As it happened, they didn’t and I took that comment in the spirit in which it was intended; but it taught me something about the central spirit with which people write poetry: poets envy a well-written line and wish they’d written it themselves. Sometimes they know they can improve on a line that shows promise – not being a natural lily, it could do with some gilding (they tell themselves) and they just happen to be the right candidate for the job.
It’s the magpie spirit: if something shines at us, we want it for ourselves. We want to grab it wear it, bear hug it until it is all ours forever.
There’s good, solid, literary argument in favour of the magpie nature of poets when Eliot said:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
It’s the last half of that statement that’s crucial, though the first part gets more press. What begins as “I wish I’d written that!” quickly becomes something more. Bit by bit, the poet begins to tweak the words around, re-shape and re-purpose them so that they’re more than a quotation and something quite different from outright theft. Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra (from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, II.ii) becomes, in Eliot’s Wasteland, something faintly sordid and oppressive (scroll down to ‘A Game of Chess’).
When other people people’s words exercise their pull on the imagination, it sparks a conversation. Christopher Marlowe wrote a poem in which a shepherd woos his love with these lines:
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.
It’s a famous poem by a man famous even in his own time; and it got the reply it deserved. Though - alas – not written by woman, Raleigh’s response from the nymph’s point of view, rightly points out that the shepherd’s trumpery gifts are fleeting and worth little:
Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy bed of roses,
Thy cup, thy kirtle, and thy posies,
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten;–
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.
The belt of straw and ivy-buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,–
All these in me no means can move,
To come to thee, and be thy love.
It’s says something for Marlowe’s original that the poem has spawned so many responses, among them by Donne, W.D. Snodgrass (quoting also from Shakespeare in his version) and William Carlos Williams (who falls on Raleigh’s side and whose poem refers to the others more in spirit than in rhythm).
I began by saying envy could be a good starting point for poetry; but so also could enthusiasm. It is not only covetousness that makes poets gather a dragon’s hoard of words and lines; they also need to cast their bread upon the waters and have it returned to them multiplied by the riches of others’ responses.
Writing – and this hardly needs to be said anymore – is a lonely art and though there are, if one is lucky, an abundance of words, they are conjured in solitude. The pleasure in having written something is the immediate urge to show it to someone else and have their response.
A novelist finding pirated copies of her book at a traffic signal knows she has arrived in the world of letters. Her poetic counterpart who might never be accorded that signal honour is often happy just to have a line here or there ‘borrowed’ by another. If it’s a really great poem, it might even put roots invisibly into the language. Now that is cause for deep envy.
Sridala Swami's second collection of poetry, Escape Artist, was published by Aleph Book Co. in 2014. She is an alumnus of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and blogs at The Spaniard in the Works.