Friday, 15 June 2007

Stealing purses, words, Coleridge and De Quincey

I had my purse stolen from my bag at a poetry reading this week. It was interesting to note the response of the policeman I spoke to when I reported it stolen and the subsequent comments of colleagues and others . The theft of my purse was nothing remarkable, the fact that it was stolen at a poetry reading seemed to verge on the astonishing to them.
“You would have thought you would be safe from that sort of thing happening at a poetry reading of all places.” Commented the policeman as he demanded my date of birth and ethnic group, where I was and what I was doing at the time of the theft for the purposes of Home office statistics he reassured me. Somewhere in some Whitehall back office a number cruncher will discover that it will be vital to the war on petty theft to know that 0.000001% of Caucasian woman over fifty-five years of age have been the victims of crime at a poetry reading. This statistic will of course prove invaluable in the policing of small poetry festivals and individual poetry readings. I wondered why they had this immediate presumption that poetry would always be crime free. I did point out that the man who stole it left as soon as the poetry reading began which went some way to testifying to the total honesty of all poetry lovers.
“Oh,” said the policeman, “that explains it."
Lovers of poetry are not seen as thieves by the constabulary.
“It’s different at music gigs,” he continued “ they can steal your teeth while you're chewing a toffee. That doesn't apply to classical concerts though,“ he added hastily.

Strangely, the following day I was driving through the fens listening to a radio play in which one of the characters was a Coleridge scholar. I recalled many moons ago being present at a lecture about the Romantic poets that touched on Thomas De Quincey’s accusations that Coleridge was a prime thief of words, a plagiarist. He wrote of Coleridge’s tendency
‘to filch a handful of gold from any man whose purse he fancied while possessing himself the intellectual equivalent of the riches of El Dorado.’

It seemed a sort of back-handed complement, although De Quincey did seem to be regarded as an arch snitch amongst the Lakeland crowd. He was probably the sort of boy who would have dobbed in the other members of poetry/romantic boys gang for a smidgeon of attention. Also the words kettle and black comes to mind as he wasn’t averse to the odd intellectual homage himself. Of course that’s the point in literature where does plagiarism begin and end? Most of the greats including Shakespeare have reflected if not lifted words from others often without attribution. The literature world is not averse to a little theft, delving into others minds and making something out of others thoughts is what writers sometimes do. There is homage and parody a plenty in literature and one person’s allusion is perhaps another’s nicked. Coleridge may have lifted huge chunks from the German metaphysical philosophers for his ‘Biographia Literaria’ but the boy knew how to write a great poem and good poets are not always good people, in fact I think complexity of mind often calls for a little personal ethical confusion. I am always drawn to the more badly behaved, those that do a little internal battling with the dark side of the force are often more interesting but of course the bastard that stole my purse it of a different ilk.

The American poet Samuel Menashe does his own bit of allusion in this poem and refers to that internal battle.

By the way if you don't know which is Coleridge and which is De Quincey in the images at the start of the blog, go with your gut instinct. Which one looks more like a snitch but remember you shouldn't judge a poetry collection by its cover or a poet by his or her portrait.

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