February 22, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Plagiarizing Sean Casey

So I was having some thoughts about Sean’s post from yesterday, on plagiarism, music and the rhetoric of politicians. And I thought that people might want to hear them. And I thought that can be a dangerous thing to believe. And I thought of Modest Mouse: “I had a drink the other day / Opinions were like kittens I was giving them away.”

But I would never give away kittens.


One of the benefits of growing up in New Hampshire (besides the indisputably awesome state motto, oh, and getting to wake up one morning and see that the Old Man in the Mountain had fallen off, which was on the front page of the New York Times and made me laugh for about ten hours) is the opportunity to see so many presidential candidates in person. In 2004 I went to see John Kerry give a speech in Manchester, and was surprised to hear him refer repeatedly to a “dream deferred,” without referring to Langston Hughes.

Turned out that Kerry chose the title of a different Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again,” as his campaign’s theme. No one, so far as I know, accused him of plagiarism, but a few idiots did try to paint him as a “radical.” Would that it were so.

And I got to thinking about “plagiarism” in poetry and music as well. I love it when people jump right up and steal on purpose, from any source, whether it’s another poem or, in the case of Health Pack by Brad Flis, cheat codes for Grand Theft Auto. Appropriate. I like that it angers people, like the young man I taught who accused Flis of “perjury.” At least one reader of Poetry totally flipped out when the journal published Loren Goodman’s very funny revision of William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark.” (Goodman changed the last line to “then pushed myself over the edge.”)

Sampling “Under Pressure” without obtaining permission from Queen and David Bowie got Vanilla Ice in big trouble. It’s important to think about Vanilla Ice. More recently, I’ve been psyched to listen to M.I.A.’s (Maya Arulpragasam’s) super-smart borrowing of lyrics from the Pixies and the Modern Lovers, among others. She’s not sampling them, she’s singing, keeping basic beats and reworking melodies to meet her own imaginative needs.

She is still sampling too–her use of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” in “Paper Planes” sends the song straight into legendary orbits, helped by a shift of “Rump Shaker’s” “”All I wanna do is zoom-a-zoom-zoom/and shake your rump,” into “All I wanna do is (gun cock)-(gun shots)-(cash register opening)/and take your money!” (Funnily enough, Arulpragasam got her start touring with Elastica, who famously stole Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” riff for their song, “Connection.”)

And then there is the endlessly clever Daniel Bejar of Destroyer, whose sly thefts and additions remind me of Goodman a bit. Listen to him take the insipid lyric from Rod Stewart, “Have I told you lately that I love you?” and simultaneously rescue and mock it with the line that follows:

Did I fail to mention there’s a sword hanging above you?

In conclusion, Hillary Clinton’s attack geese have been nipping at Barack Obama for oratory like this. Language itself is in the headlines. Back in the headlines, is more like it. It used to be that our current president’s homemade language poetry of slurred syntax incurred scorn. Now a candidate who puts words together well gets it.

The Kenyon Review was founded in 1939. The resources for the new literary journal were provided by Gordon Keith Chalmers, President of Kenyon College, while the inspiration to establish the journal and raise the national stature of the institution had come from his wife Roberta Teale Swartz, herself a poet and a friend and protege of Robert Frost. Frost encouraged the idea and visited Kenyon more than once. The poet and critic John Crowe Ransom was recruited to Kenyon by Chalmers with the express purpose in mind of his launching a distinguished magazine. During his 21-year tenure, Ransom published such internationally known writers as Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, Mark Van Doren, Kenneth Burke, and Delmore Schwartz, as well as younger writers: Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, and Peter Taylor, to name a few. It was perhaps the best known and most influential literary magazine in the English-speaking world during the 1940s and '50s. In 1969, discouraged by the quarterly's financial burdens and sagging reputation, Kenyon College ceased publication of The Kenyon Review. The journal was revived in 1979, and in June 1990, internationally acclaimed poet and editor Marilyn Hacker was hired as the Review's first full-time (and first female) editor. She quickly broadened the quarterly's scope to include more minority and marginalized viewpoints. In April 1994, the trustees directed that The Kenyon Review be continued, but with significant cost-reducing and revenue-enhancing initiatives. Hacker left and David Lynn (acting editor in 1989-90), Kenyon English professor, was named editor on a two-thirds time basis. The magazine's financial picture has since stabilized and improved dramatically. The creation of a Kenyon Review Board of Trustees and a renewed commitment by Kenyon College combined to guarantee the financial health of the Review and to free its editors to pursue increased excellence. Such is the status of The Kenyon Review today.