Whose Poem Is It Anyway?

As part of my internship with the Creative Writing Program, I generated numerous PR materials for the 50th Annual Wallace Stevens Poetry Program.  This year’s guest poet was Susan Howe, a writer who combines history and lyricism in unique and unconventional patterns.

History haunts Howe’s verses, and the writer often reflects on the failure of poetry to discern the reason for life and death.   I was particularly affected by Howe’s astonishing delivery of the poem, “Frolic Architecture,” a poem dominated by clipped words, rogue sounds, and variations in rhythm.  Her piece exposes the fragility of language and its impossible task of describing the universe.   I recommend this YouTube video of Howe’s performance of this piece: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xR6cfDFTL8Q.  This video was recorded at Harvard University, and Howe’s reading is accompanied by a musical underscore by David Grubs.  However, at her Wallace Stevens Reading, Howe’s words were not accompanied and all the more disarming.  This night of poetry left me both inspired and intimidated.  Howe’s poetry and the works of the Wallace Stevens Contest winners were truly beautiful.  Without a doubt, crafting effective verse is one of the most careful and deliberate processes in writing creatively.

Before the reading I attended the program’s reception in the Mansfield Room of the Nathan Hale Inn.   While slowly sipping a $7 glass of Sauvignon Blanc, I spoke with this year’s second place contest winner, Ryan McLean, a first year student at UConn’s School of Law, and Lori Carrierre, a graduate student and assistant to the director of the Creative Writing Program.  We were discussing Lori’s plans for teaching her first writing class in the fall and how she could juggle the fiction and poetry genres.  Ryan asked whether Lori had considered presenting the “cut-up technique” as a way to bridge the gap between prose and verse.  From our conversation and after a quick late-night Wikipedia search, I’ll define what I understand to be the “cut-up technique”: the practice of taking a pre-existing prose text and cutting out words, phrases, and lines to create a poem; in essence, poetry from the scraps of prose.

I was skeptical.  Can there be literary merit in a piece derived directly from a work by another author?  A future patent lawyer, Ryan confessed that he’d only practiced this technique on his own writing.  At this early point in his legal career, he was unsure of the potential violations of personal property.  Indeed, ideas cannot be protected, but this isn’t the case for the written word.  One must ask: what if not all the words are copied and the story is completely altered in its poetic form?  At what point is a piece no longer the original?  How many deletions in a paragraph justify the statement, “This is my creation”?  To avoid these artistic conundrums, the safest bet is to use only your own material or literature that’s already public property, such as the works of Shakespeare.

Because I wanted to write a poem and take a break from Shakespeare (see this YouTube video for an explanation of why I’m avoiding this playwright for as long as possible: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCuqu8hlLqU&feature=youtu.be), I decided to give the “cut-up technique” a try on The Thirty-Nine Steps, a 1915 spy novel by John Buchan.  It was due back in the library the next day and I had already renewed it once.  It was also the first book I put my hand on.  Not wanting to go crazy selecting the “perfect” section to cut-up, I randomly turned to the first paragraph on page 26, Chapter III: “The Adventure of the Literary Innkeeper.”  This is the paragraph:

I had a solemn time traveling north that day.  It was fine May

weather, with the hawthorn flowering on every hedge, and I

asked myself why, when I was still a free man, I had stayed on

in London and not got the good of this heavenly country.  I

didn’t dare face the restaurant car, but I got a luncheon-basket

at Leeds and shared it with the fat woman.  Also I got the

morning’s papers, with news about starters for the Derby and

the beginnings of the cricket season, and some paragraphs about

how Balkan affairs were settling down and a British squadron

was going to Kiel. (Buchan 26)

This is my “cut-up poem:”

On a solemn day in May,

at a flowering hedge I

asked, “Why, free man,

did not the good heaven

dare face

the fat woman?”  I got

papers, with news about starters and

beginnings.  And some about

affairs settling down.

Going to Kiel.

While cutting up Buchan’s paragraph, I selected words I found intriguing to include in the poetic form.  Then I slightly altered the order and tenses of the words so that a narrative was clear.   Though this poem is mediocre at best, this was an engaging exercise.  I found the limitations of working only with Buchan’s text oddly liberating.  Indeed, the sheer range of possibilities in poetry is staggering.  Perhaps working within the parameters of an old text can lead to the creation of a completely original work.  It’s too soon to say if this will work for me, but I would still like to thank John Buchan for writing this paragraph, and also the Homer Babbage Library for its renewal policy.

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