January 13th, 2014 / 2:52 pm
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2013: The Year of the Plagiarist

Ruth Graham is a plagiarist in New Hampshire.

Ruth Graham is a plagiarist in New Hampshire.

Paisley Rekdal got two Facebook messages last January from fellow poets who had some disturbing news: a poet in England by the name of Christian Ward had taken an old poem of hers and published it, barely altered, as his own. Her first reaction was to wonder if it was some kind of experiment. Perhaps by changing the gender of the author of a poem about infidelity and infertility, he was teasing out new meanings?

Then she saw the “new” poem, with its new line breaks and minor but grating word changes. It was obviously a work of deception, not conceptual play. “That’s the thing that enraged me,” she said recently. “If he had just plagiarized the poem and published under his name, I would have been less annoyed. When I saw he wanted to take part in something I had done myself and claim it as his own, I felt kind of violated.”

Rekdal, who responded to Ward with a righteously angry blog post (and later a more melancholy one), is not the only one feeling violated these days. The poetry world experienced something of a plagiarism epidemic last year. CJ Allen withdrew from the shortlist of England’s Forward Prize in September when it was revealed that he had plagiarized some of his past work. Australian poet Andrew Slattery was stripped of three prizes when it turned out he had cribbed from Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, among others. When caught, he claimed the poems were written in the cento form, in which each line is pulled from another source; he also called his work “a cynical experiment.”

The list goes on: British poet David R. Morgan admitted last spring that many of his poems, stretching back to at least the 1980s, had been plagiarized. Rekdal’s perpetrator turned out to have stolen from several other poets, including Helen Mort and Sandra Beasley. Graham Nunn, longtime organizer of a major Australian poetry festival, was accused last September of at least eight instances of plagiarism, which he defended in part as “sampling”; on his blog, he wrote that “[r]eading and listening to music are a vital part of my process” and that “parts of the original text are creatively appropriated in the formation of a new work.” These are all published, and often prize-winning, poets—they are not students or amateurs. Why did 2013 become the year of the plagiarists?

Writing is a dance that involves imitation, inspiration, and originality. But all things considered, writerly disapproval of plagiarism has remained remarkably consistent over the centuries—really, even over millennia. The Roman poet Martial accused his rival Fidentinus, whom he called a “miscreant magpie”: “My books need no one to accuse or judge you: the page which is yours stands up against you and says, ‘You are a thief.’” Martial was particularly galled that Fidentinus had mixed in his own inferior work with Martial’s original material. Yes, approaches to borrowing and attribution have shifted over time, but wholesale copying has never been kosher.

T.S. Eliot, who relied on other sources for much of “The Waste Land” (plagiarism or allusion?), famously wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Less often quoted is the next line, “Bad poets deface what they take.” This is what seems to gall many victims of plagiarists: to see their poems reprinted in weaker versions than the original.

Ruth Ellen Kocher, a Colorado-based poet and professor, recently learned that her 2004 poem “Issues Involving Interpretation” had been plagiarized online by an Australian named Vuong Pham. Pham kept her line breaks intact but changed a few words and added some new lines. “When he stole my work, he didn’t make it better,” Kocher said. “If my work was going to be taken and pilfered in that way, I would have loved to see it undergo a transformation and evolution.” Instead, she said, it reminded her of a “reverse revision”: his small changes actually made the poem worse.

Since the 19th century, when the Romantics embraced what Marilyn Randall, a professor of French studies at the University of Western Ontario and the author of a 2001 book on literary plagiarism, calls the “authentic poetic soul,” borrowing has become even more cemented as a literary crime. (Rekdal refers to her plagiarist as a Romantic, because “he was trying to tie his own imagination to the poem and claim it.”) Even in our age of collage and appropriation and “intertextuality,” it’s only at the extreme edges of such experimentation that you’ll find even mild defenses of outright plagiarism.

Despite the fact that plagiarism has always been taboo, readers are often more forgiving of historical offenses. As Thomas Mallon puts it in his insightful 1989 book on plagiarism, “Stolen Words,” “Everyone enjoys a good scandal in the present…. What we seem far less able to endure is that plaster cast falling from the library shelf: Its shattering somehow bothers us more than the live body going off the cliff.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, was an inveterate thief, but he remains firmly in the canon. Hart Crane borrowed heavily from a lesser-known poet named Samuel Greenberg, most notably in his early poem “Emblems of Conduct.” (“No doubt he meant to acknowledge his debt,” James Laughlin wrote in 1939. “It simply slipped his mind.”)

More recently, the British conceptual poet Ira Lightman, who was behind many of last year’s revelations, got involved simply because he didn’t see anyone else doing it. “The poetry world is genteel,” he said. “People don’t like to make any kind of stir.” Lightman has taken it upon himself to comb through suspect work, alert the victims, and publicize his findings.

But even Lightman, who spent untold hours last year ferreting out violators, doesn’t want to banish them indefinitely. “I don’t see them all as these sinister, plotting, Machiavellian characters,” he said. “I see it as a corruption. And we’re all vulnerable to corruption.” He suggests that transgressors retreat to self-publishing for a few years, prove themselves honest, and then return to the fold.

