It’s Called the Renaissance, You Know, or The Soul Sibling Report
“Lady and gentlemen,” said composer Dimitri Tiomkin in his 1955 Academy Awards acceptance speech, “because I working in this town for twenty-five years, I like to make some kind of appreciation to very important factor what make me successful to lots of my colleagues in this town. I’d like to thank Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Beethoven, Mozart, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov. Thank you.”
Ukrainian-born Tiomkin had won for Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (William A. Wellman’s The High and the Mighty), but he’s also remembered today for one of the shortest and funniest speeches in the history of the Oscars. The host that evening was Bob Hope, the comic who served in that role a record 19 times. But the next day, the headline in Variety read “Tiomkin Tops Hope.”
It hasn’t happened in a couple of years—maybe people are wising up—but for a while there it seemed to me that I was always running into somebody who said they didn’t like to take writing classes or study other writers because they didn’t want their original ideas to be influenced by someone else. Often these folks just happened to have some of their poems on them, and when I took a look, my first thought was almost always “Boy, do you need to be influenced by somebody else.”
I heard Mark Strand read at the Miami Book Fair once, and during the Q & A part, someone asked Strand what inspired him. Nothing, he said, adding that he noticed that people who claim to be inspired are always inspired the same way. John Maynard Keynes said an economist who says he is not influenced by other economists is influenced by a dead economist he has forgotten about.
So how much are we influenced by other writers? How much should we be influenced? How much can we hint at or echo, and how much can we steal outright? The pros seem to think it’s okay to mug anybody: Henry Fielding says, “we moderns are to the ancients what the poor are to the rich,” so that “Homer, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, and the rest are to be esteemed among us writers as so many wealthy squires, from whom we, the poor of Parnassus, claim an immemorial custom of taking whatever we can come at.” Yet hundreds of thousands of college students get their knuckles rapped every term for not acknowledging their sources.
The best book on the history of originality is Robert Macfarlane’s Original Copy, which points out that the idea that artists create work out of thin air is a relatively recent cultural hangup spurred in part by the rise of copyright legislation in the 18th century. Before, nobody cared that Shakespeare pilfered plots from whatever book was lying open that day. But by the Romantic period, William Hazlitt was “simplifying the idea of originality” by arguing that “authentic literature flowed from a source within the individual writer,” noting in an essay on Sir Walter Scott that true literature is “pure invention” and “a poet is essentially a maker.”
Hazlitt loves the writer-as-blacksmith image, applauding William Godwin, for example, who, as opposed to “pilfering” writers, binds our attention with chains “forged out of his own thoughts, link by link, blow by blow, with glowing enthusiasm: we see the genuine ore melted in the furnace of fervid feeling.” The same goes for Byron: “Instead of taking his impressions from without, he moulds them according to his own temperament, and heats the materials of his imagination in the furnace of his passions.”
Anyone who has ever written an untrue sentence has experienced that oh-shit realization that comes too late to Wile E. Coyote of the Road Runner Cartoons when he runs out over the edge of a cliff and then pauses, looks downs, gulps, and plummets to the canyon floor. One wonders if Hazlitt didn’t gulp and feel a similar sensation when he looked back at what he had written and saw the damning words “genuine ore.” The blacksmith’s work is as noble as any—Whitman tells us that—but he doesn’t make his swords and horseshoes and ploughshares out of nothing.
By the end of the nineteenth century, writers were much more open about borrowing and appropriating and renewing. Here’s Anatole France in 1892: fhe great author “knows, finally, that an idea is only as good as its form, and that to give new form to an old idea is the whole of art.” By 1894, one Cuthbert Hadden was saying that “to adopt old material and use your own workmanship on it may produce a far more original work than if you have not laid your predecessors under contribution.” And Walter Pater backs up France and Hadden when he says “form, in the full signification of that word, is everything, and the mere matter is nothing.”
More recently, Charles Wright made the same point in a little essay entitled “Improvisations on Form and Measure,” which ends, “Only technique can tell us what we don’t know. The content’s a given we’ve heard before.”
Of course, it’s not that more recent writers started using sources but that, like a savvy economist or football coach, they became aware that they were. Robert Macfarlane says that, “according to Foucault, it is exactly this self-consciousness about sources that defines the modern author” and that “it was on the strength of this definition that Foucault nominated Flaubert as the first truly modern writer, the literary equivalent to Manet; the one paints with constant reference to the museum, the other writes with constant reference to the library.”
