Poetry or Prose?

Poetry or Prose?
Wednesday Workshop
22 September 2021
Patos de setiembre.

When I write, I do not distinguish between poetry or prose. More often than not I think in terms of the rhythm and musicality of the words I am using, if the words sound right, when read out loud, they probably are. Here is a prose poem, Cage of Flame. It is written in prose, but it’s meaning is dependent on imagery, metaphors, associative fields, and musicality. Read it as you would any piece of prose, in sentences, following the guidance of the grammar. Read it two or three times quietly to yourself then, when you have grasped the poem’s rhythms, try reading it out loud. If you want to know how I would read this poem, check my recorded readings on my blog, Spotify or SoundCloud.

Cage of Flame

Now you are a river flowing silver beneath the moon. High tide in the salt marsh: your body fills with shadow and light. I dip my hands in dappled water. Twin gulls, they float down stream, then perch on an ice-floe of half-remembered dreams. Eagle with a broken wing, why am I trapped in this cage of flame? When I turn my feathers to the sun, my back is striped with the black and white of a convict’s bars. Awake, I lie anchored by what pale visions fluttering on the horizon? White moths wing their snow storm through the night. A feathered shadow ghosts fingers towards my face. Butterflies stutter against a shuttered window. A candle flickers in the darkness and maps in runes the ruins of my heart. Eye of the peacock, can you touch what I see when my eyelids close for the night? Last night, the black rock of the midnight sun rolled up the sky. The planet quivered beneath my body as I felt each footfall of a transient god.

Clearly the above is prose because it has no line breaks. But what happens when we break that prose into shorter lines and turn it into a poem?

Cage of Flame

Now you are a river flowing
silver beneath the moon.
High tide in the salt marsh:
your body fills with shadow and light.
I dip my hands in dappled water.

Eagle with a broken wing,
why am I trapped in this cage of flame?
When I turn my feathers to the sun,
my back is striped with the black
and white of a convict’s bars.

Awake,
I lie anchored by what pale visions
fluttering on the horizon?
White moths wing their snow
storm through the night.
A feathered shadow ghosts
fingers towards my face.
Butterflies stutter against
a shuttered window.
A candle flickers in the darkness
and maps in runes the ruins of my heart.

Eye of the peacock,
can you touch what I see
when my eyelids close for the night?
The black rock of the midnight sun
rolled up the sky.

Last night, the planet quivered
beneath my body and I felt
each footfall of a transient god.

            It seems to be the same text, but is it? And what happens if we change those line breaks? It will change the external structure of prose > to poem > to new poem, but it will not alter the internal structures that survive all format changes. Does the rhythm stay the same in both cases? It certainly does when I read it, but how about you? Poetry or prose? And what’s the difference anyway if the words roll off your tongue and metaphors, mystery, and magic rule?

Comment:
Clearly poetry and prose are not interchangeable, for they both fulfill different functions. The classical difference is often said to lie between history, what actually happened, and poetry, the formal arrangements of words in song. This seemingly simple definition becomes blurred, of course, when history, written in prose, is confused with epic, the retelling of history in poetic form. Prose fiction is a much later development and it is Miguel de Cervantes who gives us, in Don Quixote, his own Renaissance solution: “La épica también puede escribire en prosa” / the epic can also be written in prose. The mingling of poetry and prose underlines the use of rhetorical tropes in writing. Later, Baudelaire will offer us us his Petits poèmes en prose thus gifting the world with prose poems. Much of what I write is prose poetry or poetry in prose. Rhythm, metaphor, allusions, alliteration, similes, intertextuality all combine to decorate my writing. And yes, I am very clear about what I am trying to do.

International Book Day

23 April 1616 > 23 April 2021
International Book Day.

Today we celebrate the anniversary of the deaths of three great writers: el Inca Garcilasso de la Vega (Comentarios Reales, Peru), William Shakespeare (poetry and plays, England), and Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote and so much more, Spain).

Our hibiscus decided to issue its first official blossom of the year, just to help us all celebrate this day.

CV-19 Week 3 Day 2

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CV-19 Week 3 Day 2
Reading in Multiples

Legend tells us that Francisco de Quevedo possessed a revolving book stand-cum-lectern. He placed this on his table at meal times and he would have four books open at the same time, moving rapidly in his reading from one to another. I have always liked this idea. As a result, I am now doing something similar.

