Poetic Licence

Mark Ford

  • Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist by Neal Bowers
    Norton, 136 pp, £12.95, March 1997, ISBN 0 393 04007 0

The American writer Neal Bowers has published three collections of poetry and two critical books, one on the works of James Dickey and one on Theodore Roethke. For the past twenty years he has occupied a creative writing post at Iowa State University, and, until 1992, led what he describes as ‘a most uneventful life’ in the small town of Ames, Iowa. The majority of poets, he argues in the opening chapter of Words for the Taking, ‘lead lives of quiet inspiration, blessed by the calling that damns us to obscurity’. Bowers’s well-crafted poems earned him a solid reputation on the circuit, and his work was regularly accepted by magazines such as Poetry, whose September 1990 issue included ‘Tenth-Year Elegy’ and ‘RSVP’, two poems in which Bowers contemplates his father’s unexpected death.

About eighteen months later, Bowers was alerted by Carrie Etter, a Californian poet, to the fact that a poem almost identical to ‘Tenth-Year Elegy’ had just been published under the title ‘Someone Forgotten’ by one David Sumner in the very small magazine, Mankato Poetry Review (circulation approximately 200). As well as altering the title, Sumner had fiddled with line lengths, word order, and adjusted a few images, but the two poems were basically the same. Bowers’s ‘Tenth-Year Elegy’ opens:

Careless man, my father,
always leaving me at rest-stops,
coffee shops, some wide spot in the road.
I come out, rubbing my hands on my pants
or levitating two foam cups of coffee,
and can’t find him anywhere,
those banged-up fenders gone.

Sumner’s ‘Someone Forgotten’ begins:

He is too heavy and careless, my father,
always leaving me at rest-stops, coffee shops,
some wide spot in the road. I come out,
rubbing my hands on my pants or levitating
two foam cups of coffee, and I can’t find him
anywhere, that beat-up Ford gone.

Sumner’s variations are never more than minimal; he emends Bowers’s ‘black highway like a chute’ to ‘black highway like a funeral ribbon’, and his ‘hands locked dead on the wheel’ to ‘hands like Vise Grips on the wheel’. He changes Bowers’s ‘I’ve settled in here – married,/built a house, planted trees for shade’ to ‘I’ve settled in here – married, built a house,/started a family’ – an emendation that wholly undermines the poem’s ending, in which the rustling of the now ten-year-old trees reminds the poet of his vanished father:

the wind sometimes makes a highway roar
high up in the branches, and I stop
whatever I am doing and look up.

Unlike Borges’s Pierre Menard, who heroically dedicates his life to recomposing a number of chapters of Don Quixote in the exact words of the original, Sumner, for whatever reasons, felt driven to leave his personal thumbprint on Bowers’s poem, as he did on the work of other poets such as Mark Strand and Sharon Olds, whose poems he also appropriated.

Outraged, Bowers and his wife Nancy set about trawling through poetry periodicals in search of further Sumner plagiarisms, and sent off letters to magazine editors warning of Sumner’s activities. The biographical notes which Sumner gave the magazine West Branch provided the Bowers with their first clues to his identity and whereabouts: ‘David Sumner, a.k.a. David Jones, lives in Aloha, Oregon. He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and spent his childhood in England. His work has been published in Hawaii Review, Puerto del Sol, Mississippi Review, and many other magazines.’ One of Bowers’s letters reached the poetry editor of Seneca Review just as the magazine was about to go to press with a further copy of ‘Tenth-Year Elegy’ – this time called ‘My Careless Father’ – and another Sumner plagiarism, ‘Aspects of Death’, more than closely modelled on Bowers’s ‘RSVP’. Sumner’s most substantive attempt to disguise his source comes in the poem’s opening line, which transforms Bowers’s ‘Death observes all the courtesies,’ to ‘The sky is shrouded, and death observes all/the courtesies.’ Other changes again include lineation, and a few minor verbal substitutions, such as the cliché ‘buried fears’ for the cliché ‘inmost fears’. Bowers also soon discovered that Sumner was no respecter of the rule stipulating that a poem should only be sent out for consideration to one magazine at a time. Sumner had his version of ‘Tenth-Year Elegy’ accepted by ten different periodicals, in five of which it eventually appeared, while ‘Aspects of Death’, ‘Courtesies’, ‘The Visitor’, as he variously titled his plagiarism of ‘RSVP’, was published by six of the poetry magazines that Sumner targeted.

