A boy could do worse than be a spotter of metaphors
Simon Armitage, “The Metaphor Now Standing at Platform 8”
It’s not uncommon for a work of art to nod to what went before. Intertextuality lends another level of meaning and gives the critic something to say. One feels knowledgeable noting how the seduction scenes in Under the Skin allude to the dream sequence in Vertigo (they do), not unlike a connoisseur displaying full command of the wine list in a restaurant. Great art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When contemporary critics of The Smiths claimed they sounded unlike anyone who came before them, it merely betrayed a failure of research (what of the clean guitar sound of the Pretenders, the romantic lilt of the Go-Betweens?) Sometimes, awareness of an artist’s references promises to open up an understanding of the work in question.
May-Lan Tan recently said that her writing aspires to the connection achieved between a listener and music (Flight Journal issue one, 30 Nov 2015). She opts to write in near darkness with the same songs – up to three per short story – playing in the background. If darkness allows her imagination free reign, then the songs are a way for her to get straight back into the mood and character of each story she is writing. “I often think I’d like to see the playlist of books,” she says.
With this originality of approach, it’s perhaps unsurprising that when I confided that her short-story collection, Things to Make and Break, made me think of the image of Madeleine’s curl of hair in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, she replied, completely un-phased, that several readers had individually told her this same thing, even though the stories contain no direct reference to the image. In Vertigo, the spiral of Madeleine’s hair is a Möbius strip which threatens to ensnare the observer in an alternate reality from which it is difficult to re-emerge.
It makes one imagine that one might cut a story down the middle and reveal – like a legend in a stick of rock – its motif. We must also remember that Madeleine’s mirroring of Carlotta Valdes is an artifice, designed to entrance the set-up of private investigator Scottie Fergusson.
Ted Hughes argued that all of Shakespeare’s plays have the same theme, visible like a Magic Eye image, should one only be able to see it. Hughes saw that the action of each Shakespeare play is sparked by a bolt from the blue, following which every rule a character has previously lived by comes under scrutiny. Soon each character is questioning whether we are all merely “bare forked animals.”
May-Lan Tan may not have deliberately put the hair-loop motif into her writing, yet it is present. Much like the mood of the soundtrack she listened to as she composed, one might presume.
There is a striking scene in Quentin Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs. An undercover cop is narrating an invented story in which he walks into a urinal while carrying drugs. Four Los Angeles county sheriffs and their German Shepherd are also in the urinal, but the former are too busy bragging about their macho actions to attend their barking dog. It’s a terrific scene, and one existing at several removes from reality. This is the “story” that Mr. Orange narrates to confirm his identity as not being a cop. The policemen in his story are two-dimensional characters, all posture and uniform. Pleasingly, the criminal in their story is equally two-dimensional.
In order to show he has nothing to hide, Mr. Orange has to play it cool. He does this by hitting the hand dryer which comes on in an amplified blast. It’s a superb move, both obliterating the sound of anything else, as hand dryers do – the police are left staring soundlessly – but also serving as a nod back to the doyen of modern gangster movies, Martin Scorsese. Tarantino’s hand-dryer scene conjures the moment in Taxi Driver when Travis Bickle’s “anytime anywhere” taxi driver drops aspirins into water and the camera swoops over their fizz, mesmerized, replicating Bickle’s sleep-deprived trance. Reservoir Dogs is a film made through learning from the masters, the hand dryer scene says.
As a nod to its influences, it is both bold and understated. The title Reservoir Dogs itself comes at one remove – Tarantino claims it is a mishearing of the film title, Au Revoir Les Enfants.
But what of more explicit “homages?” Carla van de Puttelaar’s The Cranach Series aims to celebrate the individual beauty of women in the manner of German Renaissance artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach was principally a creator of allegories, and copies of his most famous works made their way around Europe in the sixteenth century.
Perhaps his most famous painting depicts Cupid being stung by bees, as Venus stands beside him smiling. Love hurts, we understand. Usually it is Cupid who is in control, smiling at the unfortunate victims of his art. That’s the beauty of some of these old paintings. We get to see a child stung by bees and we smile. Cranach’s women are knowing, and genuinely weird.
By contrast, the women in van de Puttelaar’s Cranach Series don’t seem that aware. Rather, their eyes are closed for us to observe them, as if they are nymphs waiting to be awoken with a kiss.
