Love and Theft

Mark Ford

One of the most eloquent denunciations of plagiarism is delivered by Tristram Shandy. ‘Shall we forever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?’ he asks. ‘Are we forever to be twisting and untwisting the same rope?’ It was not noticed until some time after Laurence Sterne’s death in 1768 that this passage was itself plagiarised from Robert Burton’s attack on literary imitators in his introduction to The Anatomy of Melancholy. ‘As apothecaries,’ Burton observed, ‘we make new mixtures every day, pour out of one vessel into another … Again, we weave the same web still, twist the same rope again and again.’ Sterne acknowledged his borrowings from writers such as Cervantes and Montaigne, but was curiously silent about his many thefts from Burton. They were first spotted by John Ferriar, a Manchester physician, who in 1793 published a sympathetic but puzzled essay on Sterne’s indebtedness to the Anatomy: ‘I do not mean to treat him as a Plagiarist,’ he writes. ‘I wish to illustrate’ – to celebrate – ‘not to degrade him. If some instances of copying be proved against him, they will detract nothing from his genius, and will only lessen that imposing appearance he sometimes assumed, of erudition which he really wanted.’ Five years later Ferriar issued an expanded discussion of the matter, Illustrations of Sterne (1798), in which he adopted a less lenient attitude towards his author’s habit of making ‘prize of all the good thoughts that came in his way’. This book promoted a lively debate in various magazines about the ethics of Sterne’s ‘borrowed plumes’: was he ‘a literary pilferer’, ‘a servile imitator’, or should one, rather, admire the ‘ingenuity’ with which he incorporated the works of other writers into the patchwork tapestry of his all-accommodating masterpiece?

In The Savage Mind (1962) Lévi-Strauss distinguished between the ‘bricoleur’ who happily assembles constructions from a heterogeneous array of materials, and the more scientifically minded ‘ingénieur’, who is driven by the search for abstract concepts. The dividing line between bricolage and plagiarism is a fine one, and the case of Sterne – and of De Quincey and Coleridge after him – is still in many ways unresolved. Sterne aficionados tend to see the joke as being on Ferriar, especially since Sterne obliquely signalled his debt by choosing as epigraphs for Volumes V and VI of Tristram Shandy, in which the majority of his borrowings from Burton occur, two Latin quotations, one from Horace and one from Erasmus. Both were lifted from a passage in Burton’s Anatomy, and the Erasmus ‘quotation’ includes a reference added by Burton himself to Democritus, the persona he adopts in the Anatomy. Did Sterne intend his readers to pick up on this? The gist of the quotation is: ‘If anyone should complain that I am speaking in a tone that is too frivolous for a divine or too biting for a Christian’ – and here Erasmus ends and Burton begins – ‘not I, but Democritus said it.’ Sterne was himself a divine who had been accused of speaking too lightly, of indulging in extravagant praise of folly, and his Burton-inspired defence is that he, Sterne, was simply adopting a persona. The hybrid allusion links him with two earlier masters of satirical comedy, with the further twist that certain passages in the volumes that follow were indeed first spoken by Democritus.

In his 1989 book on plagiarism, Stolen Words, Thomas Mallon excoriated the academic special pleading that elevated Sterne and Coleridge from literary shoplifters into masters of bricolage and intertextuality. Their cases are analysed along with that of the Victorian novelist Charles Reade, and the American writer Jacob Epstein, whose first novel, Wild Oats (1979), included a number of sentences taken straight from The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis. These plagiarists, he found, nearly always used the notebook defence: they’d copied out passages by authors they admired into their notebooks, but forgot to add quotation marks and attributions; this material then somehow got mixed up with their own. Mallon showed himself a staunch advocate of a no-nonsense approach to the issue, but conceded in an afterword to a new edition of the book, published in 2001, that the internet had blurred still further the demarcations between legitimate and illegitimate appropriation. Virtual information that appears on your own screen tends to seem, viscerally, less someone else’s than when it’s printed in a book with the author’s name on the cover. The ‘boundless textual promiscuity’ (Mallon) of the web has also decisively altered the way we think about information; the point is not so much to be good at remembering things, as to be good at finding them quickly. Already web skills are playing an important role in the evolutionary struggle for survival. Will future historians turn first to the wrist and clicking finger in assessing a corpse from our era? Will those who develop RSI be the information revolution’s lepers? How soon before our relatively recently acquired skills become as obsolete as the ability to kill a mammoth with a spear or write shorthand or programme a VCR?