Bowers ultimately tracked down over fifty Sumner publications, and a number of other poems that appeared under pseudonyms such as David Ahlstrom, David Compton, and even Diane Compton, whose contributor’s note claimed she was ‘a former co-editor of the now defunct Margin literary journal of Glasgow, Scotland’, and that her poems had appeared in publications such as Salmagundi and the London Review of Books. Unsurprisingly, her poems also turned out to be identical to those sent off by Sumner to different magazines. Bowers’s dilemma was considerably intensified by the difficulties he experienced trying to persuade others to take these thefts as seriously as he did. Most of the editors Bowers contacted warned him the plagiarist was probably mentally disturbed, and advised him against taking any action. Mark Strand, whose often anthologised poem ‘Keeping Things Whole’ Sumner had published under the title ‘The Reasons for Me’, considered the intrusion lamentable but unimportant. Bowers’s colleagues at the university seem to have been amazed that anyone would consider his work worth stealing in the first place. Bowers, however, felt some fundamental principle was at stake, and determined to expose his tormentor. He hired a lawyer, Bruce McKee, who in turn hired a private investigator called Anne Bunch. Bunch learned that Sumner’s real name – as his contributor’s note acknowledged – was David Jones, and that his wife was a schoolteacher. She later discovered that Jones had himself taught in a school until 1986, when he was jailed for six months for sexually abusing three seven-year old girls enrolled in his second grade class at Green Elementary School in Roseburg, Oregon.

Bowers’s lawyer had great difficulty in comprehending exactly the nature of the compensation his client demanded. Jones had not, after all, made any money from Mankato Poetry Review etc. Poetry can of course prove profitable if publication eventually leads to the sort of tenured creative writing post enjoyed by Bowers, but the financial rewards of poetry per se are derisory. Even the prestigious Poetry, where Jones first read Bowers’s poems, pays only $2 a line. Confronted by McKee, Jones wriggled and twisted, but eventually wrote Bowers a letter in which he explained that the theft was an oversight, and that Bowers and Seamus Heaney were his two favourite poets. He claimed to be living in Japan, but had in fact simply sent his letter to a friend in Japan who had posted it from there. He enclosed a money order for $100, and apologised for ‘embracing and proliferating your genius as my own’. Unappeased, Bowers devised an elaborate legal confession that he asked Jones to sign in the presence of a legal witness. Eventually Jones sent Bowers a further $500, but refused to sign the document professing his guilt. In his letters to Bowers he presents himself – with what degree of self-consciousness it’s impossible to tell – as a standard-issue Hollywood psychopath. ‘In a perfect world,’ he writes, ‘an artist like you – a creator of beauty – should never have to come in contact with such an ugliness as me.’ In a letter to Bowers’s wife – to whom the plagiarised poems were originally dedicated – Jones begs forgiveness for having ‘violated art devoted by the artist to the person of his inspiration’.

Meanwhile, Jones continued to send out other people’s poems under his various pseudonyms to magazines culled indiscriminately from Poets’ Market. He seems not to have attempted to tally particular submissions to particular periodicals, dispatching the same stolen poems to publications specialising in any number of topics – vampirism, insomnia, mountain-climbing, pipe-smoking, juggling, insects. Anne Bunch ascertained that he even gave a reading at a bookstore in Oregon, but she was unable to find out whose work he read. He parried Bowers’s various attempts to put a stop to his swelling bibliography through a number of ruses: he sent letters of apology to the editors of 47 periodicals, to none of which he’d actually submitted work; he sent manuscripts to others via Japan, creating for himself a sort of alibi; and he disappeared from his Aloha residence, leaving a trail of false forwarding addresses. He probably moved for a while to Germany, where his wife took up a job in a military school. He later resurfaced – or so Bowers believes – as Paul G. Schmidt, who over the past couple of years has submitted stolen short stories to over a hundred different periodicals, including quite famous stories such as Ethan Canin’s ‘Emperor of the Air’, which Schmidt sent under his own name to the Atlantic, where the story had originally been published. When rumbled and admonished by editors, Schmidt replies with a form letter in which he claims that ‘the submission of this story to your journal was part of a scientific research study of factors influencing acceptance for publication of short fiction by literary journals and mass audience magazines.’

