Howard that can be found here: http://bit.ly/95IlAX

    The author talks about patchwriting (an interesting term in itself) and how it is the nearly verbatim imitation of existing written text that educates and informs a young writer as to how to function as a writer, let alone without imitation that a writer is not likely to learn enough to develop a unique voice of their own.

    Going further there is considerable academic study as to the politics of plagiarism, and as to the psychology of childhood learning by which we learn to acquire the use of words... it being that words in themselves are borrowed, or stolen as we may imagine, and that in and of themselves without a social context, without words engaging in some form of one-to-one beyond one-to-oneself communications that they are of negligible value. What I say to our dog may only have substance in my mind, but the dog does seem to like being talked with.

    Elsewhere I read about the Carver/Lish relationship... which brings back memory of the Eliot/Pound relationship.

    What is curious to me in the Carver/Lish situation is not so much what Lish did in editing Carver, as that in a manner it was a collaboration passed off as the work of an individual and in some sense to me there is a political falsity to that presentation that masks the underlying process of production of an aesthetic product that is in some ways comparable to the falsity of plagiarism.

    At least Eliot's Wasteland as edited by Pound has for a few decades been available with all of the markings.

    In the end I find the overall question of imitation and theft interesting but as odd as trying to determine why water is wet.

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    Stephen Stark
    Jun 25, 01:14pm

    I'm sure this contributes nothing but:

    1) I didn't come from Gogol's Overcoat. I came from his Nose.

    2) The first time I heard (read) the putative Eliot quote it was attributed to Mark Twain, and if I recall, it was Amateur humorists borrow, professionals steal. But it was in a book I bought in a headshop called Rainbow Tree in about 1974, and the author was a character from Kurt Vonnegut, as was the title of the novel. Nowhere else have I been able to find that attribution. But when I heard later that it attributed to Eliot, I thought, Hee hee hee. What does that mean?

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    Darryl Price
    Jul 11, 11:02am

    The art of the steal is to make it an integral part of the art you make. I was thinking a great modern example would have to be the Beatles who obviously stole from The Everly Brothers, Little Richard, and Elvis, but what they did with it was highly original in the process and interesting and finally made into their own unique one of a kind sound.It mutated from much use into something brand new. And it was more than influence. It became a recognized thing all over the planet. But there's certainly the case for Shakespeare in there, too. My point being you can't help what seeps in so deeply that it touches your soul but you do have a certain amount of free creative impulse in the end that affords you the chance to make it into something all your own, original to you, your own thoughts and feelings, if you are lucky.

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