I found myself pondering all this while writing a poem about the demise of the passenger pigeon, which was published in the LRB (5 August). The idea for the poem came from a comment in an excellent book by Tony Sharpe on Wallace Stevens, in which he speculates on the flocks of pigeons mentioned in the last lines of ‘Sunday Morning’:

And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Sharpe wonders whether Stevens might be referring to the passenger pigeon, once the most numerous bird in America, perhaps on the planet, but by the time of his birth in 1879 on the verge of extinction. The possibility adds an edge of menace to Stevens’s celebration of American spontaneity and independence, and complexly shadows the utopian vision of a ‘supple and turbulent’ ring of men singing a secular hymn to the sun in the poem’s previous stanza. One of the most powerful experiences of Stevens’s early manhood was a seven-week camping and hunting holiday in the Canadian Rockies in the summer of 1903, in the company of his first employer, the attorney W.G. Peckham. His long journal entries from this trip (published in 1977 in Souvenirs and Prophecies, edited by his daughter Holly) suggest that Stevens rapidly metamorphosed into an adept backwoodsman, merrily shooting deer and living off the land like a latter-day Natty Bumppo.[*] It’s hard to square our usual image of Stevens as a doggedly conscientious master of surety and fidelity with this carefree frontiersman, though his life in the wild is surely evoked in ‘Sunday Morning’, with its ideal of a ‘chant of paradise’ uniting his ring of men with the land they inhabit:

Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.

It may seem ‘far-fetched’, Sharpe acknowledges, to connect the ‘casual flocks of pigeons’ that close the poem with the demise of a particular species, but he points out that ‘Sunday Morning’ was composed not long after the death of the last passenger pigeon, named Martha, in Cincinnati zoo on 1 September 1914. The world’s attention was fixed, of course, on other events, and the intensity of Stevens’s vision may reflect not only the masculine camaraderie he so enjoyed on his trip with Peckham, but his mixed feelings about not participating in the even fiercer male bonding rites of military service: the ‘heavenly fellowship’ is of ‘men that perish’. Perhaps the doomed casual flocks of pigeons look back not only to the extinction of the ectopistes migratorius, but across the Atlantic to the mounting casualties of Flanders.

Unlike most of his Modernist contemporaries, Stevens tended to avoid references to facts or information in his poems; he would have agreed with Wittgenstein’s admonition in Zettel: ‘Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.’ Nevertheless, my experience of swooping down and roosting on various websites in search of facts about the passenger pigeon brought to mind another Stevens poem, ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’, which is also concerned with extinction:

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;
And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw.

The children blithely picking up the bones of their ancestors, unaware of and indifferent to the sensual fullness of being they once enjoyed, seemed to me to act in a way analogous to my behaviour in cyberspace, hopping from site to site, converting whatever I picked up to a flickering simulacrum of itself, to what Stevens, in the same poem, calls ‘a tatter of shadows’:

The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion-house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is . . . Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

My passenger pigeon poem acknowledges that the information it contains has been gleaned from the internet, but it also deploys the Sterne/Burton defence by taking in some allusions, including the ‘opulent sun’:

The bird’s sad demise is chronicled on many websites. Children
Visit these for homework, and learn how far and fast the passenger pigeon
Flew, and that its breast was red, and head and rump slate blue.

As the opulent sun set, raccoon-hatted hunters would gather with pots
Of sulphur, and clubs and poles and ladders; in a trice they’d transform the dung-
Heaped forest floor into a two-foot carpet of smouldering pigeon.

Like too many of my poems, this one ends up being about empires, their rise and fall; for undoubtedly the seething activity of cyberspace will one day disappear as conclusively as the vast clouds of passenger pigeons that once darkened the skies of America; one can only hope some institution of the future will be able to preserve a relic or two in honour of it, as the Smithsonian now preserves the stuffed remains of Martha.

Should the Sterne defence seem unconvincing, however, the modern poet can always fall back on the notion of the ‘found’ poem.

How nice to read a new book by Wittgenstein!
But how much nicer to read ‘A new book by Wittgenstein
will naturally be felt to illuminate
whatever topic or subject it treats of.
Not that the present offering is exactly
a new book by Wittgenstein at all.
“The first thing to be said about this book
is that nothing contained herein
was written by Wittgenstein himself.”’
Oh, reading about Wittgenstein,
even when it is not exactly about Wittgenstein,
is so much better than reading Wittgenstein himself.

This is one of my favourite found, or nearly-all-found poems, Edwin Morgan’s ‘A New Book by Wittgenstein’ (1966).[†] The found poem brings into question notions of authenticity and individuality more directly than any other poetic genre: it is poetry’s version of Duchamp’s urinal (signed R. Mutt). Morgan’s found poems include pieces derived from the letters of Cowper and Keats, and a sequence collaged from A.S. Alexander’s Tramps across Watersheds (1925). Other British exponents of the genre include avant-gardists such as Tom Raworth, cris cheek and Bob Cobbing. Cobbing, who late in life even took to cutting up his own cut-ups, was also a master of concrete poems, sound poems, and what he called ‘word-nets’, in which the poem is figured as a net catching whatever acoustically related words or verbal fragments come its way.

