UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers

Gathered, Not Made: A Brief History of Appropriative Writing
Raphael Rubinstein
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.) 

a) Isidore Ducasse's (a.k.a., le Comte de Lautreamont) Les Chants de Maldoror (1868). Some 80 years after this proto-surrealist masterpiece was published, scholars discovered that long passages of it were direct quotations from an 1853 encyclopedia of natural history. Although Ducasse left no explanation of his borrowings in Maldoror, he did pen a defense of plagiarism in his sardonic manifesto Poesies (1870). "Plagiarism is necessary," he wrote, because "it stays close to the wording of an author, it uses his expressions, erasing a false idea and replacing it with a correct one." Ducasse's famous remark that "poetry should be made by all" encapsulates his challenge to conventional authorship. 

b) Blaise Cendrars's Kodak (1924), a book of poems ostensibly inspired by Cendrars's travels in North and South America. Decades later, Cendrars revealed that the purportedly "documentary" poems in the book were actually slightly revised quotations from a novel called Le mysteriuex Docteur Cornelius by Gustave Lerouge. According to Cendrars, he wanted to demonstrate that Lerouge, a popular novelist little appreciated by the literary establishment of his day, was in fact a writer of considerable poetic ability. While no one caught on to Cendrars's borrowings, the Kodak company objected to the unauthorized use of its trademarked name in the title. In subsequent editions, the book carried the title Documentaires

c) Hugh MacDiarmid's Cornish Heroic Songs for Valda Trevlyn (1937-38), a collection of poems MacDiarmid abandoned only after writing some 700 pages. In his introduction to MacDiarmid's Selected Poems (1993), Eliot Weinberger describes how the Scottish poet composed much of the book by transcribing "long passages from obscure travel and science books, reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, Herman Melville's letters, the writings of Martin Buber, Thomas Mann's Tonio Kroger." As Weinberger explains it, MacDiarmid had "discovered that the way out of the traditional prosody and rhyme he had hitherto employed almost exclusively was to break prose down into long jagged lines." 

d) Stefan Themerson's Bayamus and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry (1949, revised edition 1965), a novella in which the author replaces certain words with their dictionary definitions. Here, for instance, entering the salon of a brothel, the narrator describes its some of its features:

"There were four openings: three of them serving as entrances with wooden structures moving on hinges for closing them, and one, not very large, filled with panes of glass fixed in a movable frame and covered by a sheet of pale yellow cloth lowered from a roller above, and by a sheet of green cloth hanging on a rod and drawn across so as to keep out sun and draught." 
In other words, the room had three doors and one window.

Themerson, a Polish exile who founded the avant-garde Gaberbocchus Press in London in 1948, believed that turning to dictionary definitions was a way "to translate poems not from one tongue into another but from a language composed of words so poetic that they had lost their impact, -- into something that would give them a new meaning and flavor." 

e) John Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath (1962), which contains the long poem titled "Europe" (first published in 1960) that is partly composed of phrases taken more or less at random from William LeQueux's 1917 children's book Beryl of the Biplane, which Ashbery had found at a quayside bookstall in Paris. Other poems in the collection draw on American magazines the author used to leaf through during his years living in France.

In one of her readings of Ashbery's work, Marjorie Perloff draws a useful distinction between the quotations of contemporary poets and those of their modernist predecessors: "In the consciousness of the postmodern poet, fragments of earlier poetry float to the surface, not to be satirized as in, say, Eliot's work, or to make the past contemporaneous with the present as in Pound, but as the 'blank parody' Fredric Jameson has defined as pastiche, which is to say, the neutral mimicry that takes place when there is no longer a norm to satirize or parodize." ("Barthes, Ashbery, and the Zero Degree of Genre" in Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, Northwestern University Press, 1990, p. 282.) 

f) Louis Zukofsky's "A-15" (1964). The opening stanzas of this section of Zukofsky's epic poem A use English words to imitate the biblical Hebrew of the opening of the Book of Job. (Zukofsky also applied this technique of homophonic translation to poems by Catullus.) For the reader who knows their source, lines such as "He neigh ha lie low h'who y'he gall mood" initially don't seem so different from the English transliterations found in some Jewish prayer books, but as one perseveres with Zukofsky's Hebrew-English hybrid, underlying meanings emerge and the stage is set for the modulation of "A-15" into an elegy for the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy. 

g) Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch (1963, English translation 1966). Chapter 34 of this cornerstone of literary postmodernism braids together in alternating lines a long quotation from an old-fashioned novel and a passage in the voice of Hopscotch's narrator. Since it's very hard to shift orientation at the end of each justified line of type and even harder to keep both narratives in mind simultaneously, the reader is tempted to proceed by skipping every other line, reading the first entire quote and then Cortázar's words. But the great Argentinean fictioneer slyly blocks this strategy by having the second text continually comment on what is happened in the first one, compelling the reader to read chapter 34 line by mindbending line. As well as being a wittily subversive piece of fiction, this chapter of Hopscotch is a precursor of poststructuralist philosophical texts such as Derrida's Glas., a book in which a column of quotations from Jean Genet runs continuously alongside the author's discussion of Hegel.  

h) Ted Berrigan's poem "cento: A note on Philosophy" from circa 1964-68 in which every one of the 58 lines is taken from another poet. Like his friend and fellow poet Ron Padgett, Berrigan frequently borrowed lines from others, particularly in his poetic sequence "The Sonnets."

In a 1971 interview with Tom Clark, Berrigan admits to another kind of borrowing. Starting with "a sort of ghastly poem" by a friend, Berrigan tells how he "rearranged a few lines, moved the things around, changed a couple of things....There was no attempt to hide that it was all by him [his friend Dick Gallup]." Here, the poet becomes a kind of editor-plagiarist. 

i) Oulipo: la litterature potentielle (1973), a compendium of various literary methods assembled by the Paris-based writers' group Oulipo (l'Ouvoir de litterature potenielle). In one chapter, Raymond Queneau describes and presents several examples of "Definitional Literature," which consists of replacing every word in a sentence with its dictionary definition. (Queneau gives credit to Stefan Themerson for using this method previously -- see above.) A short sentence thereby expands automatically, and if one then subjects this expanded sentence to the same process, the text once again grows in size.

In the next chapter, two other Oulipo members, Marcel Benabou and Georges Perec, offer a refinement which they call "Litterature Semo-Definitionelle." Here, one chooses the definitions with a view to creating a text that is in the style of a particular author. In their examples, Benabou and Perec turn unlikely phrases into sentences that sound like Sade, Genet and Philippe Sollers.

(For more information on Oulipo, readers may consult Atlas Press's Oulipo Compendium, edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie.)

Considering dictionary definitions as "the words of others" might seem an absurdly large expansion of appropriative literary practice -- if taking words from the dictionary is considered as "appropriation," then every word we write could be said to come from another source. I'm reminded of Francis Ponge's early prose poem "The Augean Stables" which describes how difficult it is for poets to contend with the fact that the words they use are also employed for antithetical political and commercial purposes. Within the writer, Ponge laments, "the same sordid order speaks, because we have no other words at our disposal." Calling up an analogy with another art form, he observes: "We are like painters who, from as far back as can be remembered, would all have to dip their brushes in the same immense can in order to thin out their paints." 

j) Harry Mathews's Selected Declarations of Dependence (1977), a book elaborated from 46 proverbs that Mathews subjects to all manner of mutation. Splitting in half proverbs such as "It's an ill wind that bodes no good" and "All roads lead to Rome," Mathews reassembles the parts to create what he calls "perverbs" (e.g. "It's an ill wind that leads to Rome"). This recombinative procedure becomes the basis for a story made from rearranged proverbs, dozens of paraphrases of various "preverbs," and many poems (some perverbial translations from Dante, Shakespeare and Mallarmé).

In his foreword to Selected Declarations of Dependence, itself made from fractured proverbs, Mathews pens some lines which could be applied to all the authors cited here: "Words lie waiting, intentions of the dead, and what to the dead were intentions of the dead. Words are gathered, not made, for intentions, new and old."  

k) Kathy Acker's story "New York City in 1979" (1979). Taking a cue from William Burroughs, whose books were patched together from his own cut-up manuscripts, Acker wove together her own tales from the punk underworld with all manner of texts. In her 1989 essay "A Few Notes on Two of My Books, she recalls one of her earliest pieces, "New York City in 1979," which combined an account of life on Manhattan's lower east side life with Baudelaire's description of his diseased mistress Jeanne Duval. Resisting the "appropriationist" label many tried to give her, Acker commented, in the same essay "When I copy, I don't 'appropriate.' I just do what gives me most pleasure: write." Even if one knows that Acker is copying, it's hard to tell her sources and where the lines lie between copied and "original" words. For Acker, textual borrowing was part of an assault on the capitalist system. A few years before she died, she heralded the rise of the Internet as a way of challenging the concept of literary ownership which lies behind copyright law. 

