Something borrowed

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiJan 05, 2015 | 17:12

Something borrowed

It's a new year and ordinarily, that would call up all the old phrases - a new start, a fresh page - but this month, I am going to celebrate the magpie-nature of all poets. What do I mean by that?

Poets are notorious collectors of lines, words and images. They squirrel away a good turn of phrase for use at a later point; they hoard words, steal lines and ideas or re-shape them in their minds. While it is more than likely that many artists do much more than quote in a straightforward manner, nowhere is this repurposing of someone else's words more intriguing than when poets do it. Something sounds like it could be a quote; a phrase sounds so quotable you wish you'd thought of it first and - the next best thing - find ways to use a version of it in your own poem.


Literary references are kryptonite to any poet in the making: they can set the poet off on a literary quest that leads to all kinds of treasure but can also make the ride so pleasurable that the writing is forgotten. Poems that borrow are in a sense conversing with the poets they borrow from.

In Adil Jussawalla's poem 'Eight First Lines With Their Earthly Echoes', the poet uses the first lines of poems by Anglophone Indian poets who have passed away in recent decades, and responds with a line of his own. Agha Shahid Ali's line from the poem 'Barcelona Airport' in the closing couplet refers glancingly to both Oscar Wilde and an incident that occurred at Barcelona airport; but with his closing line(s), Jussawalla echoes Amir Khusrau's couplet about Kashmir and suddenly the poem bursts with a different, exquisite loss:

  • Oh just my heart    first terrorist
  • Paradise
  • Is it this? Is it this? Is it this?

In Siddhartha Menon's extended poem 'Bellona's Bridegroom' - about Macbeth (seen via Kurosawa's Throne of Blood) - there are innumerable allusions to the text and the film; but instead of weighing down the poem, these literary references glimmer every now and then like a glint of gold in fabric. When the insomniac king 'unravels his sleeplessness' you hear the words of his soliloquy running under the poem. The reader is a participant in the process and her own sleepless bed 'seethes as multitudinous brine' - it's a matter of detail whether one pictures the reader's sheets as green turning to red - and the word 'incarnadine' utters itself.


To read is to store ideas and words for the future but not all that we remember are as easily traced to their source as a Shakespeare or a Khusrau. So much of what we say, the expressions we use, the manner in which we arrange our thoughts, is unconsciously - even thoughtlessly - done. We quote without knowing it and if asked, we would struggle to attribute our source.

How small a portion can be quoted without it being noticed? If I say 'incarnadine', I am clearly quoting Shakespeare even though it is only one word; in this case one word is enough. But if I say 'One side of her face', who am I quoting? (As it happens, in this instance, it's Lawrence Bantleman via Jussawalla's poem mentioned above).

Whatever else poetry can be, it cannot be lazy with language. This month, The Sideways Door asks you to become aware of the process by which you build your poem - are the words you use all yours? How do you know when it's not? What makes a poem truly your own?

This is this January's prompt:

Look at the website Spiral Orb. Read the poem. Then notice that each line is borrowed from another poem. In its statement, Spiral Orb says:

  • This opening poem composts fragments from each of the pieces in Spiral Orb Nine. Standing also as the table of contents, each line is embedded with a hyperlink to its original poem.

I would like each of you to write a poem in the manner of the Contents Poem at Spiral Orb - you must construct the poem line by line, with each line borrowed from a different source. Yet, when put together, these lines must make a poem that can be read as a poem in and of itself.

Work with an awareness of how your selections fit seamlessly into the whole poem that you are conceiving as you go along.

Use lines only from other poems. Do not use other text or lines from novels, essays or prose pieces.

The end result must be a coherent poem that, while being entirely made up of other peoples' words, is still your poem for having been carefully constructed ground-up, like a solid building. Pay attention, as you make this poem, to the nature of borrowing, of language, of making sense, of the joins and cracks in poetry.

As always, I look forward to your submissions!

Please follow these instructions:

-    Your poem must be under 20 lines.

-    Send your poem as a Word doc titled with your name and the name of the poem.

-    The first page should contain your poem and the second your list of attributions with links wherever possible.

-    If links are not possible, please cite the poem, poet, book, publisher and year of publication.

-    Mail your poems to thesidewaysdoor@gmail.com by January 20, 2015.

Last updated: January 05, 2015 | 17:12
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