Excepting the rare instances of neologisms and trademarks, there is no copyright on words. No-one owns the alphabet and what can be done with it. With phrases it gets a bit more complicated, but we are still free to use most of them as freely as the air we breathe, because they are common property. It is only when letters, words and phrases are gathered into longer communities, that things go fuzzy. And they can go as fuzzy as a ghost in a snowstorm.
I was recently asked to write a poem to accompany a friend’s painting called “Calvary”. The briefing: a short, English poem, with the usual references to salvation, three crosses, three days, not too in-your-face, just subtly hinting at Christ’s sacrifice and its consequences.
It is in itself a beautiful painting, but it is only the title that clearly states its meaning. I tried to imitate this in the poem. I think I was too subtle:
The hovering sky hunches down to hear
maybe, some message,
violent as nails driven into wood,
to hear a branch torn, a body broken,
the earth shaken
but all is silence:
a single drop in the pond of consciousness
a soundless shifting breeze
a single silent wave
that starts the storm
Since the word Calvary evokes such a multitude of very specific associations, I left the poem open to various levels of interpretation. You can read it as a description of a landscape unshaken by what to us is a tremendous event, but might have been just one crucifixion of many to the people of that time – thus, silent and seemingly without any message or meaning. But if you follow the words like you would the ripples in a pond, will you not find the storm?
As these things go, the poem found its own path and rhythm and I let it go where it wanted. My friend liked the poem, but since it did not quite fulfil her briefing, she used it in a word collage with phrases of her own and a line from a gospel song. I promptly gave up ownership of what I no longer saw as my property.
The dilemma now comes in deciding whose poem it is. I do not want it ascribed to me, though I arguably still own copyright of the phrases she did use. Since it will hang with her painting, if there is no author mentioned, it will be ascribed to her, which I don't really mind. And the gospel group will have to be acknowledged for their contribution.
The poem has become a foster child belonging to no-one, shunted between everyone. Here I give it a silent resting place to speak for itself. May it somehow survive in this shifting, stormy world.