Friday, May 11, 2012



This poem is an attempt at plagiarism. I come from poetry lessons with Robert Kelly and Diane Wakoski who taught that copying the poems of others was something like what the copyists at the Louvre did who learned from the masters. But in writing a poem, perhaps unlike painting, even when you try to copy another poet your own voice is bound to come out and no one might be the wiser as to what the original inspiration was. In an interesting project Robert Kelly wrote “into” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” adding his own text, thereby creating a new poem in book form, also called Mont Blanc. Diane Wakoski taught that if you take a poem and change the words to be your own, you are creating something completely new.

The past couple of mornings I’ve read and reread a poem by Native American poet Joy Harjo called “Eagle Poem,” which was the Writers Almanac entry for May 9. I was swept up in it, soothed, transported. Then I remembered a morning like hers when I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon the autumn of 1976, the semester I lived up the mountain from Ashland with twenty-two students and six professors studying philosophy, literature, science and nature. One morning of the five mornings on the trail, I met a moose, an animal whose size can only be imagined, until you stand within a few feet of him.

Here’s my poem, a “plagiarism” perhaps of Harjo’s “Eagle Poem,” which I’ve included below mine. Of course plagiarism is not acceptable in prose. Is it in poetry? In this case, I am not stealing imagery or word combinations; I’m stealing the poet's pose as prompt. Maybe it is simply imitation, a form of flattery and praise for Joy Harjo.


To forage in a dark forest alone,
nudging underneath all that has dried
for a bit of life, for what keeps you going
another day. To believe you will find it
in a green leaf tipped up and up
by a breeze, or in tufts of grass
as fresh in your mouth as water.
To trek on into the black and brown
for more, always more,
trusting there will be enough green
to fill your huge being. Like the moose
at Moss Springs standing broadside
when as a college co-ed I lumbered
around the bend a mile ahead
of the trekking pack, mindlessly
lost in myself, our distance
less than his height. In his eyes
such questions, not of justice
or ethics, but of balance.
We each stood our ground
watching the other. How long?

This long. Still. As long as it takes
I know that it was on that woody hill
my clumsy shyness grew less; alone
with another I found patience to watch.
And suddenly the forest crashed
into awakeness when the bull ran off,
impossible barrel on table-legs, his crown
tipping up and up, like oak leaves.

May 2012

Eagle Poem
by Joy Harjo

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can't see, can't hear
Can't know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren't always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon, within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

"Eagle Poem" by Joy Harjo, from In Mad Love and War. © Wesleyan University Press, 1990.

Photo of Mount Hood Wilderness near Ramona Falls from Wikipedia Commons


Kathleen said...

Gorgeous! I'd call it deep imitation, not plagiarism. It's its own thing.

Andressa C. said...

"How long to sing this song?"
Forever, maybe. Thanks God!


rosaria williams said...

I call this kind of writing: Inspired. Are we not always inspired by something or someone, a word, a phrase, a note, a tune. Sometimes, right after I visit a blog or two I feel suddenly in need to write an entry of my own, a take on the subject someone pondered over.

As a child in Italy, our early lessons were all about copying, memorizing, internalizing, feeling each bump on the nose of that precious statue we were trying to replicate. That's what we are doing with all our might, retracing the steps of the original artist, learning the curves, the bumps, the whole and the parts.

Maureen said...

'Moose' is wholly yours, Ruth.

Your description of the bull as "impossible barrel on table-legs, his crown/ tipping up and up, like oak leaves" is marvelous.

I also like ending that first stanza "We each stood our ground/watching the other." I paused there before taking in the question, the pause full of possibilities.

hedgewitch said...

Ruth, honestly, if you hadn't mentioned the Harjo poem as a source material, I would never have connected the two, even sitting side by side and reading them in sequence--though there is of course, some commonality in mood and in outlook as you note. I am not big on the idea of using another poet's work in the sense of writing into it, or rewriting it, but to me this is nothing like that at all--this is just an inspiration that took you somewhere, which you received from absorbing and being moved by a work of art. Anyway--a lovely poem, which I greatly enjoyed, very visual and in the moment. (And a compelling photograph to get lost in, as well.)

Lorna Cahall said...

I agree with what has been said. Notice the differences in voice - how Harjo is in the Native American tradition (Walk in Beauty)and the moose encounter is so much more like Mary Oliver's deer. I love both the poems.

