‘Now I’m a Real Boy!’ a very long piece about the poetry plagiarism scandals

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, the past couple of weeks have brought yet more sharks to the surface: it begins to seem that there’s no one left out there writing their own stuff. In one rather dismaying example, a poem disqualified from its previous place as winner of a major competition can’t even make way for the poem in 2nd place, because that one was by last year’s plagiarist, Christian Ward.

The Carcanet poet Matthew Welton has written a long, thoughtful blog post about discovering he had been systematically plagiarised – by yet another poet, called CJ Allen, even before the Christian Ward scandal broke. (And CJ Allen has a poem on the shortlist for this year’s Forward Prize for best single poem! No one knows if it’s plagiarised.) Graham Nunn, the Australian ‘cento artist’ who used his patchwork poems to build an actual career, complete with grants, and ran a respected poetry festival, has introduced a new  putative motive into the arena: the poetry millions.  The usual self-justifications are turning to partisan invective in the Australian press as Nunn’s friends inveigh against Ira Lightman – the ‘poetry sleuth’ who is hunting these infidels down like snarks. Ira’s business is simply to shine the light of day. Everything else comes after. My Facebook is more than abuzz; it’s aroar.

But there’s a thing niggling away at me here, like those little fish they use to give you a pedicure. (I imagine that’s what it’s like, anyway. It doesn’t hurt but it’s getting on my nerves.)

In among all the people writing, ‘Utter bollocks!’ and ‘What a shite loser’, etc, I  just can’t stop thinking about poetry workshop-into-publishing culture. Graham Nunn’s rather ineptly written self-defence, that his ‘creative process’ is based on ‘cento format’, has only made my fish nibble harder. He writes:

…there are times when I’m reading a poem or listening to a song that a door opens and my mind flashes with images from my personal history. It may be a phrase, a line, a metaphor that triggers this, but when it occurs, I give myself over to the images and ensure I capture them. In doing this, the framework of the poem is used to tell my own story and parts of the original text are creatively appropriated in the formation of a new work.

The problem hinges, I think, on a famous sentence by TS Eliot, oft quoted but rarely cited. ‘Immature poets imitate’, the great Tom wrote; ‘mature poets steal’. I mean, I gleefully used that quote last year to advertise my workshop on the techniques exhibited in the TS Eliot Prize shortlisted books. Let’s learn to do what they do! We tell new writers till we’re blue in the face that they must read as much as they possibly can (so maybe it’s no surprise when it begins to spill out over the top of some of the smaller vessels); and in the same breath we declare that the way to learn is to copy the masters. This is certainly true, and  I myself regularly set exercises using line-end words from published poems, and so on. Someone I know told me yesterday she  advises her students to take something they admire, remove all the nouns, and copy the structure. The big names often cite this or that famous poem as the structural inspiration for one of their poems, as when Michael Donaghy described basing his ‘The Drop’ on Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’. The difference is merely in being able to tell the difference.

It’s another truth universally acknowledged that the kind of people who begin to write poetry in the first place are often dreamy types, perhaps more inspired by things they read than they are by real life. Rather than write direct from the messy, boring, quotidian old world – which requires being able to look straight into the world, which not everyone can do – they prefer to be reminded of it first by something someone else has written, coming, as it does, ready-condensed and shined up. All writers, I think, understand this. Someone said to me when Egg Printing Explained came out, ‘You write a lot about things you read, don’t you’. The American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson shows us this reflection:

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean as he assailed the seasons.
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons…

Miniver scorned the commonplace,
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing.
He missed the mediaeval grace
Of iron clothing…

I’ve sat in scores of poetry workshops where people shared poems referencing other poems. Using famous words from famous poems, not yet experienced enough to see how they stand out like sore thumbs. (Reader, I’ve been there & done it. Who hasn’t? I just didn’t publish them. ) Adopting (let’s say – rather than ‘copying’) the format, ‘Beginning with a line by So-&-So’. Describing a painting they saw in some exhibition, but not going further than mere description. Just not transforming anything very much.

Then there are the ancient, venerable forms that are built on copying, the give-and-take of dialogue and homage of a poetic fraternity. The cento (meaning ‘hundred’ ) is a Roman form, possibly from the 2nd century, named after the patched cloaks with which Roman soldiers would ‘protect themselves from the strokes of their enemies’. I read somewhere once that a cloak might be made from, or maybe patched with, pieces of the cloaks of fallen soldiers. Yesterday when I read with Nancy Gaffield at the Wise Words festival in Canterbury, she read a glosa – a poem that begins with an epigraph, a quatrain from another poet, and whose main body then acts, in four stanzas, as response to that text. Each stanza embeds one line of the original and expands on (or ‘glosses’) it. The form comes from the Spanish court in the early Renaissance.

