I was a little surprised by this controversy that erupted last week over the huge electronic anthology of poems that were not actually written by the people whose names (including mine) are assigned to them. I don't think it's a big deal. Protest in defense of "intellectual property" puzzles me, especially if the property is art. The notion that one person can own culture while another may not seems silly. What is culture but shared expression and its resulting objects? Of course, the United States is a place where people value the object above all else. So I'm not surprised that stricter copyright laws and the clampdown on media "piracy" have coincided with the erosion of public space and the deterioration of belief in community. Shared culture is most often pop culture, which is entertainment culture, which is a culture of passivity rather than activity, a culture in which activity is a risk, a culture that breeds cynicism and money worship. Commodities, commodities, commodities.
But copyright, as Jonathan Lethem reminds us in his essay "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism," is "an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in its every carnation." Kind of like art, which Lethem's essay is as well - it's constructed almost entirely of other texts (which are - don't worry! - cited at the end of the essay). Lethem's essay takes on usemonopoly and illustrates "the beauty of second use" as convincingly as anything I've read on the matter. If you'd like to read it, just let me know and I'll forward you a copy. I'd post it on the blog, but I don't want to get sued by Harper's!
Those guys selling 5-dollar dvds on the subways - they don't bother me. I mean, they're not siphoning my income to the rich and greedy. Those stupid warnings against piracy that we now see before watching movies, equating the copying of music or film with snatching a woman's purse - those bother me - they make me want to steal your movie and sell it. There is theft by far more powerful businessmen that takes place on a much larger scale at the expense of almost all of us - that bothers me. It bothers me to think where all of our tax dollars are currently headed. Who owns the product of that labor? No, more importantly: who is now producing what with the product of that labor? This is where I feel ripped off.
My poems? Give them to whomever you want, sell them, give them away for free, whatever.
Poetry's largely (and thankfully) a gift economy, though certainly it's not immune from the ownership culture, and perhaps that's the point of the controversial project: to criticize the ego-driven aspect of poetry. It's not defaming anyone; it's not ridiculing anyone. If it's getting people to reconsider their values, then it's a good thing.
But I'd stop short of calling it genius, as many have (and which might account for half the controversy), if only because it's a given that any person who seriously calls himself a poet has got to have an ego pumping somewhere inside him. There is no such thing as a poet, no matter how obsessed with John Cage, who does not indulge in self on some level. A poet who claims not to wouldn't be a poet - because he wouldn't be attempting to write and disseminate poetry that's stamped with his name. And it's okay to write something and take credit for it. Because you're good enough, you're smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like you.
And now, time for a song (from YouTube - long live YouTube!)
"Lay Down Your Arms" by Anne Shelton