‘No poet has his complete meaning alone’
As explained by T.S. Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ writing a poem in the form and style of another, a poem often prefaced with the epithet of after, pays homage to the influence of the poets of the past and their role in the contemporary. Written in 1919, Eliot’s essay was followed two years later by ‘The Sacred Wood’, an essay ostensibly about poets and critics, but revealing more about Eliot’s own poetics, which contains the oft-quoted (or mis-quoted) phrase ‘immature poets imitate, mature poets steal’. In ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ Eliot had advised that ‘The poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past’. In two years Eliot is able to move from the word ‘procure’ to the word ‘steal’ and then implement his beliefs on a large scale in his seminal book The Wasteland, published a year later in 1922. Importantly, Eliot is open about acknowledging influence, feeling if the past is appropriated conscientiously, the contemporary poet can create ‘something new’. The quote about poets stealing therefore needs to be set alongside the paragraph from which the quote was extracted:
“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.”
Fifty years after The Wasteland Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, published in 1972, picked up the thread of Eliot’s argument and added a new twist. In contending that all literary texts are a response to the literary texts that preceded them, Bloom argues that often the source texts are misread and therefore misinterpreted, the implication being that the healthy influence of past texts posited by Eliot might be misappropriated, diluted, perhaps resulting in a dumbing-down. For any, new, contemporary poet Bloom’s and Eliot’s theories add ominous weight to the enterprise of writing poetry. The poet needs to read widely the poets of the past, not be overawed by reverence and not too anxious of their influence, lest they misappropriate, or compare unfavourably. However, the poet undergoing a long apprenticeship of reading and studying (poets and critics) is in a stronger position than the poet who does not. Allowing that there might be a genius poet able to write great poems (there aren’t many, if any?) without being aware of a ‘tradition’, it is advisable a poet goes through a period writing in imitation, homage and dedication before they develop their own poetic style.
Poems requiring the epithet after are inspired by other poems and other poets’ use of form and style (and often content). I found myself writing several afters in 'The Mask' my first collection of poems recently published by Lapwing Publications in Belfast. Most often, it is a following of form and style or tone, but sometimes it is a (rhetorically) deep mirroring of subject matter, which can include the use of similar language and, when that is not sufficient, direct quotations from the source poet.
The after poems are honourable ventures, and stand at the opposite end of the spectre of plagiarism; they are an important learning vehicle for the poet, but they are not without disadvantages. What if the new poem produced is an embarrassing, risible imitation of the original? I felt this with a poem called ‘For Coleman Hawkins’. It was inspired by Philip Larkin’s poem ‘For Sydney Bechet’. I wanted to write my own homage to Coleman Hawkins so, with the exception of one rhyme scheme change, I followed the form of Larkin’s poem. Of course, the content is very different, but the shimmering quality of Larkin’s poem shines through fifty years after it was written.
‘After’ poems are written on reading and becoming linguistically hypnotised by a poet’s use of language. Something like a transference occurs, with language operating at a deep and rhythmic level of consciousness (another Eliot concept). The poet-reader compelled soon after to write his or her own poems in the style of, after, another poet. It is as if poets are participating in a specialised ‘language game’. There is, importantly, an element of inhabiting in the after. In transference, an inhabiting of the mind-language of another, and moved by the rhythms of consciousness, leads to a throwing of someone else’s voice, mimicking or wearing a mask. This inhabiting is similar to an actor in role or a poet speaking and thinking in the imagined first person of characters who may be fictional. The poems inhabiting are effectively an immersion and a sub-conscious development of the poems named after and continue the poet’s development.
After after come poems of dedication or homage, poems prefaced with the word for. This is salutary in many ways. To dedicate a poem to another can be a ‘thank you’ for the influence and therefore linked to the after poems, but it can also serve to highlight the poet’s independence. (i.e., Now I am writing my own poems I can safely say you will like this, or I am confident enough in this poem that I can add weight to its reach by dedicating it to a great dead poet [whom I’ve never met]). In this sense, the for and after poems are linked to The Great Tradition and emblematic, related to earning one’s stripes and saluting the people who helped you on your way. The for poems are useful stepping stones for the poet, but can be harmful if the reader feels excluded by personal dedications, and hurtful to the poet if the dedicatees (if they are alive) are embarrassed to be associated with the poem dedicated.
The final part of the would-be poet’s progress is a rumination on subject matter; after writing in a gamut of modes the poet moves toward a preferred stye of their own.
'I will bear you away and slice you and splice you till that shall suffice you for your writings and ill-gotten plagiarising’
- Herman Hesse
In recent years, the spectre of plagiarism has haunted the poetry world. Several well known poets have been accused of plagiarism and have been stripped of awards and competition winnings. If the poets had acknowledged the influences of (in these cases) their contemporaries, they would have been free from such damaging accusations, and still been able to bring to the world good new poems. One is innocently at risk from plagiarism if one hasn’t read widely and inadvertently uses a phrase that is extant and well known in poetry circles. Perhaps this phrase is so well known that it has become an everyday cliché (say, a Shakespearean maxim) that the poet lazily reclaims as everyday spoken language. And there is the odd occurrence that can be attributed to the notion of great minds thinking alike. In 2004 I wrote a poem called ‘Rain’ which ends with the phrase ...’in someone else’s Rain’. It is not a good poem, but I came to the phrase in the context of a poem questioning how other poets (Neruda/Cummings) wrote about rain. The poem shows how logical it was to use that phrase given what had preceded it, yet several years later I found the same phrase in a poem of John Burnside’s. I had not read John Burnside’s work by 2004 and Rain was written after the John Burnside poem, so neither of us were plagiarising each other! Notwithstanding the rare accidents of plagiarism, if poets followed the rites of passage of afters and fors, (homage and dedication) they would protect themselves from accusations of ill-gotten gains, for there is no pleasure or satisfaction having a poem commended that is not one’s own.
I am a writer, editor and translator living in West Yorkshire. I have a degree and masters in Literature and Philosophy from London Universities. I obtained a PGCE in English and History and taught for two years in a secondary school in England. My writing credits can be viewed here. I have had two poetry books published and am a co-translator of Alain-Fournier:Poems (Carcanet, 2016). I work as an editor and associate publisher at The High Window Press.