Sunday, March 09, 2008

A Fine Line

Oh, I'm sailin' away my own true love,
I'm sailin' away in the morning.
Is there something I can send you from across the sea,
From the place that I'll be landing?


No, there's nothin' you can send me, my own true love,
There's nothin' I wish to be ownin'.
Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled,
From across that lonesome ocean.


Oh, but I just thought you might want something fine
Made of silver or of golden,
Either from the mountains of Madrid
Or from the coast of Barcelona.


Oh, but if I had the stars from the darkest night
And the diamonds from the deepest ocean,
I'd forsake them all for your sweet kiss,
For that's all I'm wishin' to be ownin'.


That I might be gone a long time
And it's only that I'm askin',
Is there something I can send you to remember me by,
To make your time more easy passin'.


Oh, how can, how can you ask me again,
It only brings me sorrow.
The same thing I want from you today,
I would want again tomorrow.


I got a letter on a lonesome day,
It was from her ship a-sailin',
Saying I don't know when I'll be comin' back again,
It depends on how I'm a-feelin'.


Well, if you, my love, must think that-a-way,
I'm sure your mind is roamin'.
I'm sure your heart is not with me,
But with the country to where you're goin'.


So take heed, take heed of the western wind,
Take heed of the stormy weather.
And yes, there's something you can send back to me,
Spanish boots of Spanish leather.


"Boots of Spanish Leather" by Bob Dylan




When I was in high school, a visiting scholar came and gave us some good writing advice. One that stuck with me was about that a good poem did not do anything predictable, but often expressed a truth indirectly. Another one was about breaking away from cliche, and often things are expressed more eloquently with a sort of reverse cliche. He then took a girl's rather bland poem about memories of a past love and suggested that she write " I will not remember..." where she wrote "I will always remember". Everyone loved the example and understood what he was trying to say. He took a pretty medicore piece of writing and made it spectacular.


She later submitted the poem with the poet's suggestions to the high school poetry magazine I was editor of and I had a hard time deciding whether I wanted it in because I was there when the visiting scholar basically re-wrote it for her. It wasn't really her work. To me it was tantamount to submitting a project that your parent did. But the staff voted it in, while I kept my mouth shut about what I really knew about it.


I thought about it for awhile. I didn't like someone getting credit for genius when it really wasn't her own creativity to bring it about. Then, there was the fact that the lesson was totally lost on her from the quality of the other work she submitted that was saturated with the same kind of sentimental cliche that she was supposed to get rid of. I talked about it with my art teacher, who was a good listener and previously helped me reach clarity on a number of foggy issues. She didn't know what to tell me, but reminded me that being an editor bore the responsibility of being the final authority. I had to follow my own judgement.


What it came down to was the fact that all of our work had to be critiqued by our peers and our teachers. I never created anything without feedback from someone. That was the process of learning and improving. No one submitted anything without having gone through a filter of a teacher's input and correction. And often, the best writers are the best learners. If I didn't accept the spectacular and poignant poem that came about from a visiting scholar's advice, then I probably couldn't accept the bulk of what I received as submissions to the magazine. I decided to give the girl some credit for following the professional's criticism.


I didn't feel good about it, like I made the best decision. She didn't plagerize anyone and the bulk of the poem was essentially hers even if the brilliant spark came from a more experienced and creative mind. If it was me in her shoes, I wouldn't have claimed the poem as entirely mine and would have given the poet an appreciative nod to his contribution. Now looking back as an adult, I realize that it wouldn't have hurt to have had a talk and make that suggestion to her. But back then, I didn't have the kind of positive communications skills that would have brought us both to a good understanding. And I didn't have the critical thinking that would have resolved the ethical dilemma as adroitly and smoothly as it could have been. Instead, I shudder everytime I open my copy of the magazine and see the poem there.


Not because of the poem, but because I had the responsibility and the authority to make the right decision and I felt as though I compromised. I wasn't a very experienced editor but something inside of me told me that a line had been crossed and I didn't have the courage to deal with it. I felt as though I lost my self-respect. I was only seventeen and already knew the guilt of moral and ethical failure. And if I had been equipped to do so, I could have helped a younger girl navigate through that kind of discernment.


We face these kinds of decisions everyday. How to do the right thing. Where we cross the line of stealing from someone else or are mindfully employing lessons learned from a greater master. How we accept credit and give credit. What we do with responsiblity of authority. Where we find the courage to confront and the creativity to do it well. And you know, it never gets any easier. I find it just as hard today as it was when I was editing a poetry magazine at seventeen.


Bob Dylan is known for the quality of his lyrics, and he often dug from the vaults of what had previously been written before in poetry and in music. What he does the best is use the forms and twist it to make an original. He didn't claim to invent a new form, but adapt what was there to make something different. "Boots of Spanish Leather" is a good example of his combining a medival poem structure and a mountain folk song to bring about a song that holds our interest and communicates meanings within meanings. He allows himself to be influenced by greater minds and more experienced masters of any particular genre, in effect, he shows himself to be a very good learner. The downside is that sometimes he crossed the lines. Even Dylan found himself in an ethical quandary whether he meant to be or not. He once told how Woody Guthrie encouraged him to "steal" from him as Woody had stolen from others. In a way, the art would still live through the next generation of theives. Or else, it would die and not serve anyone.


We will not broaden our horizons unless we expose ourselves to a greater degree of challenges but let us not forget to accept responsibilities. What I finally had to learn as a seventeen year old editor was that the route of least resistence is not the best way to travel all the time. That it takes a bit of courage to deal with that fine line between someone smart enough to know good advice when she gets it and thievery.


And when we are being theives, to have the honesty to admit it. Face it, we only steal what is valuable. And we all do, in one way or another. A good question to ask myself is if I've stolen anything lately. A pencil? More change from the grocery checkout gal than what was due to me? Someone's time? Someone's heart?


It's a fine, fine line.

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