Rubye Jack said...

When I first started writing papers in college, I'd copy someone else's article and then start writing my ideas between the lines. Within no time at all I'd have my paper and it was completely different from the original copy. The more you write, the more it changes and you comes into it.

Mystic Meandering said...

I agree with the others that "Moose" is totally inspired by your own experience, by your own Heart; not an imitation - not even the same timbre. It is so completely your truth. And I love it! I felt as if I was there on the trail. It touched me deeply, esp. these lines: "mindlessly lost in myself... In his eyes such questions... And suddenly the forest cracked into awakeness when the bull ran off..."

In some ways it reminds me of the Arthurian legends of the mythical White Stag that appeared in the forest as a good omen...

You have such a way with words and poetry. It is a delight to read them here... And that photo is luscious. :) I was looking for the Moose! LOL

Mark Kerstetter said...

I wouldn't call it plagiarism, not even as a metaphor. Plagiarism is the very specific stealing of exact words. All poems (I think) come, to varying degrees, from other poems.

Your description "impossible barrel on table-legs" by itself is great. Now if you lifted that from Harjo I'd say, 'Hold it right there thief!' You've sketched the confrontation with very vivid strokes. The question of balance - that's the master stroke.

Arti said...

Yes, yes, I remember your comment about this incident... here it is. You shared in response to a similar encounter I had while walking in the woods. I'd treasured your words then, and now, you've created poetry to commemorate that experience. Just wonderful.

The Unknowngnome said...

It's inspired. It's an "other
Circle of motion."

Brendan said...

The wild thing about writing is that is cannot help but spring from the writing of others -- of another's -- since it is constantly forming fresh metaphors of mind, the world out there populating the world in here. It is one thing to say another's poem is one's own -- to make a buck off another's creation (there are copyright laws for that) -- but it another to put on another's featherd singing-jacket (their style) and sing in one's own voice. As Hedge said, the similarity between poems is faint on digital paper, though the voice is resonant. I don't know how many poems I've written with Rilke or Jack Gilbert echoing in my ear, but voices are tools for us, aren't they? Guiding our hands along certain leys of soul that don't belong to anyone. Harjo is a fine voice of the land; your identitying with hers in "The Moose" is visible, though its the land that is singing, as the dream dreams us and not the other way around. Anwyay, life comes to us so impressively in a singular shape -- like a moose or an eagle -- that we pick up pen and start writing, urgent to name that wild thing out there (as much of a place as from a time) so in accordance with something so equally wild within -- something less concerned with "justice / or ethics, but of balance." If you meet the ogre on the road, what do you do, say? It's a mythical question, and defines a life. I also thought of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose," another surprising irruption of raw nature into a sedate(d) consciousness. Fine piece. -- Brendan

James Owens said...

i will add to the general consensus and say that i can't see this as plagiarism. your own voice is distinct here. it's true, i believe, that all poems come from other poems (all??? ... hmmmm), from tradition and the fractures in tradition -- so even if you had lifted lines from joy harjo, i would remember that t.s. eliot wrote, "minor poets borrow; major poets steal."

the poem is wonderful, this stilled moment of encounter with the natural world, which is always more real and close and dense with specifics than we expected it to be ... and is often both a vision and a mirror ... though you have written a very living moose here, vivid in detail and invention, the poem is about the girl, too ...

Grandmother said...

I thought your first line sounded like Dante. I loved the forest crashed into awakeness. Joy Harjo helps us do that. She says there is more can't know except in moments...and in languages that aren't always sound. You had such a moment. A we are made of all this moment. You walk in beauty. Aho.

steven said...

ruth it's the moment of holding the immense and intimate space that is the reason for your poem . . not imitation or learning from . . . you bring into being, and hold that moment. majestically! steven

Ginnie said...

I love the things you remember, Ruth, and how they are becoming your poems, totally your own! If imitation is the best form of flattery, I'm guessing someone one day will do the same with your poem.

Shaista said...

Absolutely fascinating - I think you are one of the most interesting poets of our times. I learn so much from your experiments,your successes and your observations. You are my very own Diane Wakowski :)

I wonder which Poet I could try this with... Maybe you?!

Ruth said...

Thanks, Katheleen! I like "deep imitation." It's been a good process thinking about this for me.

Andressa, o may we never stop singing it. Thank you.

Ruth said...

rosaria, Ben Franklin said "Originality is the art of concealing your sources." I think he implies what you're saying, that we are all borrowing all the time, even when we're unconscious of it (which can still be plagiarism, something I didn't realize until recently, the unconscious part).

Maureen, thank you for walking through this process with me. And thank you for your kind response to the poem itself.

Ruth said...

hedge, my prosy preamble was a sort of time-lapse glimpse of the process of writing the poem. I put on Harjo's poem like a dress and felt guilty at first, like I was rummaging in her closet and taking what wasn't mine. Even leaving that middle "Like the moose / at Moss Springs" which is wholly founded on "Like eagle that Sunday morning / Over Salt River" would have felt strange without acknowledging Harjo's poem, partly because I feared that others would have just read "Eagle Poem" at Writers Almanac and recognized it. (See Ben Franklin's quote in my comment to rosaria, above.) But I agree that it would be hard to notice the imitation at this point. Thank you for your kind response.

Ruth said...

Lorna, I appreciate your contribution to this discussion, and the distinctions you make between the styles/genres of writing.

Rubye, we all need a "way in" to our writing, and using the writing another to get going can be very helpful.

Ruth said...

Christine, I really appreciate your encouragement and reflections on my poem. The connection with the White Stag is wonderful, and although I totally feel that now, I was not thinking of a mystical experience in this write. How cool that another reader can bring something new to the poem for the poet!

Ruth said...

Mark, I'm beginning to think that it's more difficult to seem to plagiarize in poetry than in prose. In other words, I think it's easier to borrow and also remain original. More than anything, if we follow our own experience and understanding, I think we can't go too far wrong. Thank you for reading and for your kind words.

Ruth said...

Arti, remarkable of you to find that comment! Thank you for that attention you paid so closely then, and now.

Gnome, like a "ripple effect"? Thank you.

Ruth said...

Brendan, you nailed the feeling I had, of putting Harjo's poem on like a "feathered singing-jacket." It's easy to feel like an imposter standing in front of the mic with someone else's stage costume on. But your points are very well taken, as you speak of Rilke and Gilbert for yourself, and as you've mentioned Rilke and Rumi regarding my own writing in the past. A close reader can tell who our teachers are. As for meeting the ogre on the road, I guess I'm still surprised by my own reaction as much as the moose's. And oh Bishop's "The Moose"—a rapturous poem of ordinary life and a moment's ecstasy. I hadn't even thought of it, amazingly. Thank you for reading and for your attentive comment.

Ruth said...

James, that's such a great Eliot quote. You make me see one difference between prose and poetry, which is that we generally read poems repeatedly more than we do with prose. When a poem is read so often that it becomes a part of your bones, how can it not come out in your own voice? Thank you for your warm reflections on my poem, and acknowledgement that it is about the girl, too.

Ruth said...

Mary, I love what you wrote about sounding like Dante! And the rest too. Thank you.

steven, "holding the immense and intimate space" ... yes. Always that, from nature. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Boots, when I walked in the woods the other day, I meditated on heart as filter, which is what your comment reminds me of. Thank you.

Shaista, you are too generous, thank you. Wouldn't it be fun to "put each other on" and write in the manner of one another?

Amanda said...

your poems complement one another.

you say: questions not of justice or ethics, but of balance....

in this circle we all find ourselves, balance is what we are seeking

and harjo answers:

pray that it will be done in beauty

Ruth said...

Amanda, well seen and said. Thank you.

Stratoz said...

I might give this a go next Monday. If I plagiarise a mystic... God may get a good laugh

Margaret said...

Imitation is flattery and you made it your own. I really enjoyed reading this and the description of the moose is ingenious. I love the question in the middle. How long? and the answer "This long". Still... it makes the poem have a heart beat!

erin said...

ruth, i'm struck with the faith of the moose,

"To forage in a dark forest alone,
nudging underneath all that has dried
for a bit of life, for what keeps you going
another day. To believe you will find it
in a green leaf tipped up and up
by a breeze"

what mystery the moose is! what a part it plays in the vaster mystery! (and how you tie the beginning and the end - how perfect, this so natural and dense living creature so delicately resembling the leaf.)

if we could only so soundlessly exercise such faith. if we could only.

(i miss you too. i miss me too -- i laugh. the world is too much with me of late. i hope to be around soon. i hope to be afforded the time and space. soon, i hope. soon.)))