A reporter for NPR’s Morning Edition used my favorite misquote in her “Stanford Center Advocates for Fair Use on the Web” piece that aired on May 7, 2007. Though the quote is usually attributed to T.S. Eliot, the reporter attributed a slightly altered version of “Good poets borrow, great poets steal” to Picasso, this time it was “good artists copy, great artists steal.”
I heard the quote “good poets borrow, great poets steal” for the first time on December 16, 2006, in a commentary about fair use and copyright Bill Hammack, a chemical engineering professor, made on MarketPlace.
My mind was blown. In my earlier, more literate, youth, poetry and poets occupied a great deal of my time. I could not imagine T.S. Eliot would have said such a thing.
I had my aunt consult Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and other sources in her library, and she did not find anything. I searched the Internet and found that the quote mostly appeared only where Bill Hammack was quoted or in articles he had written. He always attributed it to T.S. Eliot.
When I failed to find any reliable reference to the quote, I decided to go to the source; or, to a source that would lead me in the right direction. I knew there had to be a scholarly society dedicated to T.S. Eliot.
Lo and behold, I found the T.S. Eliot Society. Even better I discovered that one of the officers was a professor of English at my undergraduate alma mater, University of Wisconsin, Madison. I had to know if T.S. Eliot really said “good poets borrow, great poets steal” so I reached out to Professor Cyrena Pondrom.
I honestly did not expect to hear back from Professor Pondrom for two reasons: (1) would you respond to some random girl asking a random question and (2) it was December 16!
While sitting in the movie theater watching Casino Royale, my BlackBerry alerted me that I had received a message. To my amazement, Professor Pondrum responded with the actual quote as it appeared in T.S. Eliot’s critical essay on the playwright Philip Massinger, and his works. Apparently, the playwright Massinger may have relied a bit too heavily from time to time on William Shakespeare, with whom he overlapped in time.
So, here is the paragraph from the essay which contains the language which Bill Hammick has bastardized to make a statement that neither T.S. Eliot nor Picasso ever made:
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.
In his essay on Philip Massinger, T.S. Eliot makes an argument that mature, strong poets use other people’s works in a transformative manner that contributes something new to society and culture. He does not argue that “stealing” someone elses works is appropriate or justified as a means to the end. He seems to argue that poets and authors can use other people’s writings as a base for their works as long as the reuse takes the work to a new place, and introduces it to a new audience.
On Monday, Ms. Sydell used a version of the “good poets borrow, great poets steal” quote that has been attributed to Picasso. I have not gone to the lengths I went to debunk the T.S. Eliot version but my research thus far does not support that Picasso ever uttered the phrase “good artists copy, great artists steal.”
In fact, the publisher of a range of resources for quotations has made all of the books, including Bartletts and Columbia, available online. Only two quotes using the word copy are attributed to Picasso, none with steal or borrow.
Paraphrasing is fine, but attributing a paraphrase as a quote is intellectually and academically dishonest. Both versions of the quote have been adopted and implemented into culture by people justifying broad fair use arguments or their own habits. Significantly, it is unfair that either of the great artists have been affiliated with a quote that does not reflect them, or their work.
This post receives a great deal of traffic from search engines. I would greatly appreciate hearing feedback from you. For example, did the information in the post change the way you used the quote? A comment would be great, or you can email me at nancyprager at yahoo dot com. Thanks!