Sunday, March 15, 2009

quotation in poetry

“Quotation confesses inferiority.” --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) describes quotation as occurring when “a writer expresses himself in words that have been used before because they give his meaning better than he can give it himself, … or because he wishes to show that he is learned and well-read. Quotations due to the last motive are invariably ill-advised.”

So Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Derrida, Barthes, Deleuze, Adorno, etc. appear regularly, and often unnecessarily, when a poet is writing about poetry. Always out of context and frequently misunderstood and/or misapplied, these noble figures are used for their weight, to give ballast to the drifting rafts of text the unsure writer is putting into the world.

Like a cliché, a quotation stops thought for a moment, giving the “author” a break from having to put his or her own thoughts into words. Quoting other writers has become such a common, if not automatic, process that most writers who leap to recognize others they admire do not augment themselves but disappear themselves. They get lost behind the figures they conjure through the act of quotation even as they seek to align themselves with what they quote.

Is it possible to cite without citing? To benefit from others without bowing to them? To quote is to simultaneously step aside and assert oneself. But the stepping aside can be a problem, because it is evasive—one’s own ideas are what are being evaded. And asserting oneself in this way can be a problem, because all that is asserted is one’s tastes and reading habits, one’s endorsements and affiliations.

Fortunately, poets are increasingly finding ways around the problem, through collage, graftings, montage, erasure, treatments, compost, palimpsest, documentary and investigational poetries.


pb said...

Are you talking to yourself again?
I do it all the time.
Never know where any of it comes from in the end.
Could be Keats, could be Schuyler, could be Zawacki, could be Rod McKuen, could be Bernstein.
And so it goes

Verse said...

I'm pretty sure it's not Rod McKuen! The others, maybe.