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On Being Plagiarised

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On 17 May I received an email from a stranger in Qatar, telling me that someone in England had plagiarised one of my poems. Patty Paine, who teaches at the campus I did not know Virginia Commonwealth University has in Doha, and edits Diode, an online poetry magazine, pointed me to the site of another zine. There I saw a something that reflected my poem as if in a mirror that’s been through a house fire.

Throughout the day, a quickly assembled posse – mostly poets, mostly in the UK, mostly collaborating on Facebook – exposed more and more cases. Mortification was expressed at every turn. The editors of targeted publications are in some ways more obviously victims than the poets plagiarised.

My first reaction was: what a dim thing to do these days. The tracking and shaming of the perpetrator, one David R. Morgan of Luton, took not many hours. Within days the trail of his thefts was known to thousands. Poems affected include one or more by Wendy Battin, Henry Braun, James Cervantes, Denise Duhamel, William Greenway, Halvard Johnson, Colin Morton and who knows how many more. Most of his first discovered thefts were of poems in the Contemporary American Poetry Archive, a home for out-of-print books created by Wendy Battin and housed quietly, if not as obscurely as Morgan perhaps imagined, at Connecticut College, where I teach.

What bothered me was not being robbed: I still have the original poem, and since Poetry magazine published it in 1974, my ownership, if that is the right word, could hardly be questioned. The insult was partly that the plagiarist assumed my poem was too obscure for anyone to discover his theft. The worst of it, though, was what Morgan did to the poem. All of his filchings discovered so far have involved his altering the original, usually making small or very small changes to the text but always replacing the title, a puerile gesture of concealment. My poem is called ‘A Little Song’, which I’ll stand by, though it may be ostentatiously modest. Amy Lowell used it in 1912. I didn’t know about Lowell’s poem until all this came up, but had I known, I wouldn’t have changed my mind. There are good reasons why you can’t copyright a title. Onto his version of the poem, Morgan bolted the remarkably boorish ‘Dead Wife Singing’. (The woman in question was not my wife and was not dead, though she is now, forty years on.)

He also disfigured the meter. ‘A Little Song’ is in Sapphic stanzas. I wrote it as a graduate student, trying my hand at filling a complicated old mould with new stuff. I kept at the exercise long enough to get two or three stanzas, saw out of the corner of my eye that it had a kind of trajectory, and completed it in four stanzas. Then I discovered that, while certain annoying parts of my mind had been busy in the squirrel-cage of syllable-counting, something else had sneaked in and given me one of the better poems I had produced to date. That was a lesson in forms and ‘exercises’ that I still pass on to students.

I included ‘A Little Song’ in my first book, published by David Godine in 1983. A few years later, James Merrill told me that my poem had brought Sapphics to his attention. Four of the poems in The Inner Room (1988) use the form. I am not stupid enough to prefer mine.

When Morgan mutilated my poem, he was mutilating the tedious and fervent labour, the discovery of what I hadn’t known I meant to mean, and the reward of a single moment of high praise. ‘A Little Song’ has faults, including some melodramatic and opportunistic line-breaks. How would I feel if the thief had improved my poem? I’d be abashed, but I’d also be bewildered that someone who could do that would bother, rather than write a better poem of his own.

In the early rounds of emails, several people said: ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ I never knew that the aphorism was coined by Charles Caleb Colton (1780-1832), but it is now no more difficult to learn such a thing than to find out whether a particular poem has been published under more than one author’s name. It took me slightly longer to see why this response felt so off the mark. But of course plagiarism isn’t imitation. Imitation means trying to duplicate a process you’ve watched someone else go through. Defining plagiarism is trickier than you might think, but most of the time we distinguish it from other kinds of copying (allusion, quotation) fairly easily: it’s plagiarism if the copyist hopes no one will notice.

Comments on “On Being Plagiarised”

  1. zbs says:

    One undergraduate poetry instructor (we’ll merely note: a Yale Younger Poets recipient) who criticized my mawkish productions quite harshly, proceeded to swipe not only the metrical conceit (something to do with rhyming the last syllable of one line with the penultimate of the next?) but also the extremely specific subject of one of my submissions. It appeared as the first poem in his subsequent volume. I discovered this sitting on the john. The copy was inscribed and mailed to my roommate at the time, who was something of the instructor’s protégé. We were in the class together. When he got home that day he regretted my noticing it before he had the pleasure of pointing it out to me.

    This is probably relatively common, conscious or not. Still, I can’t bring myself to really care. Plagiarism has always seemed to me more pathetic than criminal.

  2. Timothy Rogers says:

    There’s a humorous side to plagiarized poetry, especially when it can be tied into the follies (or impostures) of youth. Here’s an illustrative story. When I was in the ninth grade in 1963 our English teacher gave an assignment to write a poem (there were few restrictions, except on length, and no instructions about following standard forms or meters). After having them in his possession for a week or so and handing out grades, he decided to read to the class what he thought was the best poem and a couple of runner-ups. First our teacher congratulated our classmate (we’ll call him John) and then read aloud the whole poem, which had, as Brother Kurt (this was a Catholic high school) put it, a “haunting refrain”. Then we were treated to the lyrics of “The Ballad of Tom Dooley” (shades of “they’re hanging Danny Deaver in the morning” there), taken from the back of the 1958 album on which it was a hit sung by a popular folk-music group, The Kingston Trio. There was a heroic collective effort by the rest of the class members to not smile or break into laughter. The fraud was never detected by our teacher, and we all looked up to John for his minimal effort that yielded maximal success. One guy, very competitive for honors in the class, wanted to spill the beans, but we threatened him with a mugging, so the secret was kept.

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