Compare van de Putelaar to Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra. Dijkstra frames her subjects as a painter might, without explicitly referencing any earlier master. Her subjects would never close their eyes. These portraits are all about self-awareness. In the Beach Portraits series, the uncomfortable close-up serves to almost trap its subject in its frame. This has the effect of the bathers looking particularly present and self-conscious. Conversely, in her celebrated New Mothers series, she shows women looking defiantly from the frame. Another of the differences between this work and The Cranach Series, is that Dijkstra does not dispense with narrative. While van de Putelaar’s title claims to extend a tradition, Dijkstra trusts the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
When does the hand become the wrist?
Simon Armitage, “Gooseberry Season”
On 9/11/2001, Bob Dylan’s released his 31st studio album, Love and Theft. An album heavy on traditional arrangements, it took mostly traditional lyrics and tunes from before the rock’n’roll era and employed them to terrific effect. This was often fairly explicit (although not immediately evident, such was most listeners’ unfamiliarity with the original songs). The closing ballad “Sugar Baby” takes its melody from Gene Austin’s “Lonesome Road.” It ends the album with the lines:
Look up, look up, meet your maker
‘fore Gabriel blows his horn.
“Lonesome Road” contains these lines:
Look up, look up, meet your maker
‘fore Gabriel blows his horn.
Yet forewarned is forearmed, and Dylan has told us what he is doing in his album title. In fact, even this is second-hand, taken from Eric Lott’s book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. The quotes around the album title are another clue. When it was revealed that Dylan had also incorporated lines from Dr Junichi Saga’s book Confessions of a Yakuza without credit, well, that was pretty interesting too.
Three years later, Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles, was revealed to contain extensive uncredited passages from Jack London and others, which he had passed off as his own. On its publication, more than one critic had described the biography as revealing. Yet to discover the patchwork method of much of its composition was revealing in another way.
In both these cases, it doesn’t hurt that the results were extremely good. For every steal, or instance of borrowing, there were moments – descriptions of Robert Johnson and Roy Orbison, the mad account of driving to Mexico and sleeping through the days during the recording of Oh Mercy, preposterous mock lyrics we are asked to believe Dylan considered, but which never made the cut, striking lines which one could apply to a man in his sixties such as, “I’ve got my hammer ringing, pretty-baby / but the nails ain’t going down” – of invention and expression, not to mention the performances themselves, that made these pieces of work quintessentially Dylanesque – you could cut a line through them and the legend would be written in the rock – they were original creative works of art in their own right.
Self-awareness of Dylan’s methods was also present in 2008’s compilation of outtakes and live-performances from 1989 to 2006, Tell Tale Signs. Not only does the title reference Edgar Allan Poe, a long-standing influence, but the title suggests that the cover-versions included on the album might be read as signs or “clues” informing Dylan’s original compositions of this period, be it with their melody or turn of phrase. A live performance of the traditional “Girl from the Greenbriar Shore” points the way towards Dylan’s own “Girl from the Red River Shore.”
Of course, it is not a complete picture. Not included in this set, one outtake from this period, “You Belong to Me,” which was performed in its time by both Jo Stafford and Patsy Cline, seems undeniably to be the basis for Dylan’s own mega-hit from 1997 “Make You Feel My Love.” This is not just evident in the cadence or syllable count (compare the first line of each),
When the wind is blowing in your face
See the pyramids along the Nile
but the awkward sense of imposition true to both titles. “You Belong to Me” attempts to hold onto a lover by describing them as property. As performed by Dylan, Stafford and Cline, however, the weirdness of this claim is completely belied by the tone of delivery – the singer is desperately in love with their globetrotting partner, and their words are an admission of their own weakness: “I’d be so alone without you / maybe you’d be lonesome too,” they sing, almost with a question mark implied at the end. Similarly, as read on the page, “to make you feel my love” does not leave any room for maneuver for the object of the singer’s affections. Yet, similarly, “Make You Feel My Love” can almost be saved by a sympathetic performance.
