Is there anything new under the sun? Is anything we write or paint or compose truly original, or is every creative act influenced (hopefully for the good) by what has gone before, so that what we produced has been re-learned, repeated, tweaked? Apparently whenever W.H. Auden read something in a book that he liked or admired, he would take to the margin with a pen, draw a little line against the particular paragraph that sparkled, and write ‘GETS’ alongside it. It was Auden’s shorthand for, ‘good enough to steal’. As one who is in the habit of making comments in the margins of books, I was delighted to discover this about Auden. I too mark sections with a cross, a squiggle or an exclamation mark, all of which have various meanings including: I love this; I want to come back to this; I need to think more about this.
However, now that Auden has put me in the notion, perhaps my motives for scribbling in the margin are more hidden, more nefarious than I’ve admitted to myself. Maybe the truth is that I’m driven by the urge to pilfer. Perhaps I’m making a note-to-self to return and pocket whatever it is I’ve read and re-shape it slightly. Clearly anyone as good as Auden had no need to go shoplifting for lines, he already had an endless supply of his own, his mental shelves bulging with original writing. Nonetheless, the revelation that even Auden might have swiped a word or two from here and there relieves me. It absolves me from any guilt around what might be an unconscious propensity to thieve. But theft is quite an accusation to level at oneself; it’s not what I’m up to (I promise!), and neither, let’s face it, was Auden. I’m convinced that ‘GETS’ was and is merely a neat turn of phrase and that when we read books and pen the margins, or turn down the pages, or note down a line, we do it because it has influenced us. Outside of the odd mis-guided, blind-panicked student trying to cobble together an over-due essay at 3am, most people have no wish to steal the work of others. On the contrary, I gather in the margins and loiter at the corner of certain pages in the hope that something of it will stick; not the actual words but the general sweep of loveliness I’m left with when I read it.
What I’m really wondering about here is how – consciously or otherwise – we allow ourselves to be influenced by the writing, the art, the music, the dance, the gardens, the décor, the dress, the cooking (and on and on it goes) of others. To seek influence is completely natural, it has always been this way through the ages. I wonder if we can even reach ourselves and tap into our talent without first seeing aspects of ourselves and what we want to be or do reflected back from others who have got there. One can hear strains of Ella in the voice of Amy Winehouse, feel the echoes of Kavanagh’s language and landscape in Heaney’s writing, see the shapes and lines of Picasso in the paintings of Lichtenstein. The thing is, though, none of these people, in my view, set themselves up as ‘influencers’ which has now become an occupation in itself. I think the most influential people are those who do what they love and then, by accident, inspire, influence and make others think, that’s good enough to steal!
I am going to continue to cover the margins with ! and * (and maybe now, GETS), and when I do, I will chant a silent incantation that the structure and music and flow of the words will seep into me. If they don’t, there’s always Plan B.
The Robber, Anonymous
Forth from his den to steal he stole,
His bag of chink he chunk;
And many a wicked smile he smole,
And many a wink he wunk.