Here’s a bit of her poem, ‘Flow’, which appeared in the summer issue of Poetry Review:

You look into the mirror till one of you
blinks, alert to the currents of air, and waiting
for the state of flow. I’ve always wanted
the river to carry me like that. In deep
water you learn to breathe differently.
In Millais’ Ophelia, her clothes spread wide
awhile.  Breaking off communication sweetens
the tongue. Without the complication of syntax
words meet by chance, a reliable guide
I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—

Nowadays, to add to this homage-poetry, we have modernism. Postmodernism. Found poetry. Flarf. Spam poems. Informationism. Hip hop-style ‘sampling’ (& no, you are not Fat Boy Slim). These are the portals to plagiarism, and we love hanging around them, like the cool kids by the smoking area. I responded to Nancy’s poem yesterday by reading out my Wikipedia poem, ‘Richard Price’. And Andrew Motion himself had a spot of bother the other year… Indeed, scattered through the books of our betters – i.e., the household-name poets – we find all these poems, and more.

Marjorie Perloff has even made up a name for it – or more accurately, she moved some words around till a name emerged. Kenneth Goldsmith wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education (& read the piece, it’s interesting):

It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing: With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.

The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term “unoriginal genius” to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, “moving information,” to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.

Meanwhile, the quickest route to a position of gravitas in more traditional quarters remains the translation of some other work – something intellectual, or at least unassailable – something about suffering (conveniently, other people’s), or  – even better – Old. I’ve done this myself, too. But I missed the Gravitas Boat (is it related to the Gravy Train? Please discuss), by translating ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ into pirate-speak… (All that work.)

Translation is hard, and faithful translation into something that still works as poetry is harder still, and there’s an implied sort of glory paradox: the translator is clearly very erudite and dedicated, and also gets credit for labouring to shine a light on someone else’s work. (If my poor little Pirate Pru works at all, it’s because of TS Eliot’s underlying structures, formal and rhetorical.) But because of the ambiguity inherent in the very idea of  translating something like a poem in to another language – I think it was Frost who said ‘poetry is what’s lost in translation’ – translations easily slide into ‘versions’, which are a troubling thing in themselves, being neither one thing nor t’other, and confusing for a reader who doesn’t know the source poem. I know a refugee poet who worked with a well-known UK poet on what he thought were translations of his poems. When it came to it, he found he had no rights on these poems in English, because the well-known poet had published them as ‘versions’, thus claiming both the copyright and the glory.

I’ve had the experience of opening a major poetry magazine, before I was published in book form, and seeing a poem by a well-published poet I knew, containing a key image from one of my key early poems. Bit of a shock. I called that person on it, and was told it was okay because they had made the image their own and it was a different kind of poem.

So here’s the thing. After all that. Here, for our communal edification, is that passage from TS Eliot’s essay on the playwright Philip Massinger, collected in The Sacred Grove:

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne. The two great followers of Shakespeare, Webster and Tourneur, in their mature work do not borrow from him; he is too close to them to be of use to them in this way.

This plagiarism/inspiration/homage issue is of course not confined to poets. It happens in other art forms. Someone I’m close to went to an exhibition in a gallery that included photographs by someone he knows, a recent photography  graduate. They were strangely familiar; when he got home he googled. He then emailed her, saying the images had ripped off Francesca Woodman very straightforwardly without acknowledgement, and he was uncomfortable with it. The photographer replied of course that it was an homage, and, ‘I did these for my degree show and it was fine, my tutor knew.’

Now, this woman, like Graham Nunn and others, is grown up and of an age to know the difference. Yet she honestly thought no one would care and it didn’t matter; she didn’t see the distinction between her degree show and an original creative offering on the open market. She thought these emails marked a ‘difference of opinion’, which is what comes through in Graham Nunn’s blog post. Matthew Welton also writes that CJ Allan emailed him saying that he

… claimed to hold my work ‘in high regard’ and said his use of use of my poems had been ‘as a framework against which to build my own poem’.

This is the common thread. I actually think it hasn’t occurred to some people that there’s a world of difference between the safety of the workshop and publication in magazines or competitions. That when playing with the big kids they need to keep up with the big kids. They’ve never created anything so original, so much their own, that they’d recognise how different creating is from merely being inspired. How much more you put yourself on the line. My drafty reader emailed me a few minutes ago: ‘There’s a world of difference between Prokofiev formally basing the 2nd movement of his 2nd symphony on the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Op.111, and Graham Nunn flattening out his notebook alongside a book by Helen Dunmore’.

