Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Billy Collins, Plagiarist?

Billy Collins has a poem in The New Yorker musing on Zeno's paradox:
Not long after we had sat down to dinner
at a long table in a restaurant in Chicago
and were deeply engrossed in the heavy menus
one of us--a bearded man with a colorful tie--
asked if any one of us had ever considered
applying the paradoxes of Zeno to the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.

If, the man with the tie continued,
an object moving through space
will never reach its destination because it is always
limited to cutting the distance to its goal in half,

then it turns out that St. Sebastian did not die
from the wounds inflicted by the arrows.
No, the cause of death was fright at the spectacle of their endless approach.
St. Sebastian, according to Zeno, would have died of a heart attack.
Well, this is suspiciously similar to Tom Stoppard's explanation of Zeno's paradox, in his play Jumpers:
It was precisely this notion of infinite series which in the sixth century BC led the Greek philosopher Zeno to conclude that since an arrow shot towards a target first had to cover half the distance, and then half the remainder, and then half the remainder after that, and so on ad infinitum, the result was, as I will now demonstrate, that though an arrow is always approaching its target, it never quite gets there, and Saint Sebastian died of fright.
This is too strange to be a coincidence, right? Collins has to have somehow gotten the seed for his poem from Stoppard, doesn't he?

Maybe the dinner party actually happened as described in the poem, and Collins overheard "a bearded man in a tie" trying to pass Stoppard's idea off as his own original thought, but Collins wasn't aware of this, and wrote the poem in perfect innocence. Maybe the bearded man acknowledged that his Zeno-Sebastian speech was inspired by a line of Stoppard's, but Collins decided to leave that out of the poem. Or maybe there wasn't any dinner party, and the bearded man is fictitious-- a framework invented by Collins to hide the fact that he had really gotten the idea for his poem by reading or seeing Jumpers (or just by reading Stoppard's wikiquote page). What I like about this is that, even though Collins doesn't credit Stoppard, his poem still acknowledges the deeper truth: the Zeno-Sebastian idea is not original to Collins, he got it from someone else.

Some among us might simply call Collins' poem an "allusion" to Stoppard, or a work "inspired by" a line of his. And I might buy that reasoning if the Stoppard quotation were more well-known, or recognizable. (I mean, if Collins had written a poem playing off the idea of "beauty is truth, truth beauty," I wouldn't write a blog post excoriating him for plagiarizing Keats!) But, in my opinion, there is something not quite right about building an entire poem around an idea that another writer had, and then not crediting that writer.

Also, am I wrong in thinking that Stoppard's way of phrasing this idea is more snappy, more economical, more memorable, more, dare I say, poetic than Collins'? "Saint Sebastian died of fright" is much better than "No, the cause of death was fright at the spectacle of their endless approach. / St. Sebastian, according to Zeno, would have died of a heart attack." That's why I remembered the Stoppard quote, after all these years...


Dr.J said...

For Zeno paradox the master is Borges (Zenón de Elea in spanish of course) in his Discussion I believe.
Aren´t you praising Stoppard because he is a playwright too?
For strange connections consider that the word Zeno immediately takes me to italo Svevo (Zeno´s conscience) and Svevo, living in Trieste when Joyce was an english teacher there is said to be the model for Leopold Bloom.

So, what is the original Shakespeare quotation: there are more things, Horace...
and by the way, wasn´t Will Sh. a plagiarist himself?
Off topic: what resonance did the Nobel for M.Vargas llosa have in the States? I hear he was teaching in Princeton at the moment. Last years he was touring Spain with a play based on the Arabian Nights, he read and one of the top spanish actressess performed Scherezade

Marissa said...

All right, you understand my prejudice--I have to stand up for my fellow playwright!

I love Borges' stories, but I don't seem to recall what he said about Zeno. I first learned of Zeno's paradox by reading "Gödel, Escher, Bach," a crazy and uncategorizable book about math and logic and consciousness.

I think most Americans were just glad that someone they had heard of won the Nobel prize! You have to admit it's pretty crazy that no one from the American continent had won since Toni Morrison, in 1993 (and no Spanish-language writers since Octavio Paz in 1990, and no South Americans since Garcia Marquez, in '82!). I meant to ask my Peruvian co-worker if she had an opinion on Vargas Llosa's win, but never got around to it.

I didn't know that Vargas Llosa wrote plays! Would be curious to read his adaptation of the Arabian Nights--one of my favorite theater experiences ever was an "Arabian Nights" play by an American woman named Mary Zimmerman.

Dr.J said...

For Borges and Zeno just look at wikipedia, the relevant text is "Avatars of the Tortoise"
If we take the paradox as true then not only Sebastian won´t be hurt by the arrow but movement and I would say death are just abolished.
Mario Vargas Llosa has written several plays:
La señorita de Tacna (81), Kathie y el hipopótamo (83), La Chunga (86), El loco de los balcones (93), Ojos bonitos, cuadros feos 96).
more in by Maria Elvira Luna escudero-Alie

I don´t see any other spanish-writing author worth the Nobel, about americans after Bellow just
Pynchon or DeLillo, is John Barth still alive?

Mollie said...

Very good catch! I just now saw this and updated my own blog post about that poem. So now they're both wrong about how St. Sebastian's story goes. I must say I'm disappointed in Stoppard! I always figured him for someone who'd check his facts...

Marissa said...

Dr. J: Philip Roth gets mentioned a lot as the US's best chance at winning the Nobel. Barth is still alive, but not mentioned much.

Mollie: Thanks for commenting, and linking to my post on your own blog. Now I'm ashamed too for having thought that St. Sebastian died of his arrow wounds (especially because I was raised Catholic and ought to know better)! I guess now we know that Stoppard is the kind of guy who won't let the facts get in the way of a clever punchline...