Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Are we all plagiarists now?

Is it just me, or do the poetry plagiarism scandals seem to be getting too close for comfort?

I was shocked when I read the allegations by Carcanet poet Matthew Welton that his work had been plagiarised by his fellow Nottingham poet CJ Allen. All of the plagiarism revelations to date have been scandalous, but this one seemed to hit home in a more – well, personal way. After all, I've entered competitions where CJ Allen has been a prize winner.

I must be clear: at the time of writing there is no suggestion that ANY of CJ Allen's prize winning work is anything other than his own original creation. But sadly, now that he's been tarnished with the plagiarist’s brush I can't avoid a nagging little “What if...?” that creeps into my mind when I hear his name mentioned. And it's depressing that I should think about any poet that way, particularly not one with such a strong track record and hitherto good reputation. If I start doubting one poet, how long before I start doubting them all?

What makes it worse is I have a sneaking suspicion that very few poets are entirely blameless when it comes to appropriating other people's work.

We all absorb ideas and images from the world around us. Writers pilfer constantly from overheard conversations, bits of pop culture, lyrics, advertising jingles, politicians' soundbites, and the like. “Intertextuality”, where a piece of writing knowingly references an existing source from the print or broadcast media, is one of the buzz-words in contemporary poetry. If, like me, you go to a lot of poetry readings and open mics, you'll be exposed to a whole barrage of poetic phrases, unusual metaphors and similes, and the like. And the chances are you may be picking them up subconsciously, reworking and reusing them in your own creative work.

I realised – and realised in a very public arena – that this was happening to me too, not so long ago. I'd been working on a new poem, a childhood reminiscence infused with my beloved fairytale imagery. I had a line in my head, which provided a perfect ending for the poem. And I knew it wasn't entirely ‘my’ line. I'd picked it up from somewhere – but where, I had absolutely no idea. Was it something I'd read in one of my books of fairy-stories? After all, I often find ideas for poems lurking within their covers. Had I heard it on TV, or the radio? Or – and this is the tricky bit – was it another poet's line, that I'd heard at a reading or an open mic, and picked up without realising that I'd done so?

It turned out to be the latter. This perfect final line for my new poem was somebody else's work. I used it in the poem. And the moment I realised where I'd heard the line before was the moment I read it out loud to an audience – at the self-same open mic that I'd first heard it, several months earlier.


If the poet who had created that line had been present, I could easily have ended up tarred with the same brush as CJ Allen. They weren't, as it turned out. But I had no idea who had written that line; all I knew was it was someone who might well be in the room, who almost certainly had friends who were in the room. The only honourable thing to do was to make a public confession of what had happened, and ask the original poet’s forbearance on the grounds that imitation, in this case, really was the sincerest form of flattery.

The audience at that open mic are a lovely lot. They were very understanding. They actually applauded the poem (and the confession) – and they didn't come after me with pitchforks afterwards, or ‘out’ me on the Carcanet blog. But I know fine well that I now have no right to use that ‘borrowed’ line in my poem. I could never be comfortable, submitting it for publication in the knowledge that the poem owed its power to someone else's words.

That last line has now been binned. It took me a couple of weeks to come up with the replacement (which is not nearly as good as its ‘borrowed’ predecessor). But such is life. All poets tend to find that, just when we want to say something really profound, someone else has got there before us. We shrug our shoulders, revise our poems, and move on.

The whole experience has made me realise just how close all poets come, at times, to being plagiarists. After all, we'd have precious little source material if we had to rely only on the original stuff that comes out of our heads. But the stuff we pick up from our environment – the lyrics, the headlines, the discarded soundbites – these are someone's creative work too. And the fine line between unconsciously using these as the starting-point for our creative process, and rehashing them wholesale as if they belonged to us in the first place, is finer than most of us realise.

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