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There exists a type of poem that, by definition, comprises of other people’s poems. The cento pirates lines from various texts, shakes them up like dice, and rolls them out to produce a new work.
T.S. Eliot wasn’t aiming to create a cento when he sat down to write “The Wasteland,” but he also wasn’t opposed to the idea of reiteration via “allusion, quotation, … and ventriloquism.” Eliot talked openly about his endorsement of plagiarism, not much unlike a bank robber handing over some cash for a venti latte and informing the baristas of his unlawful source. He even leaned over the counter and suggested that they adopt his methodology: “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal!”
Eliot was unabashed about his thieving tendencies. But though he was more explicit than most, he was only one of many. Poems rattle with echoes; the plagiarism of poetry stretches back almost as far as poetry itself. Virgil’s ancient “Aeneid” can be found in dozens of subsequent hits, including Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” William Wordsworth wrote an autobiographical “Prelude” that mimics Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” which mimics the story of Adam and Eve, which was originally transmitted orally. Bob Dylan’s song “Barbara Allen” is pulled from an anonymous ballad poem written sometime around the 16th century; the opening of “When You Are Old” by Yeats is in fact a variation of a French sonnet; and Hemingway stole the title of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” from poet John Donne, whose best-known line, poor thing, is instead frequently accredited to Hemingway.
This verbatim copying is blatant, and mostly unattributed. There is no footnote in the neo-Western movie title “No Country for Old Men” that mutters in our ear, “By the way, this line is originally from a Yeats poem.” Unlike in academia, plagiarism in poetry is intended to be found out. Poetic references are a boon to the art form, not a crime committed by the poet. If appropriated excerpts are to have an impact, the reader needs to be able to recognize the referenced sources and say, “Hey, I see what you did there.” This makes poetic references risky in their own way: If a reference goes over someone’s head, is the reference really there?
Poetry is not unique in in its reliance on previously said words. We live in a swamp of references, with a cultural toolkit that has not varied for a long time. A large portion of our songs consist of the same four chords. While new words occasionally wiggle their way into our dictionaries, our overall vocabulary remains largely unchanged. We have Roy G. Biv to paint with and 10 numerals with which to solve the physical universe. Our worldly lexicons are fairly fixed. You can’t help but wonder what was it like when everything was new. How did Socrates feel each morning when he put his feet on the floor in the morning, stretched, and contributed a shiny new philosophical theory? How about the person who spoke the first word? The first notes of music?
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