Thursday, March 14, 2013

Stealing Poetry

On my walk yesterday I saw a pileated woodpecker!  Ah!  As you know, that's one of my very favorite birds to see because they aren't around all that much and when they open their wings to fly, the pattern on their wings is gorgeous.

So I left my copy of the yellow issue of Fairy Tale Review somewhere and now, when I want to use it, can't find it.  Inside there was a fabulous poem called "Cinder" (I think I'm remembering correctly) which was so clever and I wanted to write it out and steal from it.  I had even written inside the cover that I wanted to do so.  Now that I can't find my copy, I wonder what someone glancing around inside might wonder about that.  About stealing from it.  If they think poets are all a bunch of thieves.   How do you tell people about T.S. Eliot's injunction that good poets borrow, great poets steal?  What I take that to mean, from my own poetry experience, is that I steal the character of Ophelia and run away with her and take her to a river and devise my own story.  Or that I discover a new form, like Natasha Trethewey's Myth poem, and want to use that form for my own poems.  Or take words from a poem or bird book and riff off of them.

So I'm curious:  Is that what you take Eliot to mean?  How do you steal in your poetry? 

I'm also wondering about this because a new press, in their submission guidelines states that no plagiarism will be tolerated and that "all quotes will be checked for copyright issues." (I feel I should quote them!) Of course, one should document one's borrowings, but for some reason this seems, I don't know, obvious and therefore unnecessary to state so in their guidelines.  That it should be understood.  Is plagiarism as much a problem in poetry as it is in college comp classes these days?

Shoplifting Poetry
Martin Steingesser

We're in the bookstore stealing poems,
lifting the best lines--
You cop one from Williams,
I stick my hand into Pound.
No one's looking...
I throw you a line from The Cantos--
It disappears in your ear like spaghetti.
We stuff ourselves with Crane,
cummings, Lowell, Voznesensky--
Neruda, Rilke, Yeats!
The goods dissolve in our brain.
Now we move from the shelves with caution.
The cashier's watching. Can she tell?
Fat! We've overeaten.
You giggle. End-rhymes leak at your lips like bubbles.
I clap a hand on your mouth.
You are holding my ears
as we fall out the door.

      ©1977, Martin Steingesser, all rights reserved


  1. What a fun poem! They are eating the lines, sharing the lines, reading the lines, yes? And the whole poem is a crediting.

    Sadly, I think plagiarism is a real problem, yes. Also, I suspect "stealing poetry" has been taken a bit too literally by some poets, who don't then credit the originals. Alas.

    If I use a line or phrase from another poet (imbedding), I italicize it and then try to credit the original source in a contributor's note, or notes at the back of my book, or whatever way is best in the circumstances of publication. If it's a collage poem or cento, I see poets providing a list of the source poets in a note at the end, and there both the form and the note acknowledge the original makers.

    I love the way you "stole" Ophelia and revived her! (To quote YOU.)

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Kathleen. Yes, I think that's the way most poets provide information--in the notes, etc. I haven't heard too much of poets out and out stealing, though. Hmmmm...It's all very interesting! And thanks!

  2. Ditto everything Kathleen said. I do think that using the work of others without any form of crediting is on the rise in poetry. A couple or words, a phrase? no big deal, but when we start lifting whole lines, I think we need to at least acknowledge that in the contrib. notes, in an epigraph, or in a footnote.

    1. Interesting that you, too, think it's on the rise! I have taken a few phrases for my poems and wondered about that.... Thanks for your input!

  3. Agree with Kathleen and Sandy. I'm as much a thief as anyone, but if I use actual text from another person's writing in my poem, I credit it in a contributor's note. More often, though, the work I "steal" is just a stepping stone to my next poem -- free-writing off a phrase from a poem I've read, or using its syntactical map (even then, I do the "after" type of note).

    1. I think that's the idea of stealing I mean...that I do as well. I like that phrase "syntactical map"--perfect!


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