how to steal poetry


This is what my notebook looks like when I’m stealing poetry.

Last week on her blog, Carol Berg wrote about stealing poetry. Her post was prompted partly by her plans to “steal” from a poem in a journal she’d misplaced, and by submissions guidelines from a new press that included a plagiarism warning (it would not be tolerated, said the warning). As Carol pointed out, it seems a shame that any submission guidelines should even need a plagiarism warning.

Most poets know the old quote by T.S. Eliot, or at least its shorthand: good poets borrow, great poets steal. I believe the actual quote, which comes from a book of Eliot’s essays on poetry, is:

“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.”

So, if I’m right that this is the actual quote (and I think I am, but I’m not an Eliot scholar), the distinctions are important. Yes, when we’re just starting out we imitate others so that we can learn the moves of a poet. But notice that the full quote doesn’t say that great poets steal, or even that good poets steal, but that mature poets steal.

So, what is a mature poet, and what is stealing? My own take on this is that a mature poet is one that (a) has been at it for a while, and (b) understands the importance of reading, and learning from, a lot of other poets’ work as an underpinning to their own work. Of reading poets that came before — the canonized as well as the relatively unknown — and poets who are writing now. I know that the trajectory of my own work — my ability to write and polish poems that I can believe in and feel are well-crafted — pours forth out of what I’ve read and what I’ve studied. From my perspective, the mature poet understands that her work comes out of her reading and study of other works.

But what about stealing? Oh yes, I steal, indeed I do. Here’s how:

1. Wordbanks.  We’ve talked about these before. They are lists of charged, interesting, or seemingly important words in the work of the poet I’m reading. I use them both as a way into new language — choosing a few at random to fit into what I’m drafting — and as a revision tool — trawling through wordbanks to find just the right word for whatever I’m revising. (By the way Sandy Longhorn was the gal who originally got me going on wordbanks, as well as an exercise called “Drive Words” in Wendy Bishop’s Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem). Since words used by themselves (versus phrases of words put together) are not anyone’s intellectual property, I don’t keep notes on where the individual words came from.

2. Borrowed phrases.  I’ll grab a phrase or even a whole line from a poem. Usually, I take it as a repeating/touchstone line for a freewrite, beginning with that phrase/line and following where it leads me; returning to it when I get stuck and then letting the line relaunch me into whatever’s next. Sometimes I’ll take a borrowed phrase or line as a title to write under. In my notebook, and in any draft, I note what I’m reading, where the phrase comes from (poem title, poet, book title, page number). And I put the borrowed phrase/line in quotes, so I know what’s mine vs. what’s borrowed.

3. Syntactical maps. Sometimes I look at the way a poem I’m reading unfolds through language: Look, it starts with a location word. Then three short stanzas, all beginning with “Let… .” Then the last stanza asks a question that goes unanswered (and again, I make a note of where the map comes from — poem, book, poet, page number). Sometimes I get even more mad-libby about it and will scrawl something like this in my notebook:

Title = a month of the year

(Frequency word) they/we (v.) (element of landscape)

The (adj) (actor(s) in the poem) does something

They (v.) and (repeat same v.) these (name the actors again)

They ___


The mother could say _____


So_____ (here, return to the element of landscape)

These / this (element of time) + (describe element of time)

(This syntactical map comes from the poem “November” by Megan Synder-Camp which I can’t find online). Then I draft a poem corresponding to the syntactical map. Or, maybe I just take one element of the syntactical map as my first line, and go from there. Often, the map is just the thing that gets me to the page, and my draft may go off in a completely different direction in terms of syntax.The same is true for a borrowed phrase or line — it gets me to the page and into an area of my subconscious that I didn’t know was waiting there for me.

But isn’t that true for everything we steal? It gets us to the page. “…Good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

The thing is, of course, to give credit where credit is due. If I end up with a draft that is syntactically similar to “November,” then yes, I say “after Megan Snyder-Camp.” If I use a phrase in its entirety either as a title or as part of my draft, then yes, I make a note of that and include that information as a contributor’s note when/if the poem is published. If I write a poem composed entirely of lines and phrases written by other poets, yes, I cite each and every source. If I write a poem via erasure, then yes, I cite the source document that was erased. And for poems that end up in a book, this is why there’s such a thing as end notes.

Sometimes it’s tricky. You got the idea for a poem from another poem, but yours is, in the end, something entirely different in terms of language, form, and subject matter. I believe this doesn’t require citation. Anyone disagree?

Mature poets steal. “Good poets make it into something better or at least something different.” Ethical poets keep track of, and list, their sources and inspirations.

And now, I must steal way to shorten the straps on someone’s ballet costume. Happy reading, happy stealing, happy citing to you.

8 thoughts on “how to steal poetry

    • Mature meaning “ripe,” also “careful, well-considered,” from Latin maturus “ripe, timely, early”

      Mmm, yes, I feel fine about mature, too. Thanks for reading and chiming in!

  1. Excellent post! Love all the layering and unlayering of an important subject going on here. Thanks, too, for the link love

  2. great post! i’ve never tried mapping a poem, but i think i should. i use wordbanks and borrowed phrases a lot–and i give both of these as writing prompts to my students. i usually find that my students write their best work of the semester when we do a borrowed line (usually i have them borrow a first line, then write their own poem under it, then remove the first line).

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