The Poet (or artist) As Re-organiser – What’s Originality?

“Good artists borrow. Great artists steal,” – a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso but which may in fact be someone else’s.

Part 1

Are writers and artists among the greatest of thieves? It’s not only a post-structuralist notion to challenge ideas of ‘creativity’ and ‘originality’ but Roland Barthes’ notion of all (written) works being “a tissue of citations”[1]  is one of my favourites. To re-phrase, all works are the sum of their many influences.

It seems obvious that what we do as artists (not just writers and poets) is collect and re-organise existing ideas. Neil Gaiman’s fantastic novel The Graveyard Book (2009) takes a baby and plunges it into a graveyard to be raised by ghosts – with a clear and loving nod to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Obviously a ‘fish-out-of-water’ setting was not new in Kipling’s time either, which is just the point. How many truly new ideas exist? And do we have to spend so much time looking for them?

I think that when someone writes about the ‘originality’ of a text, it’s a comment on one of two things – either the author’s ability to dissect then re-present existing ideas, or that author’s ability to mask the source texts. Or both. Another point can be drawn from this – a reader’s notion of just what is original is dependent on their cultural-literacy: if a youngster in the 1990s is blown away by Disney’s The Lion King (1994) and then comes across Kimba the White Lion (1965) years later, then that youngster will obviously have a different view of the originality of the 1994 text.

This from T.S. Elliot:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” [2]

So the way each individual interprets and re-organises existing ideas is unique – based on their environment, experiences and cultural literacy (and anything else lying around) – and so different individuals ought to come up with or create different works.

Writers gather a truly astonishing collage of source material from which to draw inspiration – and obviously not simply from printed text. Artwork, music, film, conversation and the seasons are a few of my favourites. But they only make up a short list which is still too short. (So I’m probably better off just saying ‘anything’ could inspire us.) So whatever this ‘anything’ that inspires or moves us can be our source, and creativity is what we do with it all. The same could be argued about game shows – they reward knowledge but not the application of it. The end result of fantastic writing (painting, composing or playing etc) is the evidence of how an individual applied knowledge of their influences to whatever piece they’d been working on at that time.

To repeat my main point – we’re re-organisers – I’ve just done it here with this post. I’ve taken words, ideas, quotes and thoughts from at the least the following: Barthes, Elliot, Kipling, Gaiman, Tezuka and Picasso to name only some of the names I’m personally aware of. My contribution to the process was to re-organise them to fit my purposes – a discussion of the topic for this article. And what makes this an act of creation – is that I’ve come up with something different (or new) to everyone else who has access to the same sources and has approached the same topic. (Or so I hope.)  The thing is another writer and I wouldn’t approach the same sources and the same topic in the same way.

It might seem a mercenary way to think about writing – that all we do is sneak off with little bits of the best things other people have done and mutate it in order to fit our desires. But it isn’t a grimy thing at all –it’s amazing. We’re lucky. Everyday we’re given the chance to work with the greatest art our world has produced – we can draw from thousands and thousands of years worth of brilliant ideas and only benefit from it.

I suppose the vast majority of us aren’t the greatest of thieves at all – because we don’t truly steal unless we re-present someone else’s work, whole, as our own.

Part 2

And that’s one reason why the Cordite Creative Commons issue is so exciting, what makes the ‘cut-up’ so interesting, because authorship is subverted. Ideas are re-organised and re-presented. This time however, the sources are readily available and often acknowledged during and after production (dare I use that word.)

As one of the things Authorship is based on is the ownership of material, a remix of a work is troubling from a legal standpoint, which is concerned with the protection of individuals. Part of authorship is about the right to be identified as the ‘creator’ or ‘owner’ of some artistic material. Or at least, some created material. And it’s the right of a single person to be known as that author. So when we remixed each others’ work, who could later claim the badge of Author for a particular piece?

Based on my ramblings in Part 1 – we’re doing the same thing artists have been doing for countless years. But here, instead of re-organising ideas, themes and images (our influences) we’re doing it to lines of poetry. We’re re-organising discrete pieces of an artwork.

So in the Cordite issue, it’s the same as in the music world. We’re sampling, but we’re the ones physically and mentally doing that re-arranging, doing the thinking behind it, the testing, discarding, changing, augmenting etc and so without joint authorship, it probably is the individual who was the ‘Author.’

Perhaps I am the ‘Author’ of this


However, I certainly couldn’t have put this piece together without great source material in the first place. And I wouldn’t like to say I am Author without a ‘but’ thrown in…

And that’s why it’s a good idea to surround ourselves with the best sources of inspiration, as if we’re able, we can put the sum of our influences into something interesting, something effective, and on some levels, quite different, rather than completely original. And that’s ok. You don’t have to come up with something new to communicate effectively.

And there’s another reason to be honest about ideas of ‘originality’ –  because if you’re aware of what you do during the creative process, then you’re far less likely to violate it.



[1] Barthes, Roland, (1967) The Death of the Author, Apsen, no5+6

[2] Eliot, T.S., (2000) “Philip Massinger,” The Sacred Wood, New York:

5 thoughts on “The Poet (or artist) As Re-organiser – What’s Originality?

  1. What an excellent post Ashley and very thought provoking. I really love that “a tissue of citations” quotation and it reminds me of my earlier writing of scientific papers/theses etc., – we are taught to reference every novel idea in a paper and psychology papers have a reference at the end of nearly every sentence because arguments are primarily made up of a layering of previous research and ideas – each needing to be sourced. We are taught never to use the words of another person – we can carefuly dissect and rewrite the words/idea, being careful to reference the original author.

    On the other hand, creative writing and the writing of music, for example, are of course based on our absorbtion over a lifetime of the influences of writers, musicians etc., This is unavoidable but the new material must not be a complete use of another persons stuff – it must be like using a range of ingredients to produce a new recipe or menu.

    The use of lines of poetry to produce a new poem is different again but I can see there might be some controversy surrounding it. Individual words, lines and sections of a poem are very important in poetry. I think if lines from another poet are to be used in a rearranged/remixed poem (and you have permission from the poet to do so – such as the type of license they have assigned to the piece) than it is preferable that they be sourced (eg., highlighted in a different colour so we know who is writing which bit or the mixed poems alongside the new one). Just my two cents worth 🙂

    Great post Ashley.

    • Thanks Gabe! Yes! Isn’t it a wonderful quote, and I remember many uni assignments like that (though not to the same extent) it ends up being one big fat quote with very little of ourselves in the essay, huh?

      Yeah, I like that analogy – like we have the same range of ingredients available, but (should) end up with different cake! 🙂

      Or even a footnote-ish system, so the poem still reads smoothly?

      Thanks for such a great response!

    • Thanks, Mel! I was working on part 1 for a long while, and part 2 was whipped up a little faster, but I think I maintained coherency! Cool that you though the prose was poetic, as I often struggle with articles

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