Poets steal. T.S. Eliot concealed this offhand assertion in plain sight 90 years ago in his essay on English playwright Philip Massinger: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” It had the effect of recalibrating readers’ expectations for originality. All readers. Granted, this was the same effect Emerson achieved in his essay, “Quotation and Originality,” but the recursion supports Eliot’s point. Literary culture alternates between those periods when it refuses to look at anything new, and those when almost nothing like the old is allowed. As for the literary influence of other times and places, the emphasis shifts between defensive isolation and expansive engagement. At the moment, major anthologies of contemporary poetry from Germany, Russia, and Vietnam are appearing in the United States. Though the influence of these poetries on American letters has been muted, or at least restricted to a narrow list of headliners for the last fifty years, that may be about to change.
Where Emerson insisted that “genius borrows nobly,” Eliot used his borrowing to establish a hierarchy of poets, with small-time artisans at the bottom, and at the top, barons of text who, having identified valuable resources to extract as well as a means of converting them to finished goods, integrate operations vertically, overseeing the marketing plan right down to the reviews. This makes it sound like a world-historical crime, but there is a motive on the up-and-up for this behavior: in order to stop talking about themselves, to be inspired, to say something recognizable in an unfamiliar way, poets make believe, generalize, extrapolate from an overspecific detail, and otherwise appropriate what is not theirs. Translation and signaling foreign influence are some of the more prestigious means to effect this escape from the self and its unchallengeable rules, even if they only lead to alien rules, equally unchallengeable. Indeed, Eliot, a bit of a rule freak, emphasized both the importance of stealing from sources “remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest,” and making what is taken into something better. (…)