I began by taking out Don Quixote, which I am once again reading in Spanish. The adventures of our Ingenious Gentleman are a delight and this time, the slowness of my 28th reading of the 1605 text allows me to taste every word, to roll the syllables round the tongue, and to savor every word. With CV-19 on the loose, there are no deadlines, no use by dates, and nothing to prevent me from delaying the full enjoyment of each word of the text. Equally important, there is no class preparation, no waiting audience, just me, an old man now, following the thoughts and adventures of an old man as written by an old man, Miguel de Cervantes, way back when.

I have the Collected Poems of Phillip Larkin on the table beside me. What a different world. What depth of insight and observation. What a bearing of witness to the follies and foibles of an England that I left behind so long ago, much of it vanished now, along with the old choir stalls and the hedgerows, the cuckoos and the skylarks. I read and re-read The Old Fools and realize just how close I am to that cliff edge, that precipice, that Alpine peak, beneath which I shelter and seek succour. Then I turn to This be the Verse and I start to laugh at this portrayal of middle-class parental pretensions. This is Larkin’s open wit, but his sly wit, like that of Cervantes, but more bitter, creeps up on you and catches you unawares, unless you know how and where to look for it.

At my left elbow, Juan Ramón Jiménez’s Platero y yo awaits my attention. No children’s book this, but a wonderfully poetic recounting of a poet’s observations of Moguer, a small seaside town in Andalusia. This too is a book to read slowly, to savour, to taste each word, each story. This too is prose poetry at its best. Cervantes wrote that ‘epic poetry can be written in prose’ / la épica también puede escribirse en prosa‘. JRJ might equally well have written that ‘poetry can also be written in prose’ … an edict that I have tried to follow in my own writing.

For my more serious reading, I am dipping into the late Roger Scruton’s A Short History of Modern Philosophy (from Descartes to Wittgenstein). This is heavier reading, in some senses, yet the parallels between Descartes philosophical observations and Cervantes’s literary ones are well worth considering, for Cervantes often offers the practical where Descartes puts forward the theoretical.

I will be adding more titles to my reading as I progress. Needless to say, I am also wandering through the labyrinth of my own earlier writings, and they are so much fun to revisit too. I will add more on this topic, as our enforced enclosure progresses.

Comment: These visitors came to my garden last summer. It is a delight to offer my photographs of them as a counter to CV-19 for these butterflies symbolize the brevity and the beauty of our lives. Butterflies on a rock: poetry and literature in Canada, and even more fragile in these times of utmost fragility. Keep well, keep safe, and keep in touch with your loved ones by telephone, Skype, Messenger, e-mail, and keep everything safe.

Intertextuality

Zeitgeist 1-10

Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the dialog that takes place between texts or as Merriam-Webster explains it: “the complex interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as a basic to the creation or interpretation of the text.”

Often we write from an intertextual perspective when we respond to other writers and their thoughts and imagery. This is why, in the creative process, reading can be as important as writing. Reading expands our vocabulary. It reinforces some of our own opinions and challenges others. Without reading, we are lonely rocks in sunless seas.

To be creative, we need to be aware of what others are writing and how they view the world we inhabit. When we read creatively we read with an eye to improving our creativity and our structures. We look for new ideas, new images, new words, new ways of expressing our thoughts.

Often we think we are being original when in fact we are re-processing, just as I am now, the ideas of other people. Given the nature of modern media, we are not always aware of all the multiple sources of our material: telephone, twitter, blogs, radio, television, newspapers (less and less), books, chapbooks, magazines, e-sources, lectures, chat groups, Facebook, and general conversations with other people who are also unaware of their sources. Thus ideas abound, float in the air, circulate and recirculate, submerge and resurface, shift their shapes and colors.

As writers we dip into that enormous moving mass of current and past culture and creativity and we choose our narrative lines, our characters, our structures, our images, our metaphors. As Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, once wrote, “Mes idées? Je les prends où je les trouve.” My ideas? I take them from wherever I find them.

