"When a contemporary poet [uses] quotes...It tells us less about whom a poet hopes to equal and more about where he’d like to hang out."
The above statement, edited slightly, is from David Orr's op-ed piece in yesterday's NY Times Book Review (which you can read in its entirety here) on why contemporary poets use epigrams and citations so much. This topic is of immense interest to me, as I spent an entire year writing poems from nothing but found language--overheard conversations, lines from poems, novels, comic books, fortune cookies--anything I found of interest, really, and, I never once cited my sources. I don't intend to use this piece as a launch pad to espouse my own theories on why contemporary poets quote, mostly because I'm still figuring out what's happening today in poetry and can really only speak for myself. What I do intend to highlight is what David Orr is really talking about: ownership and "originality".
The above quote from Orr, though it is clearly the main argument he is making, does not come at the beginning of the article. Rather, it begins as follows:
Imagine that this essay began not with the sentence you’re reading, but with the following observation, attributed to Wittgenstein: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” A little oblique for an opening gambit, you might think, but presumably it will pay off shortly. Imagine further, however, that the Wittgenstein quotation was immediately followed by quotes from Simone Weil, the Upanishads and the Hungarian poet Gyorgy Petri. At this point, you might find yourself wondering, “O.K., when is the actual author going to actually give me something he actually wrote?”
Imagine that David Orr had written a poem and, rather than citing Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, the Upanishads, and Gyorgi Petri, he just strung the quotes together. Wouldn't that completely bypass the question he posed in the final sentence of this paragraph? It seems the act of citing your sources (a necessity in criticism, a nice gesture in anything creative) is what makes this an issue. Wouldn't it also solve the problem of "where the writer would like to hang out" if no point of reference was given?
Of course, to so would be stealing--but didn't T.S. Eliot, who Orr both praises a great poet and blames for the state of the citation in contemporary poetry, say, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal"? (It should be noted that when The Waste Land was published, many critics dismissed it saying something to the effect of, "Eliot has quoted a lot and alluded a lot, but what he has actually written is far too insubstantial").
So then why is Eliot so highly regarded and these others written off as mere followers? Is it because he is the "original thief?" (I'd like to remind everyone that he later published his own notes to The Waste Land with annotations). Whatever Eliot truly meant, I believe his intention with the quotation was that someone already said it better and best to steal what is well said than regurgitate and water it down.
One author this article doesn't mention is Louis Zukofsky, whose Poem Beginning 'The' is far more radical in its approach to quotations. He prefaces his poem with the notes, arranged alphabetically, but lets the quotations sit within in the poem, undisturbed by the original author's name. Since each line is numbered, it serves the dual purpose of giving the illusion of a linear progression (though in actuality it reminds us of the stitched-together nature of the poem) as well as provides for easy reference to these notes. However, these notes do nothing to show respect to Zukofsky's predecessors. This is evident by the presence of citations to The Sun, Zukofsky himself, and to "anyone and anything [he] has unjustifiably forgotten."
So who owns this work then? I think this is a big part of what Zukofsky was trying to highlight by bringing so much disparate material together--not only the nature of a poem, but the nature of identity. One cannot draw a line and say, "This is what I have created and this is what I have taken from someone else," because at some point, it becomes impossible to tell the difference, or where one begins and one ends. Of course, nobody wants to be accused of plagiarism, so we're basically stuck where we were nearly one hundred years ago, when Eliot was written off as someone with an impressive ability to quote, but not a lot to say.
Ironically, in that same quote I began this post with, Orr asserts that most poets today quote to be like T.S. Eliot. Really? Though Eliot certainly popularized the use of numerous quotations, he didn't invent it. I'd be interested in asking the poets he mentions in his article if they are particularly influenced by Eliot or where they got the idea to use quotations from. It seems a little presumptuous to say that Eliot's shadow is still that big over the world of poetry. I mean, since I began this post with a quotation, does that mean I'd like to be Eliot? Since it was a quote by David Orr, does that mean I want to "hang out" with him? Or was it merely the starting point for this post?