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Gathered, Not Made: A Brief History of Appropriative Writing
This paper originally appeared in March/April 1999 edition of the The American Poetry Review
Combining his quest for total objectivity with passionate bibliophilia, Walter Benjamin once dreamed of authoring an essay that would consist entirely of quotations from his sources. I'm not sure what my motivations were, but last year I wrote a poem largely composed of direct quotes from a 1979 guide to artists' videos. For the texts of other recent poems I've lifted from such sources as the table of contents of a 1950s literary journal, a review of an obscure 1960s film, an article on the Swiss pop music scene, and the intermittently legible legend on an old Mexican retablo. In some cases I simply transcribed the passage I wanted, while in others I also had to translate it. What amazes me about these acts of literary larceny is how satisfying I find the process. Even though the words are not mine, I derive from them the same kind of pleasure and pride I get from lines I have written in a more conventional manner. Why, I wonder, should it be creatively satisfying to simply transpose lines someone else has written into a text I intend to sign with my own name?
It is to answer that question that I decided to delve a little into the history of what could be called "appropriative literature." I wasn't interested so much in the 20th-century tradition of collage poetry--exemplified by "The Wasteland" and The Cantos--as in a more extreme approach in which, rather than weave obvious quotations into his or her words, the writer becomes a kind of scribe, transferring small or large passages, usually without attribution or other signals that these words were written by someone else.
The epitome of this kind of writer is, of course, Borges's splendid invention Pierre Menard, the fictional early-20th-century French poet who sets out to rewrite Cervantes's Don Quixote word for word. (In the 1980s, Borges's text was often cited in relation to so-called appropriation artists such as Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince.) The idea of erasing the lines between authors was one which Borges returns to again in his short essay "The Flowers of Coleridge." There, he raises the notion previously espoused by Shelley, Emerson and Valéry that all literary works are the creations of a single eternal author (a point he tries to demonstrate by tracing a recurring idea through Coleridge, H.G. Wells and Henry James). Arguing for the essentially impersonal nature of literature, Borges reminds us that George Moore and James Joyce "incorporated in their works the pages and sentence of others" and that Oscar Wilde "used to give plots away for others to develop." More recently, a whole school of literary theory has developed ideas remarkably similar to those Borges espoused. Roland Barthes, for instance, famously defined the text as "a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original"
The following list doesn't include any Wilde-derived stories, alas, but there are plenty of instances of writers utilizing "the pages and sentences of others." I don't pretend that this is an exhaustive list -- I'm no literary scholar and didn't go far beyond what I could find on my own shelves. However, I think it does suggest the extent and vitality of the modernist tradition of textual pilfering. If nothing else, it has given me a better idea of why it seems so natural, and so creatively satisfying, to avail myself of the words of others.
(In emulation of Borges's bibliography of Pierre Menard's "visible" works, I've assigned each entry a letter.)