“A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time,
or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” – T.S. Eliot
When I typed the first page of my first novel at age 16 on a Remington portable in a dimly lit bedroom upstairs in our rented house, I thought authors were the most rugged of individuals, not threads in a broader cloth. My credo was simple: think original thoughts, phrase them uniquely, spend Saturday night writing instead of dancing the Watusi at a sock hop, and a decade later, accept the Nobel Prize for literature, thanking not my literary forebears but my buddies and family members for their back-slapping encouragement.
I didn’t recognize that history’s truest writers—those who consider what William Faulkner called “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself”—borrowed and repaid in equal measure. Only with time and experience would I fully appreciate the wry words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.”
“Writing is an exploration,” said E.L. Doctorow. “You start from nothing and learn as you go.” And part of that exploration, I was to find, is an excavation of literature’s past to fathom how words in one century beget words in another.
As a young man growing ever more sophisticated in my reading, I was struck by the number of novels whose titles and imagery put me back in the breeze-cooled Sunday school classes of my Southern California boyhood.
John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” evoked Genesis: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.” His “The Grapes of Wrath” echoed Revelation: “The cup of iniquity is full, the grapes of wrath are ripe, and now God crushes them in awesome judgment.”
Edith Wharton, I discovered, named “The House of Mirth” after a verse in Ecclesiastes: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” That same Biblical book gave Ernest Hemingway a title for “The Sun Also Rises”: “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.”
As I was introduced to the plays of William Shakespeare, I found the source for other titles. Steinbeck’s “The Winter of Our Discontent” sprung from “Richard III,” and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” from “Timon of Athens.” And Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” arose from “Macbeth”: “…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Developing my style, I blended the best of what I was reading. Decades later, writer Lewis Hyde expressed my evolution: “Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others, but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities and discourses.”
Because he was my boyhood hero who turned our mutual February 12 birthday into a holiday, my first book of quotations collected the oratory of Abraham Lincoln. “You can fool some of the people all of the time,” I read as a junior high student, “and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”
Over time I discovered “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible” (which links words to verses), and a whole host of tomes that made me laugh or sigh. While many of my friends don’t regularly open such books for pleasure, I’ve spent many idle afternoons in a bookstore or library opening at random a collection like Wes Nisker’s “Crazy Wisdom.” There I stumbled upon the head-scratching words of Chuang-Tzu, a Chinese philosopher: “Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? I would like to have a word with him.”
Dennis O’Driscoll’s “Quote Poet Unquote: Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetry” has stirred middle-of-the-night musings. What does Les Murray mean by “Poetry’s a zoo in which you keep demons and angels”? As Alicia Ostriker suggests, is it true that “poetry is a diagram of reality…a distillation or reality, that may make us free”? Once I discover such gleanings, my natural instinct is to share them with friends…and if possible, the readers who stumble upon my writing in literary journals.
A little more than a decade after my fledgling attempts to write literary fiction, I possessed a half-dozen closeted novel manuscripts and worked as a newspaper reporter. My articles then were laced with quotations from those I interviewed, including serpentine politicians, businessmen, and religious leaders. Sometimes I knew their quotes skewed the truth, but—in the name of journalistic objectivity—I was forced to print them anyway because I couldn’t show favoritism to one side of an argument.
I wished I could drop a thought-provoking quotation into my articles. Enliven an article about pollution with this Native American proverb: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Add to an article about infidelity, road rage or embezzlement these words from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Hell has three gates: lust, anger, and greed.” But editors would’ve deleted those quotations, accusing me of editorializing on news pages and wasting valuable space. There was room for quotes that were “spun” into gossamers of mistruth, but not for the deepest truth.
Eventually I left newspaper reporting to spend a year traveling by land to the tip of South America. When I returned, by serendipity, I embarked on a new career in public relations. Whenever possible during the two decades I worked for universities, hospitals and corporations, I set a sage quotation or two within the copy I wrote for brochures and publications.
In a brochure for a campus gerontology center, I managed to quote Mahatma Gandhi: “Learn as if you were to live forever.” As the unifying metaphor in a magazine article about a pioneering program for graduate art students, I quoted Vincent Van Gogh: “I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream.”
For two years, I wrote the “What Makes Your House A Home” column for a slickly produced home magazine delivered monthly to the more prosperous households of Orange County, California. If I was of a mercenary mind (since I was paid a flat rate), I wouldn’t have opened each column with a quotation that was only revealed to me after three or four hours of page thumbing at the library.
It was a great pleasure to present in my column the words of such luminaries as Havelock Ellis (“Every artist writes his own autobiography”), and Christina Rossetti (“For there is no friend like a sister in calm or stormy weather, to cheer one on the tedious way, to fetch one if one goes astray, to lift one if one totters down, to strengthen whilst one stands”).
I hoped that a reader in Newport Beach might be stirred by this quote: “The highest enjoyment of timelessness—in a landscape selected at random—is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love.” And then they would seek a vaster description of Vladimir Nabokov’s passion for butterflies in his autobiography, “Speak, Memory.”
Perhaps a reader in Anaheim Hills searched for the poetry of Walt Whitman after finding, “Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling. Give me juicy autumnal fruit ripe and red from the orchard. Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows. Give me an arbor…”
By my early 50s, at long last, I was placing my essays, short stories and poetry in literary journals. I could borrow the words of wise men and women to my soul’s content, especially since the Internet simplified the task of finding them. With enough effort on my part, the old masters would provide me with any quotation that I could need.
