On Being Plagiarised
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.