Imitation is the best form of flattery. Indeed it is. We cannot, however, borrow wholesale and just copy. Miguel de Cervantes borrowed the first five chapters of Don Quixote (the first sortie) from an earlier entremés entitled El Entremés de los romances. For a very long time, critics thought that Cervantes was the author of both pieces: they are very similar. However, even a quick analysis also shows that they are very different. The language of the entremés is much older while the conversion of theatre into narrative distinguishes them at a very basic level. Cervantes borrowed: but in borrowing, he adapted, he changed, he took the old form and converted it into something new and completely original. Nevertheless, we are still aware of the origins of the great novel that has many other borrowings woven into its fabric.

So, we indulge in intertextuality when we engage in a dialog with other texts and ‘borrow’ from other authors. To be original, we have to take that borrowing and turn it into something entirely different, something that becomes a part of ourselves and no longer exists as a part of that other text. Intertextuality is not copying. If we take a text in its entirety, if we ‘copy’, then we must acknowledge the source. However, when we indulge in a dialog with a text, when we transform a text, when we are ourselves transformed by a text, then that is a totally different situation. Think of the links between Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, The Seven Samurai, and its offspring, the 1960 western entitled The Magnificent Seven. They are very similar in so many ways … and yet they are so very different.

While intertextuality refers more to the larger elements of character and narrative structure, it also exists at the level of metaphor and image. Sometimes, without thinking, we use metaphors that we have heard before. Often we like the sound of a group of words, shuffle them around, and come up with a new meaning for them, a new metaphoric reality. This too is intertextuality.

At its best it is a very valuable addition to our creative tool kit.

While on the topic of creativity, let us spare a thought for our needs for creative time and space. We cannot create when we lack the blessings of time and space. Creativity is greatly hindered when we go hungry and need to complete back-breaking work just to sustain our lives and feed our families. Our relative wealth and leisure is a blessing: without them, we would be floundering in the pre-industrial world of subsistence farming, working at manual labor from dawn to dusk.

Let us spare a thought too for those oral societies that existed when people could not write. Or those early societies in which only the few, the happy few, were educated to the level at which they could actually read and write.

Intertextuality is a blessing, not a curse. Use it wisely, use it well.

Comment: I would like to thank Meg Sorick who suggested that I expand an earlier conversation that we had on the topic of Intertextuality.

Footsteps

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Footsteps
(23 April, 1616 AD)

rain fills the sky
mizzle and mist
low clouds
raindrops

a touch of snow
on trees grass
steady this
accumulation

where now
their warm hearts
their word-wealth

memories wrap
a warm scarf
around your neck

books beckon
let us now
talk with our eyes
to writers

Cevantes Shakespeare
El Inca Garcilaso
and many others
long since dead
though thought and word
their footsteps linger on

Comment:

Today, 23 April 2019, is international book day. We celebrate the works of Cervantes, Shakespeare, and El Inca Garcilasso, all of whom died on this date in 1616. Given the two different calendars, Gregorian and Julian, they actually died ten days apart, but the date was the same. We also support and celebrate all other others on this date, so Happy International Book Day, everyone, and keep writing.

Last Legs

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Last Legs

A wooden carving of Don Quixote stands guard over the mini-carnation pinks that have now lasted for 23 days. Alas, they are now suffering and several are ready to bow their heads and take their leave. They have done marvelous service. Arriving on December 21, a present from Gwen and Victor, these flowers have graced our house and table for over three weeks: a singular service in this age of rapid floral turnovers. We have looked after them, talked to them, cared for them, tended them, given them fresh water and sweet music. They have responded by filling our days with color and charm.

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Here they are in the early morning sunshine casting a shadow onto the wall behind them. So beautiful, the play of the early morning sun, through glass and water. Even the shadows are filled with tiny bursts of light. They were never heavily scented, these pinks, and their beauty lay more in their color and their longevity.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Well that’s one way of putting it. But the roses, regal as they are, break down so quickly, while these little fellows have hung on and on. What a pleasure to count the days and watch them flourish. “Gather ye mini carnation pinks,” I say, for they last longer and their love is more constant.

What joy, to rise in the morning and to know they will still be there. But now their days are numbered. My birthday draws near, and our Christmas flowers oh so rarely last through into mid-January. Perhaps I should crowd source and get a host of flowers, tossing their heads in sprightly dance, sent to me through e-mail. Now that would really be fun.

