LOVE AND THEFT.

I plagiarize that title from Gail Armstrong [N.b.: As of April 2012, Open Brackets appears to be long defunct], who borrowed it from Mark Ford, who stole it from Bob Dylan, who swiped it from Eric Lott, and who knows where Lott got it? Plagiarism, or more broadly the appropriation of previously written material for one’s own purposes, is Ford’s subject, and he starts off with the usual suspects (Sterne, De Quincey, Coleridge) before going in a surprising direction: Wallace Stevens’ magnificent “Sunday Morning,” with its unforgettable ending (which may or may not refer to the extinction of a species; the poem “was composed not long after the death of the last passenger pigeon, named Martha, in Cincinnati zoo on 1 September 1914. The world’s attention was fixed, of course, on other events…”). Ford used some of Stevens’ imagery for a poem of his own, which is how he shoehorns it into the essay; whether it’s a good idea to juxtapose your own stanzas with those of Stevens is another matter entirely. At any rate, Ford then goes on to an excellent example, and one that warms my heart:

At the other end of the scale – by far the longest work ever published to be based on the principle of the found poem – is Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative, which consists of hundreds of stories taken from law reports and organised according to region, date and category; for example, ‘Social Life’, ‘Machine Age’, ‘Property’, ‘Negroes’, ‘Children’, ‘Railroads’. Reznikoff trained as a lawyer, and worked for several years for the legal encyclopedia Corpus Juris. He became fascinated by the literary potential of witness statements, and in 1934 published the first version of Testimony, a prose anthology or collage based on summaries of court reports. The ‘recitative’ version, however, issued in two volumes in 1965 and 1968 and running to more than five hundred pages, presents its narratives taken from legal briefs in loose, free-flowing verse…
Although Reznikoff avoids revealing the legal outcomes of the cases he includes, we are always aware while reading Testimony of the legal conventions governing the way each story is told. The versification is rarely intrusive; but in a subtle, almost subliminal way, it dignifies and deepens the events that triggered the intervention of the law: the railroad accidents, the cold-blooded murders, the gross examples of corporate negligence, the thefts, the suicides, the labour disputes, the mining disasters, the racial conflicts, the crimes passionnels. The poem also might be said to cast a quizzical, even sceptical light on the titanic efforts of an American Modernist poet such as Hart Crane to impose on American history an overarching, all-comprehending myth or narrative: the sheer multiplicity of its characters and their stories defeats all impulses and attempts to generalise. Reznikoff was active in left-wing circles, and clearly thought of his project as an instrument for social justice; but like the organisers of Mass Observation in Britain in the 1930s, he wisely decided to let the evidence speak for itself.

I am very fond of Reznikoff myself and treasure my old Black Sparrow volumes of Testimony, which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in either modernist poetry or modern America.

Comments

  1. I agree about Reznikoff. I used to have a collection of his. I’ll have to re-buy it, I guess.
    James Boyd White’s “The Legal Imagination” is a fascinating study of the way the legal mind and legal language work. It can be hilarious at times, but it is not a satire, because he really does love the law.

  2. I’m occupied by other matters and will have to check out your links later, so may be I’m wrong and it is resolved in your links , but I think definitions have to be clarified here. (talk about legal mind!)
    There is a difference between plagiarism and appropriating someone else’s materials for your own purposes, namely, disclosure of the fact.
    So Resnikoff would be an example of borrowing, not theft, since he based his two volumes on legal cases, revealing his sources rather than concealing them. How, then, his book is an example of “longest work ever published to be based on the principle of the found poem”?
    What poem?

  3. “Found poem” means a poem constructed from found materials rather than on phrases created by the poet; it does not imply plagiarism, which is why I broadened the subject to “the appropriation of previously written material for one’s own purposes.” The leap (or confusion) is from the linked essay, so blame Mark Ford, not me! (Though neither he nor I has a particularly legal mind.)

  4. Thanks for this reference to Reznikoff’s *Testimony* – I’d never heard of it (or him), but now it’s at the top of my to-read list.

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