Implicit in such experiments in minimalism is a challenge to what we think constitutes the poetic. At the other end of the scale – by far the longest work ever published to be based on the principle of the found poem – is Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative, which consists of hundreds of stories taken from law reports and organised according to region, date and category; for example, ‘Social Life’, ‘Machine Age’, ‘Property’, ‘Negroes’, ‘Children’, ‘Railroads’. Reznikoff trained as a lawyer, and worked for several years for the legal encyclopedia Corpus Juris. He became fascinated by the literary potential of witness statements, and in 1934 published the first version of Testimony, a prose anthology or collage based on summaries of court reports. The ‘recitative’ version, however, issued in two volumes in 1965 and 1968 and running to more than five hundred pages, presents its narratives taken from legal briefs in loose, free-flowing verse. Here is ‘Episode in the Life of a Schoolteacher’ from ‘The South (1901-10)’:

The Negro schoolmistress gave birth to a child –
her parents did not know and she did not want them to –
gave birth in the school’s water-closet
and left the child under the water-closet on the ground.
Three Negro girls who went to the school
at recess saw the baby under a hole in the seat.
One of the girls had jumped up and said,
‘Oh, there is a baby!’
It was raising its hands and kicking its feet
but its eyes were shut
and its mouth full of sand.

Although Reznikoff avoids revealing the legal outcomes of the cases he includes, we are always aware while reading Testimony of the legal conventions governing the way each story is told. The versification is rarely intrusive; but in a subtle, almost subliminal way, it dignifies and deepens the events that triggered the intervention of the law: the railroad accidents, the cold-blooded murders, the gross examples of corporate negligence, the thefts, the suicides, the labour disputes, the mining disasters, the racial conflicts, the crimes passionnels. The poem also might be said to cast a quizzical, even sceptical light on the titanic efforts of an American Modernist poet such as Hart Crane to impose on American history an overarching, all-comprehending myth or narrative: the sheer multiplicity of its characters and their stories defeats all impulses and attempts to generalise. Reznikoff was active in left-wing circles, and clearly thought of his project as an instrument for social justice; but like the organisers of Mass Observation in Britain in the 1930s, he wisely decided to let the evidence speak for itself.

It was the work of two poets with a very different political agenda that most conclusively established the notion that one might use the words of others in one’s own poem. Eliot and Pound weren’t great fans of democracy or equality: indeed their allusions often serve to exclude or ridicule the ignorant masses (‘Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight./Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night’), as well as to furnish any reader who is ready to be initiated into the mysteries of the high-cultural elite with a comprehensive reading list. Borrowings from an array of texts are interspersed throughout The Waste Land, some acknowledged in Eliot’s notes to the poem and others not. To read The Waste Land properly, one has to understand how its various allusions fit together, and the interpretation of cultural and literary history they develop. Eliot and Pound were both bricoleurs, but they were purposeful: the great chunks of Jefferson and Adams and Confucius that find their way into The Cantos illustrate Pound’s version of history, and are intended to show how the chaos of the present might be redeemed if we could only be led to make sense – his sense, that is – of the past.

But not all Modernist poets used source material in such a coercive way. Marianne Moore, for instance, was as dependent as Pound or Eliot on the use of other texts, but her quotations are often taken from recondite works helpfully signalled in her extensive author’s notes: Report on the Introduction of Domestic Reindeer into Alaska, Antiques in and about London, Animals of New Zealand, and a Bell Telephone leaflet called The World’s Most Accurate Clocks. Moore’s borrowings are scrupulously signalled by quotation marks in the poem itself, and often contain plenty of information: ‘“In Buckinghamshire hedgerows,’” one begins, quoting, so a note informs us, E. McKnight Kauffer,

‘the birds nesting in the merged green density
weave little bits of string and moths and feathers and thistledown,
in parabolic concentric curves’ and
working for concavity, leave spherical feats of rare efficiency.

Moore seems to me Modernism’s purest bricoleur, weaving her poems from shreds and patches. Her poems also foreground the ordinary act of reading: she delights in a newspaper article on the Brooklyn Dodgers or the report of a conversation between a couple of horse-trainers – and this gives her assemblages an air of being scavenged from the everyday, as if anything at all could be grist to her poetic mill.