If plagiarists are not sinister and Machiavellian, then why do they do it? This question gets asked every time there’s a fresh revelation of plagiarism, whether it’s in the literary world, journalism, or academia. There’s never a satisfying answer, but there are at least lots of guesses, often somewhat at odds with each other: laziness or panic, narcissism or low self-esteem, ambition or deliberate self-sabotage.

In poetry, at least, everyone agrees it’s not about the money. “One of the hardest things is that the stakes in poetry are not very high,” Kocher said. “I’m not a rocket scientist. I’m not going to cure cancer with one of my poems. I don’t get paid an extraordinary amount of money, and I don’t have any great notoriety outside of the writing community. So to take something that most people engage in as an act of joy and sully it this way—it just seems one of the most egregious offenses.”

But does anyone write just for the money? Laurence Sterne, the plagiarist author of Tristram Shandy, said he wrote “not to be fed but to be famous.” Now, of course, he is. It worked.

The Internet has made both plagiarism itself and its detection much easier for everyone. But the major cases that came up in 2013 have all concerned British and Australian poets, often, but not always, cribbing from American ones. Despite some speculation that our national character makes us less likely to plagiarize—Americans are obsessively respectful of private property! American egos are too big to rely on other people’s work!—there’s also the possibility that Americans have simply been lucky enough to not be caught in the current dragnet.

For one, the primary detective is British, more familiar with the Commonwealth scene than the American one. And it’s not as if Americans haven’t been caught in the past. An Iowa poet named Neal Bowers, a former editor of Poet and Critic magazine, wrote a 1997 book about tracking down the Illinois elementary school teacher who published work copied from Bowers in 13 journals over the course of a few years. “It’s a very uneasy feeling,” Bowers told the New York Times at the time, “a bit like having a stalker.”

The gut reactions of the plagiarized are hard to predict. The poet and essayist H.L. Hix, for example, found out in October that his work had been lifted by Graham Nunn in an Australian anthology of love poems. He said his first reaction to getting the news from Lightman was sheer surprise: “As a poet one gets used to being completely ignored.”

Some victims feel moved to reach out the perpetrators. Kocher sent a note to Pham through Facebook after he posted a brief apology, which has since been removed, on his blog. She hasn’t heard back. (Pham has defended himself by saying he was simply naive and not taught about proper attribution; he also recently wrote that he has become a victim of cyberbullying.)

After Paisley Rekdal posted her open letter to Christian Ward on her blog, she also asked online for an apology from him. She got one: a one-sentence email that she recalls as something to the effect of “I’m sorry, I’m not this kind of person.” It’s the kind of open, vacuous statement that could make you hate someone, or feel sorry for them, or both at once. “He gave me what I asked for,” she said, “but he gave me no more than what I asked for.”

Is there such a thing as a resolution to a plagiarism story? Plagiarism isn’t a crime, there’s no universally accepted punishment for it, and the perfect expression of contrition may never come. Hix, for his part, says he has no plans to get in touch with Graham Nunn. “These were love poems that are being stolen,” he said. “I don’t have any more interest in speaking with Mr. Nunn than I would with the person who had broken into my house and stolen my property.”

Originally Published: January 6, 2014

Janey Smith is a writer in San Francisco.

@janeysmithkills

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33 Comments

  1. Dena Rash Guzman

      This is fantastic, Janey. Like you.

  2. Dena Rash Guzman

      sorry all the comments ended up on my fb page janey

  3. Brooks Sterritt

      Very nice

  4. shaun gannon

      How dare you. My wife wrote this

  5. Brooks Sterritt

      I challenge you to prove it in ART COURT

  6. caseyfanzine

      We’ll written and researched (who’d you lift this from?….eh eh):)

  7. Janey Smith

      actually, you merely copied the comments on my facebook page and pasted them onto yours whatevs

  8. Janey Smith

      casey, ruth graham plagiarized this article from me and posted it as if she had written it on the poetry foundation’s website the poetry foundation pulled the article this morning then republished it adding an extra comma our attorneys have been on the phone all afternoon

  9. Janey Smith

      shaun, is ruth graham your wife? she’s been sexting me all morning

  10. Dena Rash Guzman

      I am pretty sure that’s counterfeit phone.

  11. Dena Rash Guzman

      someone needs to launch a literary journal called “miscreant magpie”

  12. Bill Knott
  13. Janey Smith

      i’ve read that confession somewhere before

  14. caseyfanzine

      I figured as much;)

  15. NewerYork

      Cool

  16. deadgod

      Here’s Eliot’s Massinger essay that that quotation comes from: http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw11.html . The quote is pulled from paragraph 5 (check the little numbers in the right-hand margin).

      It seems to me that there are two differences that characterize the borrow/steal distinction: a) the difference in the morality of the intention of the taker. Is the taker meaning to be a keeper, or a returner?

      And more effective, b): the (first) writer’s power to retrieve (or that of the writer’s historical agents). The difference between borrowing and stealing is the keeping; can the first writer get their stuff back? –because if not, then it’s not a loan, and the keeper isn’t a borrower, but rather, an owner.