Thwarted in his attempts to neutralise Jones once and for all, Bowers published an article in the autumn 1994 issue of the American Scholar detailing his tribulations. Much to his surprise, the story was picked up by a number of newspapers, and an article on the case by William Grimes in the New York Times was widely syndicated both in America and abroad. Bowers had his fifteen dubious minutes of fame. Loonies began writing to him protesting that they, too, had been plagiarised and deserved Nobel prizes for whatever they claimed to have invented. Op-ed pages debated the issues his article raised. Over here the case was recently cited in relation to Graham Swift’s allusions to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in his Booker-winning Last Orders. For a spell, poetry was not just ‘news that stays news’, in Pound’s words, but up there in the headlines.

In Words for the Taking Bowers offers further justifications for his campaign against Jones, whose actions, he feels, undermine the foundations of poetry: ‘When a poem is stolen, the creative process itself is mocked, and the victim must defend not only his individual poem but also the very ground from which that poem arises. The most insidious aspect of plagiarism is how much damage it does to the surrounding terrain.’ Bowers also explains his unassuageable resentment at Jones/Sumner’s claims to the emotions that prompted his two poems. Of ‘Tenth-Year Elegy’ he writes: ‘The poem was a bittersweet bloom I planted on my father’s grave. The thief dug it up, pruned it to his liking, and damaged the roots in the process. Worse, he replanted it in the soil mounded over my father and pretended the loss was his. This was a mockery I could not endure.’

Meeting on all fronts either jesting, indifference, or, most galling of all, congratulations (‘You should feel complimented to have someone like your work enough to steal it,’ counselled a university colleague), Bowers assumes the mantle of heroic vigilante defending the integrity of poetry against potentially overwhelming forces of evil. The book is full of foreboding rhetoric, of jibes at editors who refused to heed Bowers’s repeated warnings, and of rancour at well-established poets like Mark Strand capable of treating Sumner’s thefts with ‘aristocratic disdain’. Bowers is determined to run his man out of town, and this betrays him into some bizarre distortions of perspective on discovery of Jones’s criminal record. ‘Insofar as Jones’s behaviour can be understood,’ he speculates, ‘paedophilia and plagiarism seem to be expressions of the need to control, especially in a secretive way.’ Bowers appears to have felt only transient scruples about his right to use details of Jones’s past offences as evidence in his own case.

It’s hard to be as appalled by Jones’s poetic kleptomania as Bowers insists one ought to be. This is perhaps partly because the two poems stolen from the 1992 issue of Poetry are not in themselves mind-blowingly original. One can’t help feeling they could have been written by any number of professional campus poets. Bowers discourses at length on how much the two poems mean to him as an expression of his personal identity, but the poems themselves, though competent, are rather too predictable to be convincing. But such issues are beside the point. Plagiarism is clearly wrong, and yet, as Bowers painfully discovered, there exist no effective legal measures for restraining the offender or compensating the victim. Bowers’s legal action resulted in a bill of over $4000 and some vague promises finally extorted from his elusive antagonist, which were then almost instantly broken. Though McKee threatened Jones with criminal infringement of copyright, a fine of up to $25,000 and a year in prison, he felt it unlikely that such a conviction could be obtained on the basis of plagiarised poetry.

Bowers can at least take some satisfaction in the thought that his offensive does seem to have made Jones feel that stolen poetry is, for the moment, too hot to handle. On the other hand, he has now become known, as he ruefully acknowledges in his final chapter, as the poet whose work was plagiarised. He actually composed a poem called ‘Art Thief’ some years before encountering his nemesis. ‘Art Thief’ was commissioned by Iowa State University to commemorate a piece of campus sculpture called ‘Flat Rabbit’ which had been stolen: Bowers’s poem was cast in bronze and installed in place of the original artwork. In ‘Art Thief’ Bowers celebrates ‘the space,/the pure ideal’ the theft creates. In the midst of his struggles with Jones, this bronze plaque inscribed with Bowers’s poem was pried from its base and stolen.