The Complexity of Influence

This is an essay about imperfect memory, creativity, and unintentional plagiarism. It is followed by a poem that relies heavily on intentional plagiarism.

In Ray Bradbury’s book-burning dystopia, the only way to save books from the firemen is for people to memorise them. Once they have committed each book to memory they become that book:

‘I am Plato’s Republic. Like to read Marcus Aurelius? Mr Simmons is Marcus.’

‘How do you do?’ said Mr Simmons.

‘Hello,’ said Montag.

‘I want you to meet Jonathan Swift, the author of that evil political book, Gulliver’s Travels! And this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein…’[1]

By Bradbury’s standards, most people aren’t books. We don’t have the eidetic memory required to remember each word perfectly, in precise order. I could never memorise a modest-sized novella, never mind Joyce’s Ulysses or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. We can, however, remember little parts of everything we read. Usually the best bits.

‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’[2]

This line from Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese is one of my favourite lines in literature. The words and the rhythm of it have stayed with me for a long time. In fact, parts of that poem regularly try to creep into my writing.

I used to read the poem aloud to myself, enjoying that ‘yours’ in the middle that stops and holds me for a moment before I can complete the line. But I realised about a year ago that I had changed the line—and even when I was looking at the poem I was reading it wrong. This is the original line:

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’ [3]

Somehow, I’d lost that extra ‘your’ at some point in my life. When I realised this, I tried the line as Oliver had actually written it. I said it aloud and I didn’t like it nearly as much. It was the rhythm of the line as I had misremembered it that I had liked so much, and that extra syllable threw me off my beat. This bothered me for a week or two; how could I have changed a line in one of my favourite poems? And how could I prefer the line my way? I considered whether I’d done this elsewhere, with other poems and novels. A bit of digging uncovered various misquoted passages from some of my favourite writers. Faulkner, Lee, Shakespeare, and Bradbury had all undergone my subconscious rewriting at some point. I’ve been misremembering and misquoting them for years. Frustrated by how strange and bendy my memory was, I did what most people would do: I decided to be lazy and that it was okay to read the poem my way. The wrong way.

Imagine if I were to memorise a book in Bradbury’s world, trying to keep it safe from the firemen. Even if I chose something small and succinct, like Fahrenheit 451, I know I would misremember and change many of the lines. I think I would change some of the lines to make them sound more familiar in my head. And I don’t think this is just forgetfulness (although it often is); it is sometimes my creativity evolving the words and ideas it gets hold of, seeing what it can do with them.

I realise now that my imperfect memory has not only changed my favourite poem and many other works—it has also pulled words and ideas from them and conveniently forgotten where they’ve come from. My writing is littered with half-remembered half-invented words from other writers. Sometimes this results in accidental plagiarism—when I haven’t forgotten enough of a line or invented enough of my own line to make it into something new. But sometimes the original writing I’m channelling is fractured enough that becomes mine. Musicians do this all the time.

I challenged myself to write my own version of Mary Oliver’s poem, but only from memory, allowing myself to deviate however I liked—to misremember however I pleased—to use any phrase I liked. It was the most joyful, freeing piece of writing I have ever done. And by the end of the second draft, I’d drawn on more than just Wild Geese; there were parts of Robert Frost and Stanley Kunitz, and there were parts of me there also. It turned out that I couldn’t remember much of Wild Geese. So maybe some this can just be mine (Note: a lot of it is still Mary Oliver’s, and I encourage you to read her poem).

 

Tell me about despair. Yours. Then I will tell you mine.[4] How I have

walked outside the farthest city lights[5] for a hundred miles, and I have walked

back again, to the same lights and the same city. And waiting for me is

that old despair that is almost home and I almost welcome it as exhaustion

welcomes bed.

 

When we have said all we can say on the subject (despair),

perhaps we can talk about something else. You could tell me about all of

the cats that used to journey to your home, taking sanctuary there, and I

could tell you about dogs, my dogs—dogs who have walked with me

out into the night.[6]

 

We could tell each other of despair. Ours.[7] How our hearts have

lived and broken and lived by breaking.[8] How we’ve looked for light in

those times beyond the light and sometimes found each other, or others,

or found no one there at all.[9]

 

And we should hide in the beds of each other’s lives with the

curtains drawn against the day until every hardness and ache is broken,

until all the clots of our blood and our histories have dissolved. We should always

give despair its due, but give it no more than this.

We only have to let the soft animal of our bodies love what they

love.[10] And there is softness there. Here. In sharing. In despairing

together as friends, as family, as lovers. But we should get up afterwards,

when we can bear to lift each other, or just ourselves.

 

Once we are up, we should shower, put on our warmest clothes

and driest shoes and walk out together, beyond those farthest city lights[11].

And we should try to find more than darkness there, at the edge

of comfort and walls and curtains that are their own kind of darkness[12].

In that night we could find life. Owls. Badgers. Foxes. And the deep

trees[13]. And when morning comes we might be shivering, finding that

we have walked the whole way to the sea and that the sky is clear and

the pebbles of rain[14] are clear, and that the wild geese are calling to us

from above, announcing our place in the family of things[15]

And it won’t be perfect. It won’t be wholly yours. It won’t be salvation.

Few things are. But it will be something, and some things can be enough.

 

 

 

[1] Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

[2] Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

[3] Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

[4] Wild Geese, Mary Oliver.

[5] Acquainted with the Night, Robert Frost. I had not intended to reference this, but the phrase is undeniably similar to a line from this poem.

[6] Roughly related to Acquainted with the Night, Robert Frost: ‘I have walked out in rain—and back in rain’ Or perhaps this line is just wholly my own. I cannot tell.

[7] This line is a mutated form of Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese.

[8] Roughly related to The Testing Tree by Stanley Kunitz: ‘In a murderous time / the heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.’

[9] This also sounds like a quote from Frost’s Acquainted with the Night to me, but I cannot find a line in the poem similar to it. Perhaps it’s the rhythm that feels derivative to me. But I can’t work out where I’ve taken it from. Perhaps this line is also mine.

[10] Other than making it plural, this is an exact quote from Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese. It is plagiarism. Some lines are too perfect to forget.

[11] Acquainted with the Night, Robert Frost.

[12] This is very familiar, but I don’t know what it’s from. Perhaps I am quoting someone. Perhaps I have misremembered a poem so completely that I cannot work out what it is. Or perhaps this is just familiar the way a catchy song I’ve never actually heard before is familiar.

[13] Roughly related to Wild Geese by Mary Oliver.

[14] Roughly related to Wild Geese: ‘Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain / are moving across the landscapes,’

[15] Roughly taken from Wild Geese:

‘Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.’

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