And so I’ve developed something of a rhythm to my writing. An idea comes to me: for instance, after reading Matthew Crawford’s nonfiction book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work,” I decided to write an essay about my inability to master tools, starting with 7th grade shop classes. I culled the Internet and reference books for quotations about such subjects as tools, manual labor, and job satisfaction. This particular essay took its title—“Nails Bent On Every Blow”—from a poem included in Mark Turpin’s prize-winning collection, “Hammer.”
Throughout the piece, I spread quotes that touched on my own experiences, careful not to include too many of them because as G.K. Chesterton mused, “You could compile the worst book in the world entirely out of selected passages from the best writers in the world.”
My search for an epigraph for a memoir about my youthful days working for the railroad led me to Simone Weil, the late French philosopher and factory worker. I titled my piece “More Than Bread,” and for the epigram used her words: “Workers need poetry more than bread. They need that their life should be a poem. They need some light from eternity.”
After months of research, I was able to cite such writers as Philip Levine and Dagoberto Gilb. In “The Magic of Blood,” drawing from his experience with a hammer and power drill, Gilb expressed the joy we construction workers sometimes experienced on the worksite: “We were building a building, and it was going up, and it was like a celebration.” Levine, who toiled at a gear and axle factory in his younger days, gave me a quote that expressed my own youthful yearnings: “I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own.”
For an essay about the philosophical lessons I learned managing an ant farm, I chose words from Shakespeare’s “King Lear” as an epigraph: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”
In the text, I quoted King Solomon: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise!” And I borrowed from Pablo Neruda, who described the “musical feet” of skittering ants. To characterize the dark turn I took as the farm’s dictator, I quoted Stephen Vincent Benet: “We thought because we had power, we had wisdom.”
I’ve melded quotations into my short stories and poetry, as well. For “Mute Testimony,” a short story about a woman who decides to bare her body—strip down to her birthday suit, unveiling its secrets—at a party celebrating her 90th, I researched such words as “silent,” “silence,” “mute,” “naked,” and “nude.” I found my epigraph in the words of the Austrian author Karl Kraus: “Let him who has something to say step forward and be silent!” And Galway Kinnell gave me a line for my male character to quote: “Let our scars fall in love.”
A poem came to my mind after reading Ostriker: “My mother was an English major, who poured Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Browning into my infant ears.” Musing on her words, I typed out her lines as an epigraph and then started a poem called “A Guest In Our Home”: “Some families nibbled on morels and venison / While parsing the iambs of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, / But the six of us divvied a lone chicken breast / While digesting the homiletics of Edgar A. Guest…”
Because of an abundance of books about treks in the Himalayas, bus rides in the Andes and thumbing across America, I’ve been able to deepen my travel memoirs with the words of older writers whose paths I’ve followed.
My memoir about freight-hopping trains from Los Angeles to New Orleans as a young man gave me the opportunity to pay homage to Jack Kerouac, Jack London, William Kennedy, and John Dos Passos. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” gave the piece its title, “Boxcars Boxcars,” a repetition evocative of the rattling of a train. The best of their words allowed me to re-imagine myself listening to an “ear-banging” sermon at a rescue mission, sitting cross-legged and serene in the door of a freight car bounding through a bayou, and suffering from hunger, sleep deprivation and loneliness at Mardi Gras.
My account about canoeing the Mississippi at age 56 took its title—“Writ in Water” —from the bitter epitaph John Keats wrote for himself: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Woven into the chronicle of my two-month journey from St. Paul to New Orleans were resonant words ranging through the centuries from Heraclitis (born c. 540 B.C.) to Jonathan Raban (born 1942).
From Mark Twain, Archibald MacLeish, Simone Schwarz-Bart, Barry Lopez and others, I collected so many quotations about riverine water that I decided to write another memoir about the Nile, the Ganges and the Amazon. The title came from Langston Hughes: “Deep Like the Rivers.” A single line from one of those writers could stir a half-hour’s reverie: the pull of my canoe paddle or the thrum of a steamboat’s chugging wheel or the wind-slapped sails of a dhow, splashing waves, a tent on a sandbar or a hammock on an open deck, dragonflies, eddies, eagles, a surging ride on a current.
One day in my Mississippi voyage, pulling the canoe up a muddy bank, I tumbled into the murky river. In those brief moments under water, I experienced an epiphany that I was only able to describe after I found these words from more articulate writers. William Stafford: “…all the best / rivers have secret channels that / you have to find by whispering / like this, and then hear them and follow.” Hart Crane: “The River, spreading, flows—and spends your dream. What are you, lost within this tideless spell?” And T.S. Eliot’s description of a river as “a strong brown god—sullen, untamed, and intractable.”
Now that I’m 71, my adolescent daydreams of literary grandeur are ebbing, though my hopes haven’t given way to regret. Maybe it’s enough that while my readers don’t remember my name and writers decades from now won’t quote my words, I’ve encouraged people to seek out Emerson, Shakespeare and Keats. This exchange is fair enough because at moments when I sit exiled and wordless at my keyboard, I can turn for counsel to an “ancient” like William Wordsworth, who urges writers to “fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”