They have their stratagems too, though they can’t move.
They know their parts.
Like invalids long reconciled
To stillness, they do their work through others.
They have turned the world
To their own account by the twisting of hearts.
What do they have to say and how do they say it?
In the library
At night, or the sun room with its one
Curled thriller by the window, something
Is going on,
You may suspect, that you don’t know of. Yet they
Need you. The time comes when you pick one up,
You who scoff
At determinism, the selfish gene.
Why this one? Look, already the blurb
Is drawing in
Some further text. The second paragraph
Calls for an atlas or a gazetteer;
That poem, spare
As a dead leaf’s skeleton, coaxes
Your lexicon. Through you they speak
As through the sexes
A script is passed that lovers never hear.
They have you. In the end they have written you,
By the intrusion
Of their account of the world, so when
You come to think, to tell, to do,
You’re caught between
Quotation marks, your heart’s beat an allusion.
Stephen Edgar, from Corrupted Treasures (1995)
Every time I read this poem, it makes me think in new and interesting ways about the relationships between books and their readers. Usually, every time I read it, I spend the first few stanzas feeling absolutely absorbed in the language used to describe the secret life of these books in question, the slim personification just enough for me to believe that they’re only alive when I’m not looking, or when I can just see them shuffle their covers out of the corner of my eye.
But by the time I make it to the final stanza, I start to develop this strange and disconcerting feeling in the region of my stomach. Because I am exactly the person “caught between / Quotation marks” in almost everything that I do, and far from it being accidental or unintentional (as the poet suggests this must be for most people) I do this all of the time on purpose. I use other peoples’ words when I can’t find my own. But then I start thinking: is this really true? Do I only quote when someone else has really said it better before, or do I sometimes let the quotations do my thinking for me, providing them as an educated response to a question or problem that I haven’t really managed to find a personal response to yet?
As a writer this idea of being caught in constant quotation is even more of a chore: what does it say for the originality of anything I write creatively? I’ve often thought this is one of the largest problems I run into as someone who writes both creatively and analytically. Writing as an English major entails endless quotation, and values that quotation as the heart of the resulting text. My ideas about the text are important, but the text I produce in describing those ideas is often attributed back to the original text — even within my own writing, this happens. I may be clever to spot a pattern in Milton’s use of chiasmus or Austen’s depictions of reading, but the ultimate cleverness reverts back to Milton and Austen for embedding these things in their works in the first place (even if they have only done it unconsciously and I have excavated their meaning through conscious effort).
And then, when I’ve spent so much time with the words of others, exploring them, extracting them carefully from the text, coaxing them out inch by inch, and venerating them in the process, writing anything of my own seems not just silly but impossible. I have been written by all of the books I have ever read, so when it comes time for me to write books of my own, sometimes I’m afraid all I can do is re-write those books that have shaped me and hope no one notices the similarities.
Most of the time, I revel in my ability to quote my favorite texts, to carry them with me always. I think about the scene around the campfire at the end of Fahrenheit 451, with these men reciting literature against the darkness. But this poem makes me ask uncomfortable questions. It makes me think against the grain of the books that have written me over the years. Above all, it makes me reimagine that campfire circle: instead of these men preserving their past, they are stifling their future. Because isn’t it almost possible that by devoting themselves so wholly to the fictional creations of former ages, they are prevented from creating new (and possibly more relevant) fictions of their own?
Fiction is manipulative. This isn’t to say that it’s inherently good or bad, but it plays with my heartstrings and has the power to make me think ideas or do things or be someone that I wouldn’t have been without it. Sometimes, I forget that. Most of the time, I forget how ambivalent this power is. But this poem always reminds me.