l) Clark Coolidge's chapbook Smithsonian Depositions (1980). Like this homage to Robert Smithson (which is a concatenation of passages from 30 different sources, ranging from Godard films to geology textbooks to Smithson's writings), much of Coolidge's work is strewn with snippets of borrowed discourse. For Coolidge, the poet seems to be a kind of sublime interceptor, tuning into all forms of communication and snatching at passing language fragments when they suit his purposes. It's important to note that Coolidge's mosaic poems cannot be elucidated by discovering the poet's sources. Like the great be-bop musicians, Coolidge takes a found phrase and draws out of it endless, wildly inventive variations.

Noting that Coolidge is "not forthcoming on his techniques," one commentator on his work (Barrett Watten in Total Syntax), proceeds to "imagine a writing scenario" in which "words or materials (open books, clippings) are on a table next to a typewriter. . . . The writing is a spontaneous invention starting from these 'exterior' materials, and the argument of the work that develops is a projection of the interior voice onto the exterior words." 

m) David Shapiro's poem "Those Who Must Stay Indoors" (1983). In the acknowledgements of his 1983 collection To An Idea: A Book of Poems, Shapiro advises the reader: "Some lines in "Those Who Must Stay Indoors" are after the Field Book of Natural History." The last quatrain of this 20-line poem is set off in quotation marks and is obviously drawn from the volume of natural history mentioned in the acknowledgements. But it's just as obvious that the preceding 16 lines also draw heavily on the Field Book of Natural History, or some similar volume, the only difference being that Shapiro has selectively cut and reordered passages to produce lyrical (and quotation-mark-free) stanzas such as: 

"Where ravens work cooperatively in the night
The stars and the maps and the horizons should now be rent
We mean a number of things, but chiefly we refer
To variations in brilliance, groups of stars, lines in the maps now dots."

While explicit acknowledgements such as the one I've just cited are rare in Shapiro's books, more or less covert borrowings are in fact plentiful in his oeuvre, as suggested by the title he gave to a 1994 collection, After a Lost Original.  

n) Walter Abish's 99: The New Meaning (1990) which contains a text the author describes as "no less than 99 segments by as many authors, each line, sentence or paragraph appropriated from a page bearing that same, to me, mystically significant number 99." Another text, "What Else," is made up of 50 extracts from autobiographical writings by various other authors. Reading through the book, one may, every so often, recognize an author -- J.G. Ballard, Daniel Spoerri, Paul Nizan -- but usually the quotations, however vaguely familiar, are unidentifiable, at least to this reader. In a prefatory note, after describing the texts as "not actually 'written' but orchestrated," Abish speaks of his aims in terms that remind us he is a writer of fiction, someone who by definition speaks with the words of others. "I wanted," he writes, "to probe certain familiar emotional configurations afresh, and arrive at an emotional content that is not mine by design." 

o) Bernadette Mayer's "X on Page 50 at half inch intervals." Reprinted in the 1992 Bernadette Mayer Reader, this prose text of the 1970s records the words (and empty spaces) which Mayer encounters on a printed page as she traces an X across it. Ostensibly doing nothing more than transcribing an arbitrary sequence of words, Mayer opens up her unidentified source text to diverse meanings. That appropriation plays an important role for Mayer can be seen in a list of experiments presented in her workshop at the St. Mark's Poetry Project in the early 1970s (published in the 1986 anthology In the American Tree). "Experiment with theft and plagiarism in any form that occurs to you," reads one entry. "Use source materials, that is, experiment with other people's writings, sayings, & doings," advises another. 

