Inspiration has to come from somewhere

To the Volcano, by M. Bijman and M.F. O’Brien, Blurb, 2015

To make a short story long: Borrowing or infringing?

In 1947,  Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano was published. The book takes its name from the two volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. It was Lowry’s second and last complete novel and the basis for his reputation, some say, as one of the most important novelists of the twentieth century. On a related subject, I found the ongoing court case about copyright infringement in the song Blurred Lines, between Robin Thicke/Pharrell  Williams, and Marvin Gaye, very interesting. In March 2015, a Los Angeles, USA, jury decided that Thicke and Williams had ripped off Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit Got to Give It Up when they wrote Blurred Lines. The damage awarded to Gaye’s family is a whopping $7.3 million. I listened to both songs, over and over, and so help me, I couldn’t hear the similarities – maybe I’m not educated enough about music. It just seems to me that these days people have so many fragments of texts and music and images in their heads that it is to be expected that those references will pop up when they get creative. It may be borrowing, it may be referencing, paying homage, or even (att)tributing – but it happens.

Finding an appropriate book title

So, à propos Under the Volcano: When I was looking for a name for our latest book, I thought of some of my favourite book titles. The title of Lowry’s novel is one of my favourites, and also Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. These titles are rich with meaning and open to interpretation, yet associated with specific historical contexts. So I called our book, which is also about an actual volcano, To the Volcano. Our entire trip was dedicated to Mount St. Helens, and travelling to see Mount St. Helens from different angles. (By the way, in case you think I can’t spell – Mount St. Helens takes its name from the British diplomat Lord St. Helens, there is no apostrophe in it.)  I wasn’t cribbing that title, I’ve had years of it – and others – running around in my head.

Below; extracts from the book.

Very old references

In the same vein, our book called The Glory that was Winter was a nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, To Helen (1845 version), in which he writes:

On desperate seas long wont to roam
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome

The Glory that was Greece was also the title of one of the books in the Sidgwick & Jackson Great Civilizations Series (also, The Pride that was China, The Might that was Assyria, etc.) which were standard reference works in our house from the 1960s. So I had the handy phrase in my head all along.

And, what’s more our earlier photo/poetry book, Snow Falling from Cedars, is a nod to Snow Falling on Cedars, the 1994 novel by David Guterson – which I loved, and still read every so often. One of my poems in that book, Five Ways of Looking at Snow, was inspired by Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens, published in 1917.

What is the source of inspiration?

This naming conundrum makes me feel a bit of sympathy for Thicke and Williams who explained that the similarities between the songs came about through common influences while they were writing, and “trying to recreate a genre or homage to another artist’s sound.” Williams says that “Everything that’s around you in a room was inspired by something or someone,” he said. “If you kill that , there’s no creativity.”

Their reasoning could be explained by conceptual blending, one of theories of creativity. Conceptual blending, where different theories, elements and relations from diverse scenarios or frames of reference are “blended” in a someone’s subconscious processes, result in insights that lead to creative products like musical compositions. However, the theory does not explain where the inputs to a blend, or the source of inspiration, come from. According to Williams, it’s all around you.

Ah well, inspiration may put us on the tricky path of copyright infringement, but more about that in this series of four articles.

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