There was a strong documentary element in much late Modernist American writing, and epics such as William Carlos Williams’s Paterson or Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems (set in Gloucester, Massachusetts) are in essence enormous collages that attempt to capture the spirit of a place by combining memoirs, histories, town records, overheard scraps of speech, newspaper clippings, and lyric descriptions of landscape, riverscape, townscape, and seascape. In Paterson, Williams included extracts from letters from Edward Dahlberg, Allen Ginsberg, and from a woman called Marcia Nardi, who had turned up in his surgery in Rutherford in the spring of 1942 with a sick son and a sheaf of poems. Williams liked these a great deal, and wrote to say so. He also tried to persuade his publisher, James Laughlin at New Directions, to take her on, though to no avail. In reply he received from Nardi a long series of bitter missives that castigate him for smugness and selfishness, and reveal her own despair: ‘Your whole relationship with me,’ she tells him, ‘amounted to pretty much the same thing as your trying to come to the aid of a patient suffering from pneumonia by handing her a box of aspirin or Grove’s cold pills and a glass of hot lemonade.’ These letters play a vital role in the dialogue between the genders that Paterson attempts to orchestrate, and are among the most gripping pages of the poem. He used them without her permission, for she had disappeared, but was able to salve his conscience somewhat when she resurfaced in 1949; he gave her small amounts of money, obtained for her a grant of $250, and even managed to get some of her new work into print.

The dilemma over a poet’s right to include another’s words in his or her work came back with a vengeance when Robert Lowell decided to include in his 1973 collection, The Dolphin, a number of sonnets based on letters from his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Lowell had left her, and their daughter, Harriet, for England and Caroline Blackwood; The Dolphin tells, as he put it in a letter to Christopher Ricks, ‘the story of changing marriages, not a malice or sensation, far from it, but necessarily, according to my peculiar talent, very personal. Lizzie is naturally very much against it. I am considering publication in about a year; it needn’t be published, but I feel clogged by the possibility of not.’ It’s not hard to see why Lizzie was against it. Lowell called the work ‘half-fiction’, and one can’t confidently tell what is verbatim transcript of her letters, and what has been doctored. The sonnets in her voice are disturbingly private:

‘I love you, Darling, there’s a black black void,
as black as night without you. I long to see
your face and hear your voice, and take your hand . . .’

(‘In the Mail’)

Friends such as Stanley Kunitz and Elizabeth Bishop (who a few years earlier had been dismayed to find one of her own distressed letters to Lowell recycled as a sonnet) begged him not to publish: ‘Art just isn’t worth that much,’ she insisted, asking if he ‘wasn’t violating a trust’ and declaring it ‘cruel’ to ‘use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way’.

Pound defined the epic as a poem including history, and Lowell eventually decided the hundreds of sonnets he composed in the late 1960s and early 1970s should be arranged chronologically and presented as an epic collage, which he called History, and which takes us from Genesis to the death of John Berryman. The Modernist impulse to introduce historical documents and sources into poems evolved partly as a reaction against Victorian notions of the ideal poem as a pure, lyric expression of the poet’s genius, a view brilliantly popularised by Palgrave – with a little help from Tennyson – in his bestselling anthology. Incorporating material from other sources and people is bound to make poetry impure, messy, diverse, inconclusive. The historical collage-epic is still going strong: Tom Paulin’s The Invasion Handbook (2002), a mix of letters, translations, newspaper reports and poetic portraits arranged to illuminate the origins of the Second World War, is a recent example.

Found or collage poems underline the truism that all writing depends on other writing: a poem may aspire to stand alone, but any piece of writing presented as a poem inevitably triggers the reader’s assumptions about what kinds of thing a poem should be or do, which it confirms or modifies or challenges or refutes. And no poet can be for long unaware that however new a ‘mixture’ may at first seem, to return to Sterne borrowing from Burton, it is also a pouring ‘out of one vessel into another’, the result of love and theft, to quote the title of a book by Eric Lott on the origins of blackface minstrelsy in 1820s and 1830s America, a title itself stolen – as he acknowledges by the use of quotation marks – by Bob Dylan for his latest album, ‘Love and Theft’. At a 1965 press conference in San Francisco, Dylan was surprised to find himself asked not if he was still a folk singer or a protest singer or the voice of his generation, but if he thought he might ever be hung as a thief. The questioner was Allen Ginsberg, and Dylan, whose loving thefts from a vast and eclectic array of musical and literary sources have kept armies of Dylan researchers busy, could only reply, giggling: ‘You weren’t supposed to say that.’

[*] Bumppo is the hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels. The Pioneers (1823) contains a brilliant account of a mass slaughter of passenger pigeons, and a warning from Natty of vengeance from the Almighty, who, he inaccurately prophesies, ‘won’t see the waste of his creatures for nothing, and right will be done to the pigeons, as well as others, by-and-by.’

[†] Morgan must be referring to Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, edited by Cyril Barrett and compiled from notes taken by Yorick Smythies, Rush Rhees and James Taylor.