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  • Writer's pictureMark Whitten

Mary Oliver Rejected Me, So I Made My Own

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

One of my favorite poems in the world is The Journey by Mary Oliver. I desperately wanted to include a large excerpt of the poem in my new book Sea Lions in the Desert. It was going to fit perfectly in Chapter Eight in a section called, "Saving Ourselves for the Sake of the World".

Mary passed away this year on January 17th, 2019. Memory Eternal.

So, I was doing my due-diligence to include the appropriate permissions and credits for reproducing her poem in my book, but along the way, I ran into some daunting challenges and confusing copyright laws.

Copyright laws enable you to quote another author in your work, provided you state the source and give appropriate credit. However, the interpretation of “fair use” may vary greatly between different authors, publishers and mediums. After a day of digging and researching copyright laws and fair-use practices, I came to find that poetry (and music) is a copyright minefield. So much so that the Center for Media and Social Impact created a lengthy code of best practices for the fair-use of poetry. Nevertheless, after studying it for some time, it was (as we say in Tennessee) clear as mud.

I really wanted to use that poem, but to be safe, I was going to have to get permission to use it. I did not want to receive a "Cease and Desist" letter from her publisher's attorney. I contacted her publicist who is supposedly in-charge of granting permissions for her work. The first response I received was that Mary did not like excerpts of her poem quoted because it took away from the value of the whole poem. Understandable. I then asked if I could quote the entire poem (which is what I wanted to do anyways-I had just thought it would be easier to get permission for a smaller portion). The second response from her publisher was that if I wanted to quote a poem in its entirety, I would have to seek permission from the publisher. Long story, short: The publisher was going to charge me a tidy sum of several hundred dollars to reproduce one of Mary's poems in a publication for sale, not to mention the possibility of having to pay recurring royalties.

So what's my point?

Well, I decided to take my own advice: "Copy Til Create" and the advice of Austin Kleon.

I made-up my own poem that mirrored Mary Oliver's The Journey. It's called "Exit to Stage" and it's included in Chapter Eight of Sea Lions in the Desert.

I've also included it in my latest release: Where the Wind Comes From: Poems by Mark T. Whitten. Sometimes we have to "copy" until we get what we're after.

In 1970 U.S. News & World Report tried to summarize George Balanchine's achievements in the following words:

"The greatest choreographer of our time, George Balanchine, is responsible for the successful fusion of modern concepts with older ideas of classical ballet...Balanchine is not only gifted in creating entirely new productions — his choreography for classical works has been equally — fresh and inventive. He has made American dance the most advanced and richest in choreographic development in the world today."

It's funny that Balanchine said this about his own work: "I do not create. God creates. I assemble, and I steal from everywhere to do it."

Austin Kleon says, "Pretend to be making something until you actually make have to dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and you have to start doing the work you want to be doing." (Steal Like an Artist) . So the lesson here today class is: if you need to quote a poem or a song (one that's not in the Public Domain) for a book you plan on selling and don't want to pay for it or jump through hoops of permissions and credits, just make your own. Pen the poem you want to quote. Make the music you want to sing. You have what it takes! And until you discover that, keep "copying", keep assembling, keep gathering and keep "stealing". And read Copy Til Create.

Without further ado, here's my "copy creation":

Exit to Stage

And now,

You know

what you have to do

To begin.

Though the needy voices

Claw for every millimeter

Of margin

That remains,


“Become my answer!”

Keep walking


As through a wardrobe

of winter furs

into a snowy wonderland.

The further you walk


From their vampire cries,

The louder YOU become.

And that small voice

That you learned to silence

So many years ago

“for the greater good”

Will finally find its stage again.

And from that place

The guiding lessons are learned

From that place,

The world entire

Receives its crown from you.

You can find this poem and a bunch of others in my latest book, Where the Wind Comes From. I hope love it! Buy my other books here.

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