What is to be done with an ostensibly original phrase or sentence that sounds oddly familiar. Unease at the possibility that the bit came from an article or book read years ago and over time crept into your argumentative arsenal without remembered attribution is immensely frustrating. On the one side, you can’t just publish it as yours without knowing if that bit of wit started life beyond your reckoning. On the other, if you really do think it’s clever, you can’t just let it languish, sad and unread.
I’m often shocked by people who claim that they defend free speech as long as it isn’t offensive. It’s an empty claim meant to drape the speaker in a mantle of courage while requiring nothing of them. If you do not believe in the right of those diametrically opposed to your viewpoint to have their say then you are not for freedom of speech, much less it’s defender. Offensive speech is the only speech that needs defending as offensive speech is the only speech that people object to. It’s not as if the authors of sonnets about bunnies are awaiting a champion.
It’s the line with “sonnets about bunnies” that troubles me. I feel as though I’ve read it somewhere. Given my reading habits, the subject matter, and the tone my first suspicion was that it might be Mark Steyn’s. I’ve scanned his books and recent articles with a suspicious eye towards Light’s Out (which, if you have any interest in freedom of expression or thumbing nose to power, you should buy and read it) but didn’t find it. Still, absence of evidence is not… etc.
I’m well aware that some readers will see this and think some variation on “This twit on WordPress thinks he’s Mark Steyn.” No. I don’t. I just like the bunny line. It may be rubbish. I’ll admit to being fallible. But to me it comes of as, well, Steynesque. I’d hate to have deja vu deny me it’s use.
Other suspects: Nick Gillespie, Kevin D. Williamson, Charles C. Clarke. All advocates of mouthing off but all prolific. There’s just no way to be sure.
I am, or was, or occasionally am, a closet poet. I got at it a lot more when I was younger, but I’ll dabble every now and then. I found a collection of poems I believe to be from the mid to late nineties that somehow managed to survive multiple moves and embarrassingly fewer de-clutterings. I particularly liked one of them:
I Will Keep to Myself
I will keep to myself,
Leaving yours to you, carrying
My wants in silence.
I will keep to myself,
Make no bold assertions, cause no
Ripples in your pond or
Burden you with needless cares.
These whispers you will never hear
In waking, migrant shadows in the
Night as you hold me all too tightly.
Aside from some odd and questionable line breaks I think it holds up pretty well. I can’t tell you what meter I set but I’ve always been a stickler for the stuff so without doing any analysis I’ll say it’s in there; reason if no rhyme. Unfortunately I used to practice writing by choosing a line I particularly liked from a poem and seeing what I could do with it. I’m pretty sure I got the idea from a P.J. O’Rourke interview of Hunter S. Thompson for Rolling Stone. If memory serves, when asked how he dealt with writers block Thompson said he would grab Hemingway or Fitzgerald and type verbatim until he got the rhythm and then go in his own direction. Monkey see, monkey do.
I’m not sure if I was doing that around the time I wrote the above, but I am sure that at writing time I was reading a lot of Robert Graves. Two phrases, “Leaving yours to you,” and “Make no bold assertions,” strike me as Graves-like in tone (“This twit on WordPress thinks he’s Robert Graves.”). I’ve scoured the Graves books that I own, but I don’t have it all. Did I read any of his poems in a borrowed book? No idea.
So this is my elegant solution. I didn’t stoop to vague attributions like “To paraphrase one best selling author,” or “I’m not the first to point out,” but I did make my (?) “bunny” point and got my poem with a possible purloined line in front of an audience. It’s not perfect, but I’m fairly certain it is original if weasely. In retrospect, I kind of hope that there is an actual Graves line in that poem. “Co-authored with Robert Graves,” has a nice ring to it.