Tale of a Tiny Plagiarist

I once was a tiny poet; I guess writing was really my first creative outlet. As soon as I could write I kept a pad and paper by my bed because when the lights went out, poems would form in my mind. I would have to race to switch the light back on and jot down everything I remembered in my clumsy and slow, little kid handwriting. That doesn’t happen for me much anymore, at least not with poetry. At one point in these early literary days (I was 4, maybe 5) I can remember sitting down, equipped with my teddy bear shaped paper and chunky crayon and formulating a poem about colors that would be gifted to my aunt, framed, and hung in her Upper West side kitchen where it would wow family members (and myself) for years to come--it’s still there now. I think somewhere down the line, maybe middle school, I put together an anthology of my poetry for a school project and of course that colorful poem was included.   

                                                                                                                                    Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I was lying in bed getting ready for sleep when out of the blue I was struck with inspiration, not to write, but to google the lines of that proud work of my 4 year old self. For the very first time ever it dawned on me that it seemed too clever for such a little person to produce, despite my distinct “memory” of carefully considering each line as I wrote. I typed in the search…..”And colors laugh and colors cry, turn off the light and colors die,” *click.* My heart sank deep into my stomach. I immediately found the lines of my poem within a longer poem by a Mary O’Neill, gasp.

I wanted to believe that maybe I had channeled the same ideas, tapped into a stream of consciousness that led me to the same place as this Mary person. But then I came to realize that this poem was a part of a book she wrote for children in the sixties called Hailstones and Halibut Bones and the more likely scenario was that my preschool teacher had probably read it to us and I had probably just written down what I could remember. I was as honest back then as I am now so it was hard for me to accept that I had touted this work as my own and accepted praise for it!! And then disappointment set in; that poem had made me feel special. Like it was proof that my creativity had deep roots and would take me places, I bought the book in an attempt to make things right with Mary O’Neill. And I’ve gotten over my grief. 

I know the feeling of having your ideas stolen and it’s not great. You know what it certainly doesn’t feel like? Flattery! (though maybe from a 4 year old it would). One time I taught a friend how to make my necklaces (years ago, different style altogether) and then she ended up making them and selling them around town as I’d been doing already. It’s okay to be inspired by another person’s work and to even borrow aspects of their aesthetic, but you can still make it your own. It’s nearly impossible to truly create something that no one else has done. At this point in the human timeline we are finding inspiration from and taking existing concepts and reinventing them. And of course that’s valuable too! My skull earrings are going to look different from the skull earrings you make (hopefully!!). But if you know that you’ve taken what wasn’t yours (like with this poem situation) go ahead and own up to it. Mary O’Neill, I’m returning your poem to you, thank you so much for the opportunity. It served me very well all these years and I’ve loved it as if it were my own. I’m sorry I snatched up your words for myself, I guess they resonated with me. I really do love your poem. (I’d tell her for real, but unfortunately she’s passed). 

Here’s the full poem here:

The Colors live

Between black and white

In a land that we

Know best by sight.

But knowing best

Isn’t everything,

For colors dance

And colors sing,

And colors laugh

And colors cry---

Turn off the light

And colors die,

And they make you feel

Every feeling there is

From the grumpiest grump

To the fizziest fizz.

And you and you and I

Know well

Each has a taste

And each has a smell

And each has a wonderful

Story to tell….

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