Thursday, September 19, 2013


I've had several "what do you think?" questions about the current crescendo in revelations of plagiarism in the poetry world, and attempting to set my mixture of thoughts on the matter down is as good a reason as any to revive this long comatose blog.

First it seems that there are a range of 'offences' being brought to our attention: in some cases the perpetrators have simply stolen somebody else's work and, after small alterations, have passed it off as their own. Then there are cases where some greater degree of rework has been done, and lastly there are instances where the accused has made a "mash-up" of as many as 50 other sources.

For me, the only clear-cut case is the first - where someone has passed another's poem off as their own, possibly with minor alterations. This is without any doubt utterly unacceptable.  The other cases are potentially more interesting ... is it conceivable that a piece of writing with many borrowings could be more than the sum of its parts? In rare cases I think the answer might be 'yes', and the implication of this is that we should perhaps look more closely at the final resulting product, and at the same time temper our judgement of the methods of construction.

Borrowings are nothing new. I remember Peter Porter once saying he was dismayed to find that what he considered to be one of the best lines in T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland had been directly lifted from Dante: "I had not thought death had undone so many." Eliot, it must be said, did include an end note with a reference to the original.

I have previously mentioned a wonderful essay by Felicty Rosslyn in an old P. N. Review (No 111 from 1996). At that time I was commenting on a poem by Harry Mathews which was an uncredited reworking of an admittedly famous poem by Thomas Wyatt.

Rosslyn's essay is about Pope's translations of Homer, and I'll reprise a little of it here. Rosslyn demonstrates how the opening of Dryden's Iliad (1700):

The wrath of Peleus' son, O Muse, resound
Whose dire effects the Grecian army found.

was clearly in Pope's mind when he wrote in his 1715 version:

The Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess sing!

Two days after Pope's Book I appeared, a rival - one Thomas Tickell - brought out his own translation, which began ....

Achilles' fatal Wrath, whence discord rose,
That brought the Sons of Greece unnumber'd Woes,
O Goddess sing.

Pope angrily annotated his copy of this, but admired the clear initial focus on Achilles, and the unnumber'd woes. His 1736 edition has a rewritten opening:

Achilles' Wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber'd, heav'nly Goddess, sing!

The modern reader may feel somewhat uncomfortable when it is realised how Pope's translation was built upon the work of his predecessors and contemporaries. Much the same is true for the King James Version of Bible, whose anonymous team of translators relied heavily upon earlier translations. The 'collaborative' nature of Pope's translations based on the work of others and in the end involving the work of a team of assistants, much like a Renaissance master painter with his school, does not sit entirely comfortably with the modern conception of the individual creator. We dwell still in the shadows of Romanticism with its cult of the individual rebel genius ... think Beethoven, think Byron, think Picasso or Stravinsky. Yet Stravinsky understood well the value of constraint in the creative process and this links him back to the pre-Romantic Bach with his heavily constrained fugues.

The recent quote unquote scandal of Andrew Slattery, Graham Nunn, and other Icaruses burnt by their strange rush to the poetic limelight, copying lines and whole works of others, passing them off as their own, and even winning major prizes, has brought news articles speaking of the plague of internet-fuelled plagiarism. But where precisely is the problem? Presumably this is primarily an issue of psychology, perhaps a tragic tale of ambition outstripping talent, or something morr commonplace like carelessness or cheating. Peter Bakowski has suggested it might be akin to the psychology of kleptomania. But some commentary would have us think there is a problem with today's poetry ecosystem. Is it perhaps that poets read too little and forgeries can too easily pass undetected? Full marks, by the way, to Anthony Lawrence for spotting Slattery's reused phrases. Is it that the taste of the day allows an evocative and suggestive surface pastiche of plausible sounding phrases to pass muster as a poem? John Ashbery explicitly championed a Chinese whispers approach to meaning, and has been influential in setting the tone of the times (is 'Zeitstimmung' a word?).

Derek Walcott once remarked: "you know you just ravage and cannibalise anything as a young writer". So is plagiarism a young man's caper? David R Morgan is now 58 but his prolific plagiarism started in his late twenties, thirty years ago. It seems like a bad habit he couldn't kick, and which he returned to in times of stress. If the internet is to be trusted, it seems Nunn (b 1971) is in his early 40s, Slattery (b. 1980) and Christian Ward (b 1980) are both in their early 30s. I can't find any information on C. J. Allen., one of whose victims, Matthew Welton, has finally spoken out here at the Carcanet blog.

I hope it is obvious that no one should pass off the work of others as their own. Someone once, I am told, took some of Peter Bakowski's poems, changed their titles and published them as his own. Sadly, this is the sort of thing that seems to have occurred in many of the recently publicized cases. For instance here is an example, first the original

SAVANNAHS by Eric Ormsby

Acknowledge the savannahs of our origins,
Those smooth, descending pastures to the sea

Then the 'reworking'


away from the savannahs
Of our origin
Those smooth, descending
pastures to the sea.

Alexander Pope took words and phrases from others and produced a better version in the end, but here Nunn seems to have simply mucked up the original poem which had sound syntactic and semantic cohesion; the pilfered reworking seems a mess. In this case, if I had been the original writer, I suspect I might be even more upset at the mindless vandalism, than in the outrageous theft and false pretences.

Where do mash ups sit in the spectrum of plagiarism? Having not yet read the prize-winning Slattery poem which is apparently a mash-up of 50 sources, nor seen an account of the borrowings, I can make no comment, other than to say I do find it somewhat surprising that a poem constructed by such means was the best available to the judges of the prize: it feels as if any meaning or sentiment in the poem would have to be external and accidental, but one must remember Stravinsky's game of notes, and understand that we might be equally surprised to learn that a great piece of music could be based on a theme built from the German note names of the composer's name B-A-C-H.  So difficult as it may be, we really should disregard any hype about the method of making, and look to the created work itself. The Wasteland is part mash-up, part parody, yet is still regarded by many as one of the more significant poems of the 20th century.