Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Thoughts on Allusion, Quotation, Remixing, and Poetry

Both on this blog and on “Reginald Shepherd’s Blog” (which I’ve been maintaining since his death), I recently posted a piece called “Reginald and the Muses” (Follow this link for the piece on this blog, or this link for the post on Reginald’s blog). The post discussed both Reginald’s views on the nature of poetic inspiration and production and a poetic fragment he had written while he was in the intensive care unit in the hospital last year.

On Reginald’s blog, a former student of his, Deanna, wrote to ask, “how do you feel about poets using the fragments in order to create new poems in dedication to him?”

I wrote the following in response to Deanna’s question. It’s fairly substantive for a simple reply, so I thought I’d post it here in addition to placing it in the discussion section of the previous post on Reginald’s blog.

It’s taken me a few days to formulate a response to this question. I was initially struck with a mix of emotions and thoughts that took me a while to disentangle. I think my feelings on the issue of others working with this particular fragment or other poetic works of Reginald’s are related to two distinct sets of issues – the quality of the work produced and the nature of what’s being done with another’s material.

Regarding quality, in general I prefer good art to mediocre. Poets and artists of other sorts draw upon, allude to, or incorporate elements of the works of others all the time – it’s a normal part of artistic production, and there are a number of perfectly legitimate ways in which this can be done. Here, too, I’d prefer that the products of the use of the work of others be good art. (What constitutes “good art” is, of course, a thoroughly complicated matter – one that I’m not addressing here, because it would take me on a long tangential trajectory in a case where it’s been difficult enough for me to disentangle and articulate what I think on the issue. It’s a topic that Reginald addressed at great length in many of his posts on his blog or in his essay collections.)

In principle, I feel that my feelings about how others might draw upon Reginald’s work in their own poetry shouldn’t be any different from my feelings regarding the use of anyone else’s poetry. Realistically, though, that’s not the case, especially regarding this issue of quality. Part of the mixed bag of emotions I initially felt upon reading this question was fear and wariness. There’s a big part of me that for purely emotional but very strongly felt reasons doesn’t want anyone mucking around with Reginald’s work. What I’ve done with this fragment was uncomfortable enough, but I’m ultimately happy with the result and the process of producing it, where what I did was to distill what was legible in his fragment, but where all the content is his. I wouldn’t be comfortable adding significant content to it, and I’m certainly not comfortable with anyone else doing so.

That said, I also recognize art isn’t always comfortable.

There are a number of ways in which poets or other artists quote, allude to, borrow from, or otherwise use or incorporate the work of others. That’s normal, natural, and one of the things that creates vibrant connections between different artists and works. While I may be uncomfortable about the idea of others drawing upon Reginald’s work – which is frankly a worry that I won’t like what’s done, or that I’ll think the result inferior or unworthy of him – I also realize that one of the ways an artist’s work continues to live is through the refractions of it in the works of others. As such and despite my wariness, I’m not opposed in principle to work that utilizes Reginald’s work, though with some important caveats, which constitute much of the rest of this reply.

One basic way in which the work of others is utilized is through artistic quotation or allusion (where quotation and allusion are not the same thing, but where quotation may be seen as a specific form of allusion). In the case of quotation, in general, I’d prefer credit be given (especially with borrowings from my Reginald). At the same time, I realize that, so long as things stay within the spirit of fair use (or for that matter the letter of fair use, for there can be intellectual property issues at stake), there are many cases of legitimate quotation or drawings upon the works of others through allusion without explicit attribution – for example, Shostakovich’s quotation of the “Lone Ranger” phrase of Rossini’s William Tell Overture in his 15th symphony, or Reginald’s drawing upon the imagery of a Manet painting in his poem “Kinds of Camouflage” (which I commented on in “Comments on ‘Kinds of Camouflage’”). There are many examples of poets borrowing a few words, a phrase, a line from another’s poem. Again, so long as it stays within the realm of fair use, the main difference I see between this and drawing upon phrases one encounters on roadside signs or that simply pop into one’s head is that the practice of drawing upon the poetry of others contributes to the intertextuality of poems.

There are instances of drawing upon another’s work that are more systematic or extensive than allusion or quotation of a small part of the work, cases where there is utilization of a whole work, or significant portions thereof, with a reworking of the material and/or incorporation alongside added material. The most obvious example of this in contemporary art is remixing of music, where for lack of a better term, I think we could speak also of remixing in other artistic genres, including poetry. My perspective here is that remixing is acceptable if credit is given and permission gotten. (Since remixing involves reworking significant portions of another’s work, “fair use” doesn’t cut it. Remixing without credit or permission is in the territory of Vanilla-Ice-ripping-off-Davd-Bowie-and-Queen-for-lack-of-decent-material-of-one’s-own.) Beyond legal or moral acceptability, remixing, of music or poetry, can be done well or badly. A good remix is both an original work of art and something that forces a rethinking and brings a new appreciation of a familiar work. At best, a bad remix reminds one of how much better the original work is and makes one want to return to it.

While I’d be fine with (or at least not opposed to) someone quoting or alluding to this or other works of Reginald (preferably with explicit credit, definitely within the framework of fair use or with permission gotten), and while I’d be fine with a “remix” (preferably well done, and definitely with credit and permission given [with a further caveat that for poems published in collections, that even as literary executor, I may not be the sole person needing to give permission]), one thing I definitely would not want to see done with this fragment is for someone to add to it in an attempt to “finish” it, and certainly not to add to it and present it as a finished Reginald Shepherd poem. The reason I’m strongly opposed to that is because even if well intentioned, it strikes me as active misrepresentation, if not a lie.