p) Charles Bernstein's poem "Emotions of Normal People" (in the 1994 collection Dark City) which appears to derive from a random sampling of the banal printed matter that figures in everyday life: computer handbooks, direct-mail consumer surveys, anonymous letters on noise complaints, a thank-you note, a catalogue description of the 1989 edition of Poet's Market. In contrast to Clark Coolidge, a poet with whom his work is sometimes associated under the rubric of "Language Poetry," Bernstein leaves his borrowed texts relatively undigested. His unit is not the "musical" phrase that Coolidge employs, but the discursive category. Constructed out of the various types of discourse which constitute contemporary identity, texts such as "Emotions of Normal People" appear to question the use of the self as an organizing principle, not only for poems but for the entire realm of human history.    

q) David Markson's Reader's Block (1996), a 193-page novel consisting almost wholly of material derived from other books. While there are occasional quotations (never with quotation marks) and numerous titles and author's names, most of Reader's Block offers tersely stated details from the lives of various writers, artists and musicians. Many of the biographical details concern coincidences or what are commonly called "amazing facts." Recurring themes include incidents of anti-Semitism among cultural figures and causes of death of the same. Here's a brief sample:

"A less than anonymous Paris prostitute named Marie Duplessis, who was dead at    twenty-three.
And became the model for La Dame aux Camelias.
Hart Crane committed suicide by jumping from a freighter in the Caribbean.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was an anti-Semite.
Molloy, Malone, Estragon." 

Interspersed among these book-derived facts are comments charting a writer identified as "the Reader" who is developing ideas about a novel centered around a figure identified as "the Protagonist." Eventually, the reader (small r) realizes, the novel which is being charted is none other than Reader's Block, which one of the Reader's notes seems to be describing when it evokes: "A novel of intellectual reference and illusion, so to speak, minus much of the novel." 

r) Kenneth Goldsmith's No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (1997), a 600-page, genre-defying book consisting of thousands of phrases, each ending with an r sound that were read or heard or otherwise collected by the author during the nearly three-year period indicated in the title. Described by Charles Bernstein as "the longest, and maybe the last, list poem of the twentieth century," Goldsmith's encyclopedic project orders its contents by syllabic length and alphabetic order. As the book progresses, the syllabic length of the entries, each separated by commas, grows and short bursts of borrowed language give way to longer chunks of found discourse. The final chapter consists of the entire text (uncredited) of D.H. Lawrence's short story "A Rocking Horse Winner," which is present for the simple fact that it concludes with an "r" sound (the word "winner").

Coming to writing by way of visual art, Goldsmith appears at first to be assuming a Warholian passivity to the world around him, but the rhythmic structures he establishes and the personal nature of his choices soon make the reader realize that even this extreme form of linguistic appropriation is permeated with personal vision. 

s) Marjorie Welish's poems "The Glove" and "False Entry" from her recent chapbook titled Else, in Substance (1999). Both poems are made by bringing together an assortment of quotations both literary and nonliterary. In "False Entry," Welish begins and ends the poem with a sequences of riddles, familiar and not ("When is a door not a door? . . . . There is a red lady locked up in a room whose door is often open yet she can never escape?"), while the middle stanza recycles questions from a driver's license examination.   

t) In his most recent collection, Wakefulness (1998), John Ashbery includes a poem titled "The Dong with the Luminous Nose." A subtitle identifies the poem as a cento, a form which goes back to the classical Greek tradition of constructing new poems using only lines from the Iliad and the Odyssey. An earlier Ashbery cento is the famous "To A Waterfowl" of 1961. In "The Shield of a Greeting," his 1980 essay of Ashbery, David Lehman identifies one couplet of "To A Waterfowl" as "half Spenser, half Stevens, ergo all Ashbery."

The borrowings in "The Dong with the Luminous Nose" are very different from those of Ashbery's "Europe" (see above). In "Europe," the poet is probably the only one to hold the key to the sources, while here readers will immediately recognize many of the English poets Ashbery draws from, including Hopkins, Marvell, Coleridge, D.H. Lawrence and Auden. And that's as it should be. Recognition is a central feature of the cento form, with its implicit tribute to the literary past, and the sotto voce suggestion that the store of great lines may be running low.

As it happens, I've put Ashbery into a little cento of my own. It's the second poem in my collection The Basement of the Cafe Rilke (1996), where it stands as a tribute to two of the writers from whom I've learned the most. I hesitate to conclude this stellar alphabet with one of my poems, but, then again, it's not me who wrote the following lines: 

Courtesy Ashbery and Auden 

Because life is short
we have to keep asking it the same question,
but the answer is hard
and hard to remember. 

UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers