The Art of the Steal: Claiming Words from Others

I do not mean to encourage you to plagiarize. Plagiarism is an ignominious, cowardly crime practiced by louts, dullards, and sluggish wannabes. Don’t do it. Ever. You are better than that. But plagiarizing is not the same as stealing, at least not in the sense that we will practice it today.

Language, by its very nature, is a shared enterprise. Its words, expressions, and turns of phrase communicate meaning only because hundreds of thousands of people agree upon their significance and use them as a group. Poets are those people who put words together in fresh ways, encouraging new meanings and understandings. To create poetry, writers must actively resist the mind’s verbal ruts–words and expressions we fall back on and overuse because they come to mind habitually rather than thoughtfully.

One of the best ways to break out of our numbing word-use habits is to draw on the words and expressions of other people, especially people who are different from ourselves. Often the words and expressions of foreigners offer especially helpful cures for our mind ruts.

For today’s prompt, find a collection of poetry, preferably by a foreign poet. If you are an American, someone like Pablo Neruda or Czeslaw Milosz will work especially well. Open the book at random and run your eyes over the words and phrases you find there. Make a list of fifteen words and phrases you like, careful to avoid taking more than three consecutive words in a row. (Remember, we are stealing, not plagiarizing.) These words and phrases do not need to be from the same poem, and to avoid plagiarism, probably should not be.

Once you have a list of fifteen words or phrases, set the timer on your phone to three minutes. This is the amount of time you will give yourself to make these words and phrases into a poem of your own. The three-minute limit will force your brain to work so fast that you will not have time to slip into habitual ruts. You will have to throw words together in ways you have never considered before. Three minutes also gives you too little time to bring your internal “critic” into the creative process. You will have a poem before he/she has time to object. (Take that, writer’s block!)

Do this three to five times. Have at least three poems completed for class tomorrow when we will learn about the astonishing magic of line breaks.

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