In The Art of the Voice, Tony Hoagland says, “The truth is, a writer’s voice is made from other writers’ voices. Pieced together, picked and chosen, stumbled into, uninformed: influence seems like an involuntary series of contagions that eventually turns into a sort of vessel, or transportation system.” How strange, writes Hoagland, that “we should fervently believe in the ‘originality’ of our writing, when it is clear that the self in words (like the self in life) is comprised from the intermingling, overlapping, crosscurrents of so many others.” Even better, “the remarkable news is that this pastiche of voices results in the incarnation of a new poet, a new hybrid distillation of voice, capable of telling the story of experience in new, valuable ways.”
T. S. Eliot advised us long ago that immature poets imitate whereas mature poets steal. The quote often stops there and is met with a ha-ha from a listener who is amused to think of the greats as light-fingered cutpurses rather than venerable rhymesters. But Eliot goes on. The entire statement reads this way: “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.” I italicize those last five words because that makes your job and mine easier. We don’t have to improve on Milton or Emily Dickinson—fat chance! We just have to do something they didn’t think of.
I was talking about all this with one of my grad students recently, and he said, yeah, if you don’t work others into your writing, you’re relying on sensibility alone.
Oscar Wilde said the most frightening sentence in the English language is “I had a very interesting dream last night.” Not to a poet, though. The sentence that turns a poet’s bowels to water is “I wrote a poem.” That sentence is never uttered by a poet; that’d be like a barber saying “I cut hair today.” No, it’s always uttered by the poet’s relative or neighbor or colleague in the chemistry department. And it’s always “a poem,” the poet’s first and only, and it’s always implied that it’s a pretty darned good poem, too. Why else would he be telling you about it?
You want to say that’s a little like saying, “I built a submarine today” or “I got up and ran a marathon this morning—why waste my time training?” And because this happened to you before, you might be tempted to say, “I can tell you what your poem is like without hearing it, that it uses iambic tetrameter and an AA rhyme scheme.” But that would end your friendship, so you smile and say, “Lay it on me, then.”
In terms of meter and rhyme, you’ll probably be handed something along the lines of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
Now your neighbor or relative or colleague probably doesn’t think his or her original thoughts are influenced by anyone else, but they are: not by Joyce Kilmer but by the pop singers and rap artists whose rhymes and rhythms are as ubiquitous as the air we breath. That’s because the majority of those tunes also use the AA scheme and are written in iambic tetrameter’s musical cousin, the 4/4 time signature. Just as there are four stressed syllables in a line of tetrameter, there are four quarter notes to a bar of music in 4/4 time.
Consider these lines from Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well”:
Oh, your sweet disposition and my wide-eyed gaze
We’re singing in the car, getting lost Upstate.
Or these from Kendrick Lamar’s “Wanna Be Heard”:
Can you relate to my story? Can you follow my dreams
and admirations that I had ever since I was thirteen?
One consequence of all this formal similarity in the musical world is that a lot of songs are going to sound alike. I just went to the YouTube site, put “similar songs” into the search window, and hit my “enter” key. The first three links to appear are “songs that sound VERY similar” and “20 Songs That Sound EXACTLY The Same” followed by “Top 10 Sound-Alike Songs.”
It gets worse: one video is titled “RAP SONGS THAT SOUND EXACTLY THE SAME | PART 8.” I didn’t link to PARTS 1-7, and there may be even more parts that I don’t know about. But somebody out there is convinced that there are so many sound-alike rap songs that the disclosure of their sameness has to be released in chapters, perhaps so that the listener isn’t overwhelmed. That need to get a point across convincingly might also explain all those caps, as though you won’t grasp the concept unless the person posting hammers it home with capital letters.
Okay, here is where my blood pressure starts to rise. Sure, a lot of songs sound alike. Anyone who has ever listened to two pieces of music knows that one is very likely to have some relation to the other. There are only seven main musical notes. As the saying goes, even John Coltrane failed to discover the key of H. Yet again and again, judges and juries who can’t tell the difference between a piano sonata and a couple of trash bins falling off a garbage truck have found one musician guilty of ripping off another.