      Writers who’re open about their borrowing, well, that’s allusion: inescapable in linguistic mediation (your words, phrases, images, plots: almost all of that’s not original to you), and, at recurrent periods in cultural history, a favored mode of aesthetic and intellectual ‘sophistication’.

      Unfootnoted allusion that’s too obvious to argue about – as with the title As I Lay Dying – , that’s fine. Brief, rare unfootnoted allusions, okay, a nimble mind.

      But unacknowledged taking, and then having to give back what you’d ‘used’ as yours? Thief.

  17. deadgod

      Also, here’s a nice essay about Coleridge’s ‘plagiarism’: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/10/21/coleridge-and-plagiarism/ .

      Coleridge translated German philosophers and wrote/lectured sentences and paragraphs of his translations without foot- or otherwise noting that he was quoting such (and not putting ‘original’ thoughts into first-time words). Still stealing, but not as egregious as calling a poem not yours ‘yours’?

      Edit: I’m neither Maria Popova nor T. S. Eliot.

  18. Jeremy Hopkins

      Thanks to this intertextualitious commerce, several people have read these thoughts who otherwise might not have.

  19. Janey Smith

      i feel like all poems are mine–and yours too

  20. Erik Stinson

      #stopcreating

  21. Janey Smith

      jeremy, did you actually read the article–i didn’t really–i just noticed that ruth graham had ripped me off and decided to call her and the poetry foundation out

  22. deadgod

      I feel that communally-propertied way in the sense that reading is sharing – and more: co-constitutive. But when I (or my lieberry) buy a book, only a few people get the money, and that named author, and the publisher and editor, gets a better shot at showing me her or his next book. In that way, I don’t feel like Janey Smith’s poems and performances are mine, but rather a privilege and one to be privileged to share. That’s cool! You’re the dj! Even though ‘plagiarism’ is stealing, and categorizing “stealing” as ‘criminal’ reinforces political economy, still, I’m against calling your poems ‘mine’ in the sense that I assume they cost you nothing.

  23. Janey Smith

      i don’t know. i feel that it is necessary to finish with any notion of personal property in this area. any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can serve in making new combinations. the discoveries of modern poetry regarding the analogical structure of images demonstrates that when two objects are brought together, no matter how far apart their ‘original’ contexts may be, a relationship is always formed. restricting oneself to a personal–or worse, privatized–arrangement of words is mere convention–and one that rigorously upholds the values and practices of the ruling class. the ‘mutual’ interference of two worlds of feeling, or the bringing together of two ‘independent’ expressions, supersedes their ‘original’ elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy–and sometimes, greater ‘beauty.’ anything can be used.

  24. Jeremy Hopkins

      Being responsible and never unserious, I read the article and all comments before commenting.

  25. Jeremy Hopkins

      Paradoxically, eliminating private copyright would actually benefit the current powers-that-be. Those already in command of media would then be free to plagiarize from the entirety of artistic goings-on beneath them, and with the means of dissemination already in their grasp, they could further monopolize the ‘creative’ information exchange. (Unless the ‘whole system’ is done away with, that is.)

  26. Janey Smith

      acting facetious, and humbled by your initial comment, i lied and said i hadn’t read the article when in fact i read every word of it

  27. deadgod

      I think you’re talking about two different kinds of appropriation.

      Sure, bringing together disparate elements – which are extremely rarely, if ever, private to the bringer-together – generates new or ‘new’ worlds, or discloses the same ol’ world that contained those elements in an unprecedented combination of those elements.

      And I agree: anything can be used.

      But when you make something new or ‘new’, the making costs you toil, time, and materials. To compensate you directly (somehow) for those costs is to be enmeshed in political economy, ineluctably to reinforce the values and practices of a ruling class. Even to think of ‘compensation for toil, time, and materiel’ is to support that there be an unjustly ruling class.

      But plagiarism in the strong sense of ‘someone taking credit for work they didn’t do’ means that someone else gets that not-really-compensation, both materially (NOT MUCH, POETRY LOSER) and reputationally (which could be part of getting a job, etc.).

      In my view, it’s not revolutionary to accept your own parasite on the grounds of criticizing in practice the parasitism of the system as a whole. First, we’ll make shirts in a way fair to the worker, the neighbor, and the wearer, then you can have the shirt off my back.

  28. Jeremy Hopkins

      “Class” is itself an abstract throwback, a shadow/ripple/emanation, penumbral wisp of a notion. If it’s not legally enunciated, it’s imaginary: same as “art” according to everybody, yes?

  29. deadgod

      I don’t think ‘class’ is more imaginary or merely notional than ‘gravity’ is.

  30. Jeremy Hopkins

      Is it less? If it’s less, I won’t know what to say.

  31. shaun gannon

      i think i was hinting at a borat reference but i don’t remember anymore

  32. Richard Grayson

      Is there such a thing as a resolution to a plagiarism story? Plagiarism
      isn’t a crime, there’s no universally accepted punishment for it, and
      the perfect expression of contrition may never come.

  33. Richard Grayson