Attribution in Poetry

It’s been several months since I determined to write poems about the 1918 sinking of the U.S.S. President Lincoln using eyewitness accounts as source material.  I was inspired by Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom, a powerful account of the West Virginia Mine Wars told in several distinctive voices.  It’s one of my favorite books of poetry ever.  Her poems are beautiful and introduce people who speak with lovely musical Appalachian voices. Fisher mixes fact with imagination to create sympathetic characters.  She does not include a list of sources in her acknowledgements.  She’s an amazing poet and my life’s ambition is to write as well as she.

Charles Reznikoff is another favorite.  The poems in Testimony are based on law reports from several states.  Reznikoff changed place names as well as the names of people.  Plot is more important than character and these poems are compressed dramas, many of them describing tragedy and cruelty.  All are told in an objective, factual manner stripped of personality, as he put it, “leaving only the pithy, the necessary, the clear and plain.” (Charles Reznikoff.  Poetry Foundation.)

Despite these stellar literary mentors, I’ve run into a few issues that have slowed down my progress.  As a former university librarian, I’m dedicated to attributing sources when I use them.  I initially thought I’d put my poems in a chapbook and include a list of sources at the end.  Easy, right?  But that doesn’t help much if I have a single poem published in a journal. What to do?

Though I originally intended to create fictional personas as narrators, I decided that intellectual honesty requires that I label poems with the names of the individual whose first person account I found most helpful when writing the poem.  At a Poetry Slam last weekend I altered the title of my poem, “Praying for Rescue, I Think of You” to include Captain Percy Foote in a subtitle.  The introspective way the poem ends draws from his Narrative of the President Lincoln. His account is stunningly beautiful.

I submitted and had this poem published in July in Verse-Virtual without the subtitle or nod to Captain Foote. I’m not really happy about identifying him as the narrator of the poem, but clearly it’s someone with a command of English, someone contemplative.  I had in mind a young narrator named William, in love with a girl from town named Agnes, not a mid-career, high-ranking Naval officer.  I miss him, his  infatuation, his youth, his innocence. 

Poetry has different rules of attribution than academic writing does.  Poets borrow lines from other poets and insert them in a new poem, usually identifying such by the use of italics, but anyone not familiar with the line’s origin will miss the reference.  Poets take a page from a text and erase words and lines to create something new.  Usually the source is identified, but not always. Poets rearrange court cases, letters, diaries, interviews into their poems.  Sometimes a primary source is documented in the poem as a footnote, other times, like with Reznikoff, its origins are disguised. 

I don’t know if I should worry about this.  What I really want to do is embody the human into the poem.  I chose the topic because my grandfather is a survivor of the sinking.  I’ve written a few poems from his point of view.  That raised some other difficulties for me, which I’ll describe in another post.

Leave a Reply