Friday, February 6, 2009

Pimp the Poem.

Whatever you may have thought about Elizabeth Alexander's poem at the Presidential Inauguration a few weeks back, you should definitely check out Carolyn Kellogg's blog, Jacket Copy (the absolutely au courant and often hilarious book blog of the LA Times), in which she highlights the project to re-make, revise, and re-imagine "Praise Song for the Day." (And she's right--the abecedarian version moves.)

So there's that.

And, also, the whole project brings up the issue of appropriation, for me--not at all because I have a problem with appropriation--but because other folks apparently seem to. Take a look at the two images reproduced on that site. To me, this particular controversy is ridiculous. The photograph is a photograph. The painting is a painting. It is not an exact copy. It is even rendered in an alternate genre, a different artistic medium. It is categorically and compositionally distinct. It is visionally distinct.

I don't even think this counts as an act of sampling the original photo in the painting.

And, yet, the AP is claiming copyright infringement.

Here is the legal ruling that I think best speaks to the issue of creative appropriation:

"[In] truth, in literature, in science and in art, there are, and can be, few, if any, things, which in an abstract sense, are strictly new and original throughout. Every book in literature, science and art, borrows, and must necessarily borrow, and use much which was well known and used before." Emerson v. Davies,8 F.Cas. 615, 619 (No. 4,436) (CCD Mass. 1845)

Hence, we end up with the anxiety of influence, with Shakespeare's observation that "there is nothing new under the sun"--but we don't really end up with plagiarism.

In my poetry manuscript, which is based on objects, I included a couple of examples of oulipos because they represent the type of poetic process that emphasizes "words as objects" more than just about any other. I chose the so-called "N + 7" technique, in which you choose a famous poem that people already know; identify the nouns in the poem; and, using a dictionary of your choosing, count seven nouns ahead in the dictionary from the occurrence of the original noun, substituting the new word in the place of the old. The results are often obtuse, rarely brilliant. The point of choosing the famous poem is so that readers of the new work "recognize" it through the veil of the odd nouns since you don't change any other parts of speech. You just simply switch out one noun for another, based on an equation not on artistic genius, as if the nouns were objects on a table.

One of the readers at my press objected (no pun intended!) to my use of a Mary Oliver poem as an oulipo--"Wild Geese" became "Wild Geisha." And so forth. She worried it would offend fans of Oliver's--that they would "take umbrage" at someone messing with (mocking? parodying?) the original. Perhaps because I'm such a huge fan of Oliver's, or perhaps because the notion of sacrosanctity is something I regularly scratch my head over, this reaction hadn't occurred to me.

It's true, "Wild Geisha" is not an exceptional poem. It did have one knockout line that resulted from the exercise, the last line, in which Oliver's "the family of things" became "the fancy of thinking." That's a pretty brilliant convergence of nouns for being such a random act.

Of course, being exceptional isn't the point. Writing a "great oulipo," it seems to me, is nearly an oxymoron. But the nice benefit for poets is that you don't get bent when someone doesn't like the piece. Your "hand" really isn't in it. It's dependent on a formula, which rather lets you off the creative hook.

But, when it comes to pimping art, I obviously don't have any objection to it. In fact, I can't imagine life without it. Neither could Thomas Jefferson, Andy Warhol, or the Beatles, for that matter.

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