By Fred Johnston
Oh, dear. Scarce a day passes without that a social media outlet or a decent newspaper carries news of a poet – and it is mostly poets – admitting to or being accused of plagiarism. Not merely of an idea, no; but of whole lines, phrases, often with a little drop of subtle rearranging, futile, of course. In our day of the World Wide Web, the Internet, and God only knows how many on-line opportunities for publishing one’s poetry, one might imagine that plagiarism of the least sort is a risky venture. Still it’s a practice that seems to be spreading. No point in consulting Sigmund Freud for reasons, for those of us minded to do so, as he was accused himself of plagiarism by fellow delver into the mind, Wilhelm Fleiss. It passeth all understanding, if I may, eh, borrow a phrase.
Come on, now – who hasn’t looked at a delicious phrase and uttered in the darker recesses of the soul, I wish I had found that.Or more mischievously, I wonder could I use that? The vast majority of scribes don’t yield to the temptation. Yet some do. And one must wonder why, when for one thing the chances of getting caught at it are beyond measure. So it’s not about getting caught, the old snarling self-interested motive. What is it about, then?
I’m no Freud, and possess but a layman’s interest in and accrued knowledge of subjects psychological or analytical. But I have met many, many poets, especially in recent years, when a biting competitive edge has crept in to the act of writing and, more importantly for some, publishing poetry. Very basic instincts of ego have intruded – yes, they were always present, but hardly in such profusion have they ever been given their head. Ego resists and resents such vile processes as editing and critical review administered by anyone but the author. On-line poetry pages, now graded as at least as valuable as being published between covers by a reputable poetry house – and I have problems with this, though I have published on-line myself – tend to crave readership and, dare one add, attention. They can often be seduced into publishing not-very-good work in order to appear liberal and not élitist. Perhaps too some of their editors want simply to be loved. This, coupled with the worst kinds of poetry courses that preach that anyone can be a poet (without effort, of course, or learning style, metre and the rest) has given rise to the not-unreasonable notion that one should not say that is poetry and not this. Reading one’s ‘poem’ out to an audience that applauds (all audiences do) can end up giving great pleasure, even if, in all honesty, the work isn’t up to much; masturbation is a bit like that. So perhaps whatever keeps one happy is not easily to be derided. In such conditions a critic, therefore, plays much the same role as the indignant father knocking on the bathroom door, shouting ‘What are you doing in there, boy!’ One may be embarrassed, but one is damned if one is going to stop. We’re touching on Freud here, are we not?
Let’s stay concrete. There are glittering prizes, far too many of them waiting to be picked up, grants to be secured, exotic travels pulsing at one’s door, all for the successful poet – usually one who gains media attention or whose friends are numerous. There is much to strive for that will keep the ego afloat. Who willingly would drown? The critic-father is a reviled old begrudger, of course, unmodern, scarcely worth his space in the world. The critic knows exactly what you’re doing in the bathroom. Worse, he may actually tell everyone.
So why not grab a good line from someone who is simply better? Who has weathered the sour critic and stayed relatively normal? Yes, it’s theft and it diminishes the perpetrator. Yes, it diminishes all poets and poetry itself. But if it secures the climax you desire, what the Hell?
For most poets, though one refrains from admitting it, Hell is other people’s poetry. So perhaps there is a touch of revenge, at some level, implicit in the act of plagiarising. If that is so, then it is not too much to suggest that plagiarism is a form of violence, suppressed perhaps, but the result so often is to produce work that is maimed and crippled, leaving behind a good work that has been robbed of a decent limb. Unless theft be a form of flattery, then plagiarism is not flattery, as sweet minds might have one believe. I for one do not see plagiarism as a laughing matter, either. Bring back the birch, I say, the public stocks. As it is, the plagiarist unmasked is often named widely in social media and his or her poetic goose is simmered if not utterly cooked. Rightly so. But I think at the bottom of all of this, theorise as one may, is fear.
The poetry plagiarist cannot think much of his or herself, for surely he or she does not think much of their poetry to adulterate it with another poet’s seed. The result is the offspring one cannot look at without wishing to confess. It is an orphan. It may as well have been concocted in a test-tube. Who is to say but it may be the product of many donors? Must one dread forever the approaching footsteps of its real father? What a poor act of kidnapping it is when conscience shouts the crime from every, eh, rooftop? The poem is a lie.
Poets are supposed to be retailers of truth, if not always in their lives, at least in their work. Thus the plagiarist betrays his or her profession and morally steadier colleagues. Yes, this is about morality too. But the fear – of failure, of not being ‘good’ enough – suppresses everything. And fear makes us desperate. In some degree, perhaps the plagiarist desires to be caught. Wants to be stopped. Cannot stop without a good kick up the . . . .without help. Discovered, he or she may hear the cry of ‘You’re nicked, mate,’ and may, somewhere deep inside, feel relieved. This may be a turning-point, leading on to real self-questioning. It may, of course, teach nothing at all.
We live in an age when failure is not an option; in business, in the arts and literature. We have no responsibilities, only rights – and I have harvested that observation from someone else. I have a RIGHT to be a poet, but no responsibility towards poetry. I have a RIGHT to be published, but no responsibility to study my craft. The fear, nay, mortal terror of being deprived of this unearned right may drive us to doing terrible things. We covet the success of other poets, knowing we would not have the patience or courage to earn similar success. We want it NOW! In all ages men and women have resorted to plagiarism, mainly from fear of somehow being left behind, ignored, put to the social sword. In this mad age, we do not wish to suffer for our art, that’s old-fashioned. We want it handed to us on a plate. Even someone else’s plate. We have relinquished all faith in ourselves.
Perhaps now more than ever, one is forced, squeezed, pressured into all of it, I do not know. Like the adolescent girl who envies her classmate’s earrings, we are encouraged to steal them. When caught we can – like various bankers, politicians, dodgy dealers on the world stage all around us – apologise and swear never to do it again. We live in a world of say-sorry-and-you’re-forgiven. So perhaps poetry plagiarism is a new form of literature of itself, spawned to meet the morals of an illicit and violent age, dominated by ‘real-life’ TV and millionaire pop-singers who manage, just, to step down from actually fucking on stage. Is poetry relevant? is not the question in such a time; what will poetry do for me, is. Not always and not everywhere, thank the gods. But I fear that plagiarising in poetry is on the increase and eventually a decent, that is, honest, poetry instructor somewhere will throw in Plagiarising For Beginners as part of the course.
How to stop it? I know not why I am so sad, as someone said, or something like that. It’s a good line. Maybe someone can use it sometime. I might even use it myself.PLAGIARISM:
an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author
without authorization and the representation
of that author’s work as one’s own,
as by not crediting the original author:
It is said that he plagiarized Thoreau’s plagiarism of a line written by Montaigne.
Synonyms:appropriation, infringement, piracy,
counterfeiting; theft,borrowing, cribbing, passing off.
a piece of writing or other work reflecting such
unauthorized useor imitation:
“These two manuscripts are clearly plagiarisms,” the editor said,
tossing them angrily on the floor.