Listen to this song by Dillon while you read the rest of my captivating prose:
I have been thinking a lot lately about borrowing. I'm fascinated by the ways some art and artists can lift ideas or images from others and put them to new purposes. It's not the same as plagiarism, because there's no real claim to ownership or originality. The material clearly comes from somewhere else.
At the same time, borrowing isn't quite referencing. To reference something is to draw attention to the original, to build upon it. A reference requires its original. For instance, Auden's famous and amazing "Musee des Beaux Arts" is pretty neat on its own, but it's so much more brilliant if you're familiar with Brueghel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus."
Of course, not all references are as perfect. Some are kind of confusing, like the famous Triumph of the Will shot in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, The whole movie shows the Empire goosestepping in jackboots, but then uses one of the most famous Nazi propaganda images for the Rebels' victory.
Perhaps it doesn't mean anything. Maybe the filmmakers just liked the way it looked (and it does look pretty awesome). In which case, it's not a reference, but an example of borrowing. They just took something they liked and put it to a new use (and reached a lot more people with it). David Lynch borrows plenty of things from Hitchcock and soap operas, and never tries to hide it or make comments on his source material. He just loves Hitchcock and soap operas. And who doesn't?
Remember that Dillon song I had you listen to? Now listen to Jens Lekman's "Pocketful of Money" from about ten years ago.
Dillon borrows the music and the chorus, but the songs have no figurative or meaningful connection. Dillon probably expects most of her audience to know Lekman's song, but she doesn't rely on the original. The songs are both fantastic on their own, and they don't really gain much by being considered together.
In college, a poetry teacher advised us to "steal until you get good enough that nobody can tell where you're stealing from." It sounds a bit morally suspect, and it sends some mixed signals when you put it on a syllabus with an anti-plagiarism warning. That said, I still think it's fantastic advice. It helped me as a young writer to understand my inspirations and influences, and it continues to force me to consider how my writing fits within the wider artistic landscape.
I'm currently working on a poem that starts with the lines "About violence they were never wrong, / the old cartoons." The poem has more to do with Bugs Bunny than with W. H. Auden. I love the line, though, and I mean no disrespect by stealing it. I love it so much that I want to put it in new places just to see it more. If I could somehow get it worked into the next Star Wars movie, An Even Newer Hope, I totally would. I don't think Wystan would mind.