There is an intriguing little blog called Mutligrafias, a Daily Artists’ Dialogue. It’s a site where artists who participate in the day’s post will build on a theme. The contributions can be visual, poetic, audio, video, whatever they are inspired to do, but they must somehow be related, even obliquely, and they seem to enjoy obliquely, to the day’s theme. If you’re looking at the link already, yes it is in Portuguese, but there are additions to the projects in English, translations in Spanish, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone threw in a little Japanese. It’s a wonderful, fun, and sometimes gritty mish-mash of artistic collaboration.
Earlier this week I had the honor of being invited to participate as a guest, and the theme was Fraz Kafka. I decided to record the poem “Kafka’s Watch” by Raymond Carver. I love Carver’s short stories and one of my favorites is “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” You can read the full text of that story here. I’m also crazy about his story “Cathedral.” If you haven’t read it, treat yourself.
His stories and poems are sparsely written, yet full of tension, and so much meat between the lines. This particular poem fits with his frequent themes about working class folks, and it is almost entirely the words of Franz Kafka himself, because it was adapted from one of Kafka’s letters.
The poem was published in the New Yorker in 1985, three years before his death. Twenty years after that a writer for the The Best American Poetry Blog all but accused Carver of plagiarism. SDH, I am guessing is Managing Editor Stacy Harwood, and I would think a poetry writer and editor would have a little more sense. Click on the link above and you can read the post. I won’t quibble about her typos. We all make them, but the whole thing just seems slip shod and sloppy to me.
One of the people replying to the post even congratulates her on “putting the pieces together.” Excuse me? How hard was that to do? The letters of Kafka were not some secret stash that she alone gained access to. They were published works; anyone could find them. And apparently Raymond Carver felt that it would be obvious to his readers that he was lifting Kafka’s poetic sounding prose and dropping it into line form (albeit with a bit of embellishment and addition of his own of course). The title of the poem is not called “Carver’s Watch,” but “Kafka’s Watch,” for Pete’s sake!
Granted, the poet could have been more clear by including an epigraph, something like, “from Kafka’s Letters,” or he could have used a traditional subtitle, like “After Kafka.” As a matter of fact when it was published later it did contain the epigraph, “from a letter.” The New Yorker doesn’t print commentary with their poems, but if they did, that might have been a good place to mention that this was an adaptation of Kafka’s text. But really, this sort of thing happens all the time. It’s called intertextuality, and as the BAP blogger herself mentions, people would call this particular sort of intertextuality “found poetry” these days. Still SDH seemed unconvinced.
But since the name of the original author is in the title, and since the original text was from a writer who had died 60 years before, whose stories, poems and correspondence were available to a voracious reader like Carver, and those of us who came after, I do not see how this can be called plagiarism. Carver made no attempt to hide that these were Kafka’s words. If he had wanted to claim the words were his, why mention the original author at all?
If I were going to steal Frank O’Hara’s words and try to pass them off as my own, I would not put his name in the title of the poem, thus calling attention to him. And if I were to lift from O’Hara’s letters something that rung true with my own work, as the working class themes relate for Carver and Kafka, and lay it out in lines, adding only a bit of my own material, and entitle it “O’Hara’s Bed,” or some such thing, wouldn’t I be inviting readers to find the original?
Now maybe I’m getting all worked up over nothing. I have not been able to find any other evidence of anyone outside of The Best American Poetry implying that Carver was a plagiarist, but even these five years later (since I just this week read the accusation), I thought it should be addressed, and there seemed little point in replying to the original article now. Carver is interacting publicly with Kafka’s words, blatantly and openly. To call this plagiarism is a slanderous statement which misses the point entirely.
Below is my reading of the poem. You can compare it to the original text of Kafka’s letter in the BAP article and tell me what you think. Feel free to tell me if you disagree with me, by the way. You know I like it when you argue nicely.
As a matter of fact, I found a clarification of the old mis-used adage that “good poets borrow, great poets steal” often attributed to T.S. Elliot. In her blog Protect and Leverage Nancy Prager explains how she discovered the actual quote from Elliot. Feel free to let me know if you think Carver was a good poet, a bad poet or a great poet regarding this so-called theft.
One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. 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.
by Raymond Carver
I have a job with a tiny salary of 80 crowns, and
an infinite eight to nine hours of work.
I devour the time outside of the office like a wild beast.
Someday I hope to sit in a chair in another
country, looking out the window at fields of sugarcane
or Mohammedan cemeteries.
I don’t complain about the work so much as about
the sluggishness of swampy time. The office hours
cannot be divided up! I feel the pressure
of the full eight or nine hours even in the last
half hour of the day. It’s like a train ride
lasting night and day. In the end you’re totally
crushed. You no longer think about the straining
of the engine, or about the hills or
flat country, but ascribe all that’s happening
to your watch alone. The watch which you continually hold
in the palm of your hand. Then shake. And bring slowly
to your ear in disbelief.
by Raymond Carver
Originally Published October 1985
New Yorker; 10/21/85, Vol. 61 Issue 35, p117
- Close Reading: “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver (shortstoryvoyeur.wordpress.com)
- Raymond Carver: Happiness (hinterlandblog.wordpress.com)
- Short Story – “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver (tanurquhart.wordpress.com)
- Kafka: Fear and Repression (hoskinjk.wordpress.com)
- “The Trial” by Franz Kafka (voiceofrussia.com)
- Currently Reading: Kafka: The Decisive Years By Reiner Stach (consilientinterest.com)