Poetry, Plagiarism and Patchwork: A Marriage of Styles, After David Hockney (2009)

16 Jun

Given recent discussions around plagiarism in poetry, and the cases of Christian Ward and David R Morgan in particular, it seemed an interesting moment to excavate this poem from the folder it’s been sitting in since November 2009. A Marriage of Styles was written as a deliberately ‘patchwork’ or semi-collaged text in response to the 1962 David Hockney painting whose title, subject and compositional method it appropriates. The poem was read a few days later at an event organised by Eireann Lorsung in which five writers (myself, Gregory Woods, Sue Dymoke, Carol Rowntree Jones and Michael McKimm) presented poems created in response to works by Hockney and the young Los Angeles based artist, Frances Stark. The thirteen poems ‘sampled’ during the 15 stanzas of A Marriage of Styles are mostly drawn from traditions that don’t share many assumptions with contemporary English poetry, and the fact that the borrowings (acknowledged in the footnotes) are freely adapted from mostly translated texts clearly gave far more leeway to adapt, mutate and change the original lines than might normally be the case with a straightforward word-for-word copy. Even so, two things seemed especially important in writing A Marriage of Styles: to avoid any voice that might be mistaken for my own, and to inhabit the stolen phrases, images and words in a way that might resonate emotionally, so it didn’t end up the kind of intellectual or academic exercise often proposed by Oulipo, flarf, conceptual poetry and other similar strategies. The question, I suppose, is whether it’s possible to achieve an impact on a reader while inhabiting 13 cultural templates, 13 eras, multiple genders, traditions and styles: while not, in effect, occupying an individual voice. And if that is possible, then might such a fabricated voice question the prevalent assumption in our individualistic culture that a poet must be present in some very personal way if their lines are to be validated, as though such validation should mark a contribution to the language indelibly, like an item of property? Might the whole idea of a poetic tradition, in some very real sense, also be a chain of borrowings, misreadings, contextual shifts, mistranslations and Chinese Whispers that just happen to have been (unlike actual plagiarisms) openly acknowledged?

David Hockney - A Marriage of Styles I (1962)

A Marriage of Styles

15 stanzas sampling 13 poems on a theme of love

(for David Hockney)

What the world is when unobserved, or observed well,
is just itself, a clash of yellow wheat and cloud,
ink-dark water and the brightest flowers,
beetles on grass-stalks, an abandoned road.

Let things stand. Pour incense and sweet oil upon us,
let these bodies alight in each-others’ hearts,
unwearied, unceasing, alive, then burned
as the music of wind plays among palms and reeds. [i]

We shall ask, when hungering after wisdom
as the red sea for ghosts, to travel awhile,
make our way to Sphinx and Basilisk, dine on Mandrake root,
be pickle-herring soul and great-eared mind

behind the shields of our masks [ii] where frost
unlaces late summer grass. The honey season packs its bags,
the bee throws back the jasmine’s sheets,
makes excuses, takes its leave with a tiny bow

at the bedroom door, just as I do, now. [iii]
Yet travelling so long beyond the event
we still catch traces of musk and sandalwood oil,
recall eyelashes like pairs of mating birds

raking bills through the feathers of each-others’ necks, [iv]
glimpse riverbanks fringed with bulrush stalks
and the paths of geese. Our words are water,
wet vine-leaves wrapped around our feverish hearts

to cool these anvils as they overheat.[v] The sun’s arrows,
ablaze with quetzal-feathers, heron-plumes,
gold and turquoise heads and shafts,
rain down in succession to quench parched earth [vi]

while thistles, hawthorn, shallow sunflower roots,
yellow dandelions and green geranium stars
incite desire to melt us in this shade where we stand.
This is the world as it happens to be, where

red flowers grasp for space, hone leaf-edges
on a wedding wind, infuse our breathing with mists of scent.
White myrtle unfolds to cup Eden’s rain,
Orion stands, bold among the constellations,

holding a crescent moon in his arms.[vii] Never has scarlet
seemed so red as when set on Indian ivory,
never petals shown so pink as when scattered on snow
like a confetti trail in the light of dawn.[viii]

Now sunrise cools our bodies with cleansing dew
and we sleep entangled on this bed of straw,
your dark hair straying as my heart will not [ix]
when you draw my shoulder to the quay of your breast

like a fishing boat. This is a marriage of skin to skin,
no ceremony, only what just is: thin birdsong
caught between waking and sleep, eyes opening
on brightnesses, a knife sharpener’s ribbon of coarse gold

where sun breaks blue cloud, touches earth [x]
and finds it warm. Already our temples are grey,
the ornaments of perfect breast and face
receding fast.[xi] Yet for today, we shall lie together,

allow the world to be itself, rush to read
the fresh prints that fade to shadow on each-other’s flesh.
All night we are candles, come dawn the light
where it winks on the wine in last night’s glass [xii]

beneath a layer of dust. We swear to begin
our better lives but each night’s loose suggestions
and promises bring our bodies, slowly,
to the same brief joy,[xiii] unobserved, or observed well.


[i] The Harper’s Song for Inherkhawy, Egypt, c.1160 BC
[ii] Death’s Jest Book, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, English, 1829 AD
[iii] Love Poems of the VIth Dalai Lama, Tibet, c.1695 – 1706 AD
[iv] Fantasies of a Love Thief, Bilhana, Sanskrit, 11th century AD
[v] Narrinai 133, Narramanar, Tamil, c.200 AD
[vi] Cloud-Serpent, Aztec, c.1450 – 1500 AD
[vii] Three Bridal Songs, Yehuda Halevi, Hebrew, c.1110- 1140 AD
[viii] To the jointed nacre it was a jail, Gòngora, Spanish, c.1588 – 1617 AD
[ix] Song of a Lover to a Girl Who Leaves his Arms at Dawn, Easter Island, recorded 1934 AD
[x] Black Marigolds, Chauras, Sanskrit, 1st century AD
[xi] Already my temples are grey, Anakreon, Greek, c.200 – 500 BC
[xii] The Nightingale Sighs, Dakani Ghazal, Urdu, c.1489 – 1687 AD
[xiii] He Swears, Cavafy, Greek, 1905 AD

Commissioned by Nottingham Contemporary as part of an event during David Hockney’s exhibition ‘A Marriage of Styles: 1960 – 1968’ on November 25th 2009.

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