Now, I can remember not being sure if my work was good enough yet, or even any good at all. I can remember not being able to tell, because we can’t really see in the mirror. I can remember wanting to get poems in magazines to prove they were ‘good enough’, somehow, and the pain of a two-year period where nothing got taken by anybody, anywhere. (This includes poems now in books, which poets I admire say they admire. Kids – it’s about the work! Not about whether this or that editor had room for it.) And I agree with Don Paterson when he says that no novice violinist would expect to play in Wigmore Hall, so why do so many novice poets – and I say novice because they clearly don’t feel in full command of their material yet, and why would they – expect to get their work published even at this cost? Why is it about publication, and not the work? (I know that publication is part of the apprenticeship; Im not saying there’s a magic moment when it’s okay to start publishing. But best if it’s your own original work, eh?)

This common strand of ‘homage’ seems to be about lacking a solid self-identity as an artist, and thinking you can ‘get away with it’ because no one will care anyway. In other words, I think it’s about confidence, about not feeling (as an artist) like an adult. It may appear on the surface to look like those more mature poets when they borrow someone else’s cloak for a bit… It’s interesting how, even as it’s a way of grabbing centre stage and limelight, internally – artistically – this sustained plagiarism is literal self-effacement. To that extent, it’s like self-harming.

But it’s also about a  culture that appears to valorise certain kinds of achievement much more than it values authenticity or knowledge, or indeed art or the act of creation. A culture (and I mean everything, here, not just poetry) that’s more concerned with publication, recognition, fame, than with learning how to do it and then devoting oneself to doing it better.

I’m not excusing plagiarism. I’m not slagging off translators. I’ve written all these found, inspired, allusive, in-character, translated version and spam and information-highway poems, and more. I’ve even used personal emails, like the evil Robert Lowell. I’ve felt that greedy hunger to manipulate… But we all live in what Michael Horovitz  calls the Enter-Prize culture. And where Matthew Welton writes of the community of writers, I think we should listen hard, and self-critically:

I can’t pretend that I am not aware that there is another way of looking at the social role of the writer. There are writers who feel that being published sets them above other writers. And there are writers who, though not yet published, might imagine that when it does happen for them their lives will change dramatically. It is a paradigm characterised by the idea that there is only a limited amount of publication or royalties or acclaim available, and that writers are in fact in competition with each other. I can understand that, while book sales are generally modest and most writers earn relatively little from publication, there may be kudos in having books published…

I was sitting in a pub many years ago, during the two years when no magazine would accept any of my stuff, with two poet friends. They were talking about poets with day jobs. I said, ‘I have a day job’. (That was back when you could still get a day job, before the cuts.) One of them said, ‘I mean real poets, with books’.

Who can blame these novice writers, these people who lack confidence and creative originality, for wanting to find a shortcut to becoming – like Pinocchio – a Real Boy?

Someone said to me at the Free Verse Book Fair last week that with the demise of Salt, ‘We’ve reached a point where we have as many well-respected poets without a publisher as there are with’. The fame is getting thinner, or is it more concentrated. The shallows will dry up quicker than the rest of Cyril Connolly’s famous watering hole, the one the hyenas fight beside.

There’s talk of Ira starting a website, where two versions of a poem – original, and copied – can sit side by side, and simply exist. Maybe editors and others will get more adept at recognising the strange little rips in the fabric. And if people start talking about their ‘creative process’, the answer will be, ‘By the fruit shall ye know the tree.’

There are obvious things poets can do, and should do, to borrow responsibly, and I think we’re learning them as we go along, in this internet age: cite, link, acknowledge. The culture is changing; even John Ashbery’s cento, ‘The Dong With a Luminous Nose’ (sounds familiar), was glossed three years ago by an assiduous blogger, not by Ashbery keeping track and citing sources. The blogger expands:

Ashbery says, in the recording of the reading linked above, that he only discovered after having written it (he describes himself in the recording as having written it) that the cento technique (which he calls a form) employed had any, or a long, prior existence.

Everybody’s learning about copyright and intellectual property these days, and poetic practice is changing. Despite the obvious fact that plagiarism is wrong, and despite the black-&-white derision of so many commenters on Facebook, nobody knows all the answers. We haven’t even identified all the right questions yet. But I do know this: we need to examine our whole poetry culture, all of us. We need to focus on what real creation is, and real homage, and real work. And we’re gonna need a bigger boat.

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