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On Being “Original”

This post is adapted from a talk given at Hutchmoot 2016. 

T. S. Eliot is one of the most iconic poets of modern times. In fact some would probably label him one of the most original poets of the 20th century. And yet, when we study his own philosophy and poetry, Eliot does not seem all that interested in being “original” in the sense that we understand it. He is rather, as Thomas Rees puts it, a “master of eclectic synthesis.”

Eliot is famously known for saying something along the lines of “bad poets imitate; good poets steal.” What he really said is a little more involved. In discussing how 17th century English dramatist Philip Massinger borrowed from Shakespeare, Eliot wrote:

“One of the surest of tests [of greatness] is the way in which a poet borrows. 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. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion” (The Sacred Wood).

Eliot believed that the poet must be a student of poetic tradition and his contemporary environment, and through such study would arrive at a poetic distillation of the two. He thought a poet must embody “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer.” At the same time, he also believed that any new poem shifted how one would view past art. For him, tradition and the present existed in a dynamic relationship, in which the former was carefully studied and respected and incorporated into the latter, and the peculiar distillation of the latter served to shed new light on the former. A perfect example of this is Eliot’s famous poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” On the one hand, it has a highly individualistic feeling, presenting the inner monologue of a man disenchanted and weary of modern life. But Eliot achieves this expression by “remixing” and “stealing” from a variety of sources, including Dante, Shakespeare (Hamlet and Twelfth Night), Rudyard Kipling (from whom he got the idea of the title), and the Bible (John the Baptist and the parable of Lazarus and the rich man)—at least. Eliot distilled them all with his own unique style, but understanding the allusions enriches our understanding of the poem.

Modern poet Billy Collins presents Eliot’s idea in a slightly different way when talking about the oft used expression “finding your voice”:

“What I don’t like about the expression ‘finding your voice’ is that it’s very mystifying in the minds of young people. It makes you feel — made me feel when I first heard it — that your voice is tied up with your authenticity, that your voice lies deep within you, at some root bottom of your soul, and that to find your voice you need to fall into deep introspection… you have to gaze deeply into yourself. The frustration and the anxiety is that maybe you won’t find anything there. That you’re on this terrible quest to nowhere. Let me reassure you that it’s not that mysterious. Your voice has an external source. It is not lying within you. It is lying in other people’s poetry. It is lying on the shelves of the library. To find your voice, you need to read deeply. You need to look inside yourself, of course, for material, because poetry is something that honors subjectivity. It honors your interiority. It honors what’s inside. But to find a way to express that, you have to look outside yourself. Read widely, read all the poetry you can get your hands on. And in your reading, you’re searching for something. Not so much your voice. You’re searching for poets that make you jealous. Professors of writing call this “literary influence.” It’s jealousy. And it’s with every art, whether you play the saxophone, or do charcoal drawings. You’re looking to get influenced by people who make you furiously jealous. Read widely. Find poets that make you envious. And then copy them. Try to get like them.You know, you read a great poem in a magazine somewhere, and you just can’t stand the fact that you didn’t write it. What do you do? Well, you can’t get whiteout, and blank out the poet’s name and write yours in — that’s not fair. But you can say, “Okay, I didn’t write that poem, let me write a poem like that, that’s sort of my version of that.” And that’s basically the way you grow….After you find your voice, you realize there’s really only one person to imitate, and that’s yourself. You do it by combining different influences. I think the first part of it is you do slavish imitations, which are almost like travesties, you know. But gradually you come under the right influences, picking and choosing, and being selective, and then maybe your voice is the combination of 6 or 8 other voices that you have managed to blend in such a way that no one can recognize the sources. You can take intimacy from Whitman, you can learn the dash from Emily Dickinson…you can pick a little bit from every writer and you combine them. This allows you to be authentic. That’s one of the paradoxes of the writing life: that the way to originality is through imitation.”

What Eliot and Collins are both talking about here is something Austin Kleon refers to as the Artist’s Family Tree. In his book Steal Like An Artist he writes:

“Marcel Duchamp said, ‘I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.’ This is actually a pretty good method for studying—if you try to devour the history of your discipline all at once, you’ll choke. Instead, chew on one thinker—writer, artist, activist, role model—you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker. Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can. Climb up the tree as far as you can go. Once you build your tree, it’s time to start you own branch. Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff…. The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work.”

For those of us who create, achieving something unique in our art will likely be both easier and harder than we thought. Easier in that it might not involve incessant navel gazing and endless soul-searching for our “authentic voice,” but harder in that it will involve the hard work of time spent at the feet of those who have gone before us, and time spent distilling all of those influences through practice until we arrive at something that feels like our own.

As Karen Burke Lefevre puts it in Invention As a Social Act:

“There will always be great need for individual initiative, but no matter how inventive an individual wants to be, he will be influenced for better or for worse by the intellectual company he keeps. On top of Mt. Mansfield in Vermont, there are thirty-year-old trees that are only three feet tall. If a tree begins to grow taller, extending beyond the protection of the others, it dies. The moral for inventors [and artists]: Plant yourself in a tall forest if you hope to have ideas of stature.”


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