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“Forget us not,” they whisper to me through their leaves. “You’ll never be forgotten,” I murmur back. A sense of light and warmth wraps itself round me and now I can face whatever the future brings with joy in my heart.

 

 

Twits, Tweets, and Twitter

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Twits, Tweets, and Twitter
aka
Bits and Bytes

After a very cold and snowy December, with low temperatures, way below average and dropping at times to -24C, with snow on the ground almost all month, and all this in the fall, aka autumn, since winter didn’t officially begin until 6 pm yesterday, December 21, it was a real shock and surprise to listen to the rain fall and high winds batter the windows all night as the overnight temperature rose to +14C and we received 40 mms of rain. As a result, we awoke to warnings of flash floods from melting snow and an influx of rain as winter has begun with a more of a whimper and a watery splash rather than with a flash freeze and a bang as your bottom hits the ice. I wonder what the deer think as they paddle through the puddles on their way to and fro from the water-logged feeders. I know what I’m thinking: ‘thank heavens we don’t have to shovel it’, but it will be a totally different story when it all freezes over, the road are like bottles, and we descend the hill in first gear with an ever-present fear of a much too welcoming ditch.

I have just read an interesting article on how, accustomed as we are to Twits and Tweets, many of us are no longer capable of unravelling a long interesting sentence that rambles on and on and refuses to make an immediate Twitter Point, usually underlined by the use of CAPITAL letters for KEY WORDS and all of this for a sound byte audience that is becoming less and less literate as social media proliferates and news is telescoped into tiny jam jars of meaning that are spread around with an illiterate spoon and many exclamation marks. There: you have just read a 96 word sentence. I wonder how you did with it? Did you persevere? Did you give up half way through?

In my former life, when I encouraged young people to read Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote from cover to cover (and they did), I was surprised to discover the difficulties they had with his long sentences, some so long that they continued for a whole paragraph or a full page. I was also surprised to discover that many Spanish speaking people are now incapable of reading Don Quixote in the original Spanish as it is too complicated for them and too difficult in meaning and structure. I have cartoon versions of Cervantes’s master-piece, but have always found them to be simplistic and undignified. I have read the original, in Spanish, twenty-seven times, usually in the Martin de Riquer edition, and have never found the language to be a problem. Indeed, it is refreshing to enter the labyrinth of a long sentence and to struggle for a little while with the exact meaning of a complicated structure that offers so many multiple readings that no single meaning can easily be extricated, if at all, and so the mind wanders on and on in the Cervantine maze spun by a spider-web pen and a brilliant mind, now no longer accessible to the multitudes: a paradise now closed to so many, a garden open to a only a select few / Paraíso cerrado para muchos, jardines abiertos para pocos.

The spirit of Cervantes, the creator, appeared to me last night in a dream. ‘Rogelio,’ the master said. ‘Spare me and spare my creation.’ ‘Don Miguel,’ I mumbled sleepily, ‘here sit beside me on my bed. Welcome to my humble home.’ ‘I am not don Miguel,’ Cervantes replied. ‘I never was a don and I never will be one. I am humble Miguel, writer, poet, and son of a vagabond surgeon who, like father, like son, often entered the debtor’s prison’. ‘That same debtor’s prison where the history of your hero was engendered,’ I replied. ‘So they say, but I am not here for that. I have come for you to save me.’ ‘How, my Lord, how can I save you?’ ‘Rogelio, I am not a Lord, but a rumor has reached me in my after-life, that they have modernized my knight, given him a car, not a horse, set the Civil Guard against him, ridiculed him with condoms that he blows up like balloons, sent him to Salamanca, and Galicia, where he never went, continued his adventures, reborn, in a foreign language that I loathed …’ ‘That is bad, my Lord, I mean don Miguel, I mean Miguel …’ ‘Worse is to come.’ ‘Worse? How can it get worse?’ ‘Indeed, it arrived at my ears, you might say a little bird told me, that they are releasing my book in a series of 240 word tweets on a thing called Twitter that speaks like a Jesuit with false flickering words.’ ‘But you were brought up by the Jesuits …’ ‘That’s how I know of what I speak. This cannot be, the history of my knight reduced to episodes of 240 words, the whole 124 chapters, 1000 pus pages of finely scrawled ink, reduced to tweets on twitter by some poor twit … you must stop this nonsense. I and my knight depend upon you.’ ‘How can I stop it, don Miguel?’ ‘Charge the windmills of Twitter. Attack the falsehoods of Tweets. Stand up for the long, soulful sentence that will withstand the winds of time …’ ‘As your book has withstood, until now, the literary storm that is about to engulf it in an Alfred Hitchcock swarm of wild birds that is poised to twitter and tweet you to your doom?’

