noun pla·gia·rism \ ˈplā-jə-ˌri-zəm also -jē-ə- \
: an act of copying the ideas or words of another person without giving credit to that person
-Merriam Webster Dictionary
You saw the definition right? Don’t be that guy. Please. Plagiarism in the poetry world is nothing new. It is deeply unethical, disgusting and lazy but nothing new. A whole cabal of poets seem to have banished all inhibition and are ctrl+c and ctrl+ v-ing their way into journals, anthologies, literary prizes and the hearts of readers. We here at Poetry Potion wrestled with that demon too, when it came to light that work submitted by Redscar McOdindo K’Oyuga and published in one of our print editions was plagiarised. Oh, fresh hell! Let us find solace in the words of Wu Guan-Zhong when he said:
“If you plagiarise others’ techniques, you steal their emotions and tell your spectators a lie with your work. Works as such equal zero.”
But why make yourself guilty of such a cardinal literary sin when the rewards are so minuscule and the repercussions (if caught) are so devastating? The internet is littered with examples of plagiarists and the stories of when the Word-Mob caught wind of their antics. You might also stumble across the rotting remains of their reputations and shards of once celebrated names.
When British poet Christian Ward won a poetry prize for a poem he plagiarized from Helen Mort, he had no idea how hard the literary world would come down on him. Ward has been ostracized, insulted and treated like a leper and has been crying victim since his sins were uncovered. I don’t know if I have any pity at this stage but Ward has since issued an apology, of sorts:
“I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn’t entirely my own work. I had no intention of deliberately plagiarising her work. That is the truth”
Yeah, ok, even that sounds like plagiarism to me.
Poet Sharee Mack was accused of using plagiarised poetry to gain her PhD and subsequent career as a writing teacher. Her collection ‘Laventville’ caused quite a stir when the UK’s self-appointed poetry investigator Ira Lightman uncovered numerous plagiarized passages in her collection. Mack copied work from, among others, American poet August Kleinszahler and Douglas Dunn.
Mack’s vast fanbase accused her accusers of racism, her books were pulped and her reputation is in tatters. Canadian poet laureate Pierre DesRuisseaux (RIP) is accused of plagiarizing Maya Angelou, Dylan Thomas, Louis MacNeice and wait for it…Tupac. It is believed he got away with it because he wrote in French, for a French audience who might not have been familiar with the original creators of the stolen work. Ok, we will go with that. Unfortunately his publisher and family were left to deal with the burden of embarrassment. And who can forget when Nayyirah Waheed called out the blatant similarity between some of her poems and that of Rupi Kaur.
Social Media is fraught with stolen sentences and appropriated tweets. But just because it is normalized over there does not mean we accept that mess over here. Environment shapes language and language locates us. Ie Afrikaans vs Afrikaaps. Poetry explores the far reaches of language; the construction of that beautiful metaphor or beautiful sentence that’s hidden away from everyday speech, that is the magic. Blending it with your story and experiences, that is the magic. Becoming a creator of worlds, pouring yourself into each letter, each word, each sentence, each stanza, each poem. That is the magic. Why would you deprive yourself of that beautiful journey and write someone else’s magic? In ‘A meaningful life’ Fennel Hudson wrote;
“Writers who copy or plagiarise others are dreaming in another man’s sleep.”
Now if you are attempting quotation, imitation or homage it needs to be clear. If it is a Cento poem (A poem made up entirely of lines from other poems by other poets) or pastiche, then, by all means, knock yourself out. But be clear and credit the original creator of the work. Remember stealing a poem, is not the same as stealing a recipe for jam tarts. The literary world is not as forgiving as your family. Mokokoma Mokhonoana says;
“Plagiarism is the fear of a blank page.”
Or maybe it is the solemn but terrifying realization that someone is writing how and what you want to write. Maybe the thought of getting away with it gives you the gumption to appropriate. Maybe it is a sad confirmation that you are still learning this ancient art. That more training is needed. That maybe, for now, you need to leave that page blank.