Things have gotten so bad that an article on the Music Network web site suggests, as its title says, that “Plagiarism Lawsuits Are Killing the Music Industry.” We may see “the death of all popular music,” writes Nathan Jolly. “Things have gotten ridiculous,” he says, so much so that “over 200 artists signed an open letter warning that the ruling would have terrible ripple effects, writing: ‘The verdict in this case threatens to punish songwriters for creating new music that is inspired by prior works. All music shares inspiration from prior musical works, especially within a particular musical genre. By eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgment is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process.’”
Anyone have a Valium? The most infuriating case of someone being sued successfully for musical plagiarism involves George Harrison, whose “My Sweet Lord” was alleged to be taken directly from The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” Yes, the first three words of both follow the same descending chord pattern, but after that, the songs diverge completely. Yet the tone-deaf judge who pronounced on the matter in 1976 found them “virtually identical.” (If you don’t have hypertension already, you can read about nine similar cases in the article listed below entitled “10 Famous Cases of Alleged Music Plagiarism.”)
It might not be accurate to say that every single piece of music is inspired by prior works, as the 200 signatories of the protest letter claim, but certainly the best music is. The day after Dimitri Tiomkin gave his Oscar acceptance speech thanking all the musical artists who had shaped his work, fellow nominee Franz Waxman, who, like Tiomkin, had fled Europe during the rise of the Third Reich, was appalled at Tiomkin’s seeming hubris and told him so. Tiomkin listened patiently and said, “I don’t know why you’re so annoyed, Franz. I don’t hear any influences of these great composers in your music.”
An interviewer once praised Sting for composing such original songs as “Roxanne” and “Every Breath You Take,” and here’s what Sting said in reply: “I don’t think there’s such a thing as composition in pop music. I think what we do is collate. It’s like folk music. It makes copyright a bit interesting and difficult. I’m a good collator.” (Is not the essay you’re reading right now a collation?)
Music critic Elijah Wald says, “One could see the early Beatles as a summation of all the trends of the previous few years wrapped in a particularly attractive package. ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ their first hit in the United States, had the hand-claps of the girl groups, the melodic sophistication of the best Brill Building compositions, a rhythm perfectly suited to the new dances, and the loose energy of the surf bands—one reviewer tagged it ‘Surf on the Thames.’”
Even better, Beatles fans “didn’t have to choose between buying records by Elvis, Ricky [Nelson], Frankie [Avalon], or one of the various Bobbys because all tastes could be accomodated in one group.” By the way, Wald’s reference to “the various Bobbys” probably refers to the singers known as the Four Bobbys—Darin, Rydell, Vee, and Vinton—but in the pre-Beatle days there were also Bobby Day, Bobby Hebb, Bobby Helms, Bobby Freeman, the Bobby Fuller Four, Bobby Lewis, and Bobby “Boris” Pickett. That’s the voices of eleven previous Bobbys flowing into those of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
But what do you expect? The act of discovery appropriation and and revision has been going on for millennia. It’s not called the Naissance, you know. The Roman poets, sculptors, and architects took from the Greeks, and Michelangelo, Leonardo, Brunelleschi, and the other European masters took from both.
Before he enrolled in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, novelist John Barth studied jazz at Julliard. Barth’s musical background may help explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for his masterpiece, The Sot-Weed Factor. “At heart I’m still an arranger”, Barth once told an interviewer. “My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody”—a classical myth, a Biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style—“and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose.”
Literary re-orchestration is another matter, of course. As I say, there are just seven main musical notes, and they can be altered only be being sharped or flatted. But the number of words is limitless, and you can make up new ones any time you please. For that reason, whereas literary plagiarism per se is a fairly cut and dried affair, literary influence is a much hairier proposition.
In my days of tenure-mongering, I wrote a book about foreign influences on United States fiction in which I identified a minimum of sixteen different ways in which influence might work: there’s direct influence, of course, but then one writer might influence a second who influences a third, for example, or a writer might be influenced by one culture’s notion of a central figure in a second culture. No wonder Robert Macfarlane says in Original Copy that “tracking the fate of an inherited literary idea is an awkward task at the best of times.”