The ghost of Miguel de Cervantes vanished with a howl, only to be replaced by that of Pierre Menard, Borgian author of the renewed Quixotic page. ‘To tweet,” the ghost whispered in a thin, shrill voice, ‘or not to tweet, that is the question, and therein lies the Cervantine rub.’

Monkey’s Book Burnings

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Monkey’s Book Burnings
16 June 2018

Monkey’s Book Burning
(Remembering Cervantes’s Scrutiny of the Library
and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451)

Who burnt Monkey’s books?
Who took them from their shelves,
evicted them into the courtyard,
built them into book stacks, like hay,
then applied gasoline, and a lighted match?

Monkey watches in horror
as smoke and flame devour his beloveds.
He tries to approach, but the fire is too hot.
One book jumps out from the smoke, still smoldering,
and monkey snatches it and carries it away beneath his coat,
the fire burn branded into its cover,
the skin still sizzling on monkey’s hand.

How many books were burned that day?
How many monkeys now walk in the woods,
trying to re-create their lives,
circulating their memories by word of mouth?

Moth is to candle as book is to flame.
Monkey runs his hand in and out of the candle.
He recalls the bonfires in the streets.
He coughs through the throat burn of smoke.
He touches the blistered scars of flame.

 

Wednesday Workshop: Reading

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Wednesday Workshop
11 April 2018
Reading for Writers

Miguel de Cervantes once wrote that he was so fond of reading he would pick up even the scraps of paper he found in the street to read them if anything was written on them. This is well-known. What is less known is that Don Quixote, his immortal novel (DQI, 1605, DQII, 1615) is a masterpiece, not only of writing, but also of reading.

From the initial sortie, a prose transcription of an earlier short play, to the Scrutiny of the Library, Cervantes demonstrates right from the start his awareness of current trends in poetry, theatre and prose. In addition, he shows (especially DQI, chapter 47) his acquaintance with contemporary literary theory, as E. C. Riley has so ably established in Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel.

Cervantes begins with the traditional Renaissance novel (DQI, 1605) in which he experiments with plays and poetry turned into prose, oral and written histories, pseudo-autobiographical episodes, the picaresque novel, the pastoral novel, the Italianate Novel, the picaresque novel (briefly), his own versions of the realistic Spanish short story, and then, after a ten year gap during which he receives all kinds of reader feedback, he invents (DQII, 1615), the self-referring modern novel. DQII refers back to DQI as if it were true history. Don Quixote on his ravels meets with people who recognize him, for they have read his story and know all about him. The fictitious character establishes himself as an almost flesh-and-blood living person.

What can we, as writers, learn from this? Above all, we must learn to read copiously, not just once in a while, but all the time. Not only must we read, but we must learn how to read. Yes, we can read for knowledge and information; yes, we can read for pleasure and enjoyment; yes, we can read to lose ourselves and wash away the cares of the world. However, as writers we must learn to read in a different fashion. We must read in search of the narrative structures that inspire other good writers. We must read in search of the iterative thematic imagery that binds a text with meaningful, repeated images. We must read in search of the poetry that sates the soul’s constant thirst for beauty. We must read in search of the dialog that cuts to the bone and reveals the hidden character of the protagonists. We must read in search of the layering that allows us to give extra meaning at all levels of the narrative. We must read in search of the secret that allows us to trim all unnecessary material in order that our stories may be spare and sparse with not an extra word or thought.

Reading: I have just finished taking an eight-week online course with the School of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. In the course of those eight weeks, I read the following books.