Such inventive re-appropriation, verve and panache as found in Chronicles and Love and Theft cannot be claimed for Dylan’s subsequent The Asia Series 2011. This is a series of paintings that purported to be part of “a visual journal made by the singer during his travels through Japan, China, Vietnam and Korea.” However, it was soon revealed that the images were in fact copied from photographs by other uncredited artists. There was not enough brought to the table. Brian Sewell quickly dispatched Dylan’s efforts as works of art in their own right.
One of the most extraordinary appropriations of recent decades is John Cale’s ballad “Close Watch.” Cale thought so much of this composition that he once offered it to Frank Sinatra to sing. A lyric almost entirely built on negatives, it begins:
Never win, and never lose
There’s nothing much to choose
Between the right and wrong.
Nothing lost and nothing gained
Still things aren’t quite the same
Between me and you
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
Such is the strong identity of the song, and Cale’s investment in his performance, that it comes as a surprise to realize that the chorus “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine” is taken wholesale from the opening line of Johnny Cash’s hit “I Walk the Line.” Cash is singing of contented devotion. Cale, by contrast, is so far from human companionship that he is either singing to himself in solitude, or to an absent love which has reduced him to despair. It is, without question, not an instance of plagiarism.
As Dylan writes in Chronicles (in what may even be his own words): ‘“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.’’ Indeed. I must have recited those lines to myself a million times.’
Who’ll spring from his seat and snatch this weapon?
Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Before his death, Ted Hughes had begun work on a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Three passages survive, one of which appeared in his anthology compiled with Seamus Heaney, The School Bag. Not long afterwards, Simon Armitage, the current Oxford Professor of Poetry and an admirer of Ted Hughes, stepped up to the task.
Aware that the poem was written in a dialect belonging to Cheshire, Lancashire or Staffordshire, he was in the position of translating someone from round his way. Hughes might have striven for “a combination of formality and naturalness” (Daniel Weissbort), for Armitage it was the aim to produce “a living, inclusive and readable” poem “for the eye…the ear and the voice.” His instinct for the demotic and natural, clear writing style re-energize the text.
If we compare Hughes’s and Armitage’s “reading” of the same passage (while remembering that Hughes’ text is only a draft, taken posthumously from a journal) each reflects their translator:
The King and Gawain laugh
At the green marvel.
Yet all had to agree
It surely was a marvel.
Hughes’s alliteration of “l” sounds, particularly the chiming of “all” and “surely” with the repeated “marvel,” as well as the repeated long “a” sounds of “marvel” and “laugh,” and the long “u” sound of “surely” make it sonorous. The long vowel sounds in the passage slow the text, as if it is written in wonder. Armitage’s text moves much more quickly:
Well, with the green man gone
They laughed and grinned again.
And yet such goings on
Were magic to those men.
That “Well” slows the poem after his “then,” (shorter than Hughes’s “now”) before it speeds up again. It is also true to the “let me tell you a story” spirit of the orally-transmitted poem, while “such goings on” is typical of Armitage’s use of common phrases. Armitage uses alliteration (green, gone grinned goings and again; well, with, were; magic, man, men) and an iambic beat, as well as a strong final rhyme on the word “men,” which also chimes with the earlier “man.” The combination makes the passage ring, creating a kind of “magic” in its own right.
It is the correspondences between both versions that reassure that the poets are working in the same tradition. The two syllable, two word question in the first line of the “bob and wheel,” the use of the word “yet” in the penultimate line of each version.
Thus, Armitage follows in the footsteps of Hughes, and revitalizes not just the poem but his own writing and connection to the land he is from. Translation may be one way of extending one’s reach, acknowledging a tradition while imprinting one’s own signature upon it.
Ultimately, successful appropriation comes down not just to what you do, but how you do it. Love and Theft and “Close Watch” justify their means while, I would argue, The Asia Series and The Cranach Series do not. Even were The Asia Series one day to be revealed as part of a scam to expose the shallow gullibility of the “Art World” (something essayed successfully by William Boyd, David Bowie, John Richardson and Karen Wright in their creation of the fictitious artist, Nat Tate), in itself this would not be creative enough to leaven what are essentially leadenly-rendered paintings and second-hand art. Both The Asia Series and The Cranach Series fail to sufficiently incorporate their influences.
When treading the wire between plagiarism and tribute, perhaps the key word is one most often used in reference to music: to “inhabit.” If an artist is fully able to inhabit someone else’s song, they might then transmute it into a work of art in its own right.
They might make it their own.