A common question to a writer taking doctoral exams is “Who are your influences?” It’s a question that’s impossible to answer. H. L. Mencken was skeptical of just about everythng, but when Edward Stone sent him his book on Mencken’s debt to Nietzsche, Mencken replied, “I was under the impression that my debt to Nietzsche was very slight. I must say now that your argument rather shakes me. Such influences are exerted, it appears, very insidiously. I was picking up Nietzscheisms without being aware of it, and they undoubtedly got into my own stuff.” Every writer I know, myself included, has had someone say, “James Dickey wrote a story similar to yours, didn’t he?” or “your character reminds me a lot of Oedipus,” to which the writer can only say, “wow—I guess you’re right.”
So instead of having students in my poetry workshops tell me who their influences are, instead I ask each of them to identify and write a 500-word report on three soul siblings, artists who are more like family members or neighbors or roommates than ancestors. The students will name mostly recent US poets, of course, but I encourage them to think of at least one poet who is not living and/or non-Anglophone, and they may include a “wild card,” if they like: a visual artist, singer/songwriter, medieval mystic, and so on.
The results are astonishing. Let me give you some actual examples to show you the range of what I get in these soul sibling reports. Some of the responses are fairly conventional (Richard Brautigan, Allen Ginsberg, Mark Strand), while others mix it up (one recent student listed Betina Hershey, Tammy Houtz, and Marc Kelly Smith, none of whom I’d heard of). The best threesomes include (and this is an actual example) a mix like this one: Cher, Jennifer L. Knox, and Shakespeare, that is, a diva, a wacky aunt, and a boss. An all-indie-musician or all-classics list suggests a range of relationships that’s just too narrow.
Every time I collect these soul sibling reports, I make up a handout with everyone’s choices so the students can be reminded of poets and artists they haven’t thought of in a while and, like me, discover new ones. And then every few years, I combine my handouts and make a master list to see who’s in and who isn’t.
Over time, there’s so much overlap that you could make a tip-top poetry syllabus out of the repeats, since these include, and again I’m basing this list on the names my students have given me, the ancients (Dante and Shakespeare), modern classics (Eliot and Williams), women poets (Plath and Olds), poets of color (Komunyakaa and Dove), international voices (Neruda and Lorca), and such “stand-up” or “kitchen sink” poets, as they’ve been called, as Allen Ginsberg and Billy Collins.
But I’ve resisted that impulse to teach from such a master list. For one thing, my soul siblings and yours are almost certainly going to be very different people: you might see yourself sitting on a curb with Kim Addonizio waiting for a club to open while I’m out on Fire Island playing volleyball with Frank O’Hara. Too, over time, choices tend to move toward the center, and if you assigned the names that show up on these lists again and again, you’d just end up with the people you already know.
Besides, what I like about these lists are the wild cards. How else am I going to discover [medieval French poet] Guillaume de Machaut and [American labor organizer, folk singer, storyteller and poet] Utah Phillips?
Really, the soul sibling exercise is just a way of handling the influence issue by turning it into Influence Lite. Sort of takes the pressure off, doesn’t it? Instead of worrying about being dominated by some towering figure from the past or, worse, feeling inadequate because you’re not being influenced by anybody, now you can just hang out.
We’re told to keep our friends close and our enemies closer, but don’t worry about your soul siblings. They’ll always have your back.
Eliot, T. S. The Sacred Wood. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1920.
Hoagland, Tony. The Art of the Voice: Poetic Principles and Practices. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2019.
Jolly, Nathan. “Plagiarism Lawsuits Are Killing The Music Industry.” Music Network web site, August 22, 2019.
Kirby, David. America’s Hive of Honey, or Foreign Influences on American Fiction Through Henry James: Essays & Bibliographies. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1980.
Luscombe, Belinda. “10 Questions for Sting.” Time web site, November 21, 2011.
Macfarlane, Robert. Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature. New York and London: Oxford UP, 2007. The quotes from Foucault, France, Godwin, Hadden, Hazlitt, and Pater are from this book.
Melis, Matt, and Michael Roffmanon. “10 Famous Cases of Alleged Music Plagiarism.” Consequence of Sound web site, January 9, 2018.
Mencken, H. L. The New Mencken Letters, ed. Carl Bode. New York: Doubleday, 1977.
Mustich, James. “John Barth: The Development.” Barnes & Noble Review web site, November 17, 2008.
Wald, Elijah. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. New York and London: Oxford UP, 2009.
Wright, Charles. Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977-87. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1988.