  1. 3 short stories a week, recommended by the instructor, the wonderful novelist Kerry Lee Powell, to illustrate each week’s lesson. [24 stories]
  2. 14 first drafts, one from each of the magnificent students in the course (I had the honor of being the fifteenth student). [38 stories]
  3. 14 revised stories. [52 stories]
  4. 14 first drafts of a second story. The course asked for two stories to be written by each participant over the duration of the course. [66 stories]
  5. 14 revised drafts of this second story. [80 stories]
  6. My own voluntary reading included Raymond Carver’s What we talk about when we talk about love (17 stories), Cathedral (12 stories), and my own short story collection, Bistro (35 very short stories). Recognizing the errors, weaknesses, and inaccuracies in my own collection reduced me to tears. [144 stories]

I have spent eight wonderful weeks exploring creativity and the art of short story writing.  Am I a better writer for all that work? Undoubtedly. I can see and think much more clearly and I am beginning to gain a better understanding of how short narratives work. I am a better writer, but I am not yet a good one. There is still a long way to go.

I am retired. A long, cold, icy New Brunswick winter has kept me in the house, close to the fire. I have been gifted the time and mental energy to make the most of this course I have taken. I attended the University of Toronto, as a graduate student, back in the sixties. I was amazed at the quantity of work handed out by the professors in the School of Graduate Studies. My first decision, made very early on in my graduate career, was to take a speed reading course. Accelerating my reading speed and capacity for understanding was the only way I would be able to compete. I am still a fast reader, though not as fast as I was. This speed reading has left me time for long thought and slow writing.

Over the last eight weeks, in addition to the reading, as described above, I have written five new short stories, including two for the course. I have also revised and re-written a series of short stories for my next collection. As a good friend keeps telling me, we are not writers, we are re-writers. After eight very intense weeks, the acts of re-writing, re-reading, re-vising, and re-editing have become much, much easier.

Carpe diem, seize the day: pick up a book and start reading. Pick up your pen and start writing. No excuses. Participaction: don’t think about it, do it.

Plagiary: Wednesday Workshop

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Plagiary
Wednesday Workshop
9 August 2017

No, plagiary has nothing to do with the plague, though it might do in certain circumstances, especially if a plagiarist is plagued by lawsuits from others who think that the thief has benefitted financially or unfairly from the theft.

What is plagiary? The Merriam-Webster dictionary suggests the following, and I quote, with references:

Plagiarius, the Latin source of “plagiary,” literally means “kidnapper.” “Plagiarius” has its roots in the noun “plagium,” meaning both “kidnapping” and “the netting of game,” and ultimately in the noun plaga, meaning “net.” The literal sense of “plagiarius” was adopted into English; in the 17th and early 18th century, a kidnapper might be referred to as a “plagiary,” and, in the legalese of the time, kidnapping was “plagium.” But “plagiarius” also had a couple of figurative meanings – “seducer” and “literary thief.” It is the latter that has made the most enduring contribution to the English language. A “plagiary” could also be one who commits literary theft (now usually referred to as a “plagiarist”) or the act or product of such theft (now, more commonly, “plagiarism”).

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plagiary

From the above definition, we can conclude that plagiary is theft, the stealing of another person’s work, and, above all, the presenting of that work as if it belonged to the plagiarist. In other words, creators create: they are not meant to steal and misrepresent.

Does plagiary matter? Of course it does. By its very definition, theft, it is one of the Ten Commandments, and therefore something to be avoided: Thou shalt not steal. However, as with all things, the gravity of the crime depends very much upon the circumstances. In academia, where creativity and original thought is the ‘name of the game’, the theft of intellectual property is considered by the gatekeepers of the purity of knowledge to be a very serious offence. That is why so many universities so carefully define plagiary / plagiarism and place such stiff academic penalties on the plagiarists who offend. By extension, certain professions, such as journalism and science (in the broadest sense, the creation, protection, and distribution of knowledge) must hold to very strict rules on the subject of intellectual theft.

The article on plagiarism in Wikipedia [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plagiarism ] opens several horizons. It stresses that academia (with its spin off into scientific and industrial research) and journalism (with its theory of scooping) are the two biggest areas in which plagiarism is considered offensive. Plagiarism, the article stresses, more than anything else, is re-quoting other people’s material while claiming it as one’s own and without citing the sources from which it was taken. This quickly leads to the infringement of copyright and this is a much more serious and complicated legal matter, as the article points out.

