Is Originality Passé?
It seems fair to say that all poetry combines theme and variations, repetition and originality. We all have a love-hate relationship with the poetry of the past, don’t we? If we didn’t love at least some of it, we wouldn’t have been inspired to write in the first place. We’d have gotten a real estate license or started a restaurant. And if we didn’t hate it at the same time, there’d be no reason to write our own poems. We’d be content to be a teacher and pass on to others the poetry of the past.
It also seems fair to say that some people put a higher value on repetition and others on variation. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I wonder about what effect the explosion of literary magazines, MFA programs, and just the sheer number of poets has on this equation. I suspect it skews literary fashion in the direction of originality. I’m sure if I were an editor reading a thousand submissions a month, or a teacher reading a thousand student poems, I’d run screaming at the thought of one more poem about autumn leaves, a walk on the beach, or a father’s death from cancer.
I might perk up, though, if I saw a poem about a father’s death from differential equations or Krazy Kat’s death from cancer. On the other hand, the world would be missing a lot of great poems if everyone who wrote about plum blossoms had thrown their poems in the fire when they remembered “it’s been done before.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing if Emily Dickinson woke up 500 mornings in a row thinking “I’ve got an idea … I think I’ll write a poem about death today!” I love originality but I fear that the literary world may have become too obsessed with it: “Oh God, not another poem made out of words. Been there, done that.”
On another topic, I sent the final corrections of my book galleys back to Carnegie Mellon this week. They’ve really done a beautiful job designing the book. The poems may leave something to be desired, but I love that typeface. It’s funny how obsessed I can become, though. What if they print cat instead of car and my whole book is ridiculed by the universe because of one typo? I don’t want my poems to be that original!