As for literary and artistic plagiary, this is a very different kettle of fish as artists seem to borrow from each other in the most curious of ways. Molière, for example, proudly announced that, as for his artistic material, “Je le prends où je le trouve.” This roughly translates as “I take it from wherever I find it.” In his day and age, imitation was a favorite rhetorical device, and the imitation of other people’s work was considered more like flattery than theft. Miguel de Cervantes, in the Don Quixote, that most original of novels, took the first sortie of the famous and ingenious knight almost word for word from an earlier entremés (short play to be performed in the interval between the acts of a longer play) entitled El entremés de los romances. This is not so much ‘Homer nods’ as Homer ‘carries a gun and holds up a local bank’. Do we cry plagiary or imitatio when the similarities between the play and the novel’s opening are such that for a long time people attributed the Entremés de los romances to Cervantes and referred to it as his early work?

I follow the Spanish tradition and often use lines and words from other authors in my own work. However, I think that what I borrow is in most cases well enough known for it not to need quote marks, nor to need identifying. Though Lovers Be Lost and Broken Ghosts, two of my book titles, come directly from Dylan Thomas’s poetry. However, I quote the verses in the opening pages of each book and Dylan Thomas’s name is clearly attached to them. If, however, I write “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” … or “Rage, rage … ” against anything, I think personally that the attribution should be clear as should the literary dialog that I am starting within the text. Similarly, if I write that “July is the cruelest month, because we expect the sun and it is always raining”, then surely the reference to T. S. Eliot is clear as well, and so is the attribution and twisting of his ideas. I have used the phrase “Jack Pine Poems” before now, without referencing Milton Acorn, but most Canadian poets will be aware of the origin of the term without my writing “following in the footsteps of Milton Acorn and his Jack Pine Sonnets” ….

To further complicate the matter, plagiarism is a hydra, and its many heads may take a multitude of forms. Wikipedia suggests that there may well be a whole epidemic of what might be called ‘literary borrowings’ that verge on plagiarism; there is, for example, a touch of ‘literary theft’ about all of these: “plagiarism, literary theft, appropriation, incorporation, retelling, rewriting, recapitulation, revision, reprise, thematic variation, ironic retake, parody, imitation, stylistic theft, pastiches, collages, and deliberate assemblages.”

However, as the Wiki points out: “There is no rigorous and precise distinction between practices like imitation, stylistic plagiarism, copy, replica, and forgery. These appropriation procedures are the main axis of a literate culture, in which the tradition of the canonic past is being constantly rewritten.” The quote marks show that this list is lifted bodily from the Wikipedia article.

What I would underline most strongly is that “the canonic past is being constantly rewritten.” Literature is, to a large extent, a writer’s dialogue not only with (in my case) his own times, but also with the way other writers have seen the world and written about it. And not just written about it: think of the geometric expansion of oral literature. We hear so much, so much is repeated, words and phrases slip in and out of common usage. There is usually a prime over, an original author, but when a word r a phrase slips into what might be called ‘common usage’, then plagiarism takes a turn in a different direction.

“To borrow from one author is plagiary, to borrow from many is research,” as Oscar Wilde is rumored to have phrased it. As a result, what is considered to be a can of worms in academia, science, and journalism, may turn into an interesting and not necessarily a dishonest practice in the artistic world. How about the erotic cowboy novel that I am thinking of writing? I am going to call it Fifty Shades of Zane Grey … how many copyright laws am I breaking with that little joke? None, in my opinion, yet given a competent lawyer and two or more clients greedy for money, and virtually anything can be turned into a fertile battleground for legalistic dispute. Hopefully, the pitiful pennies that I own and the innocent and innocuous literary discourse that I exchange with other authors, many of them long dead, will not bring on a flurry of lawsuits.

“Where there’s muck, there’s money,” as a famous Yorkshire millionaire once said. So quit mucking about with even the possibility of plagiary, check your sources, and, if in any doubt at all, make sure that you add those quote marks and those references. And remember, it’s better to be safe than holding up your hand in court and saying “I’m very, very sorry, M’Lud.”