The case of Christian Ward’s plagiarism of Helen Mort and others has graduated from local to national news and attracted a great deal of comment, but hardly for encouraging reasons. If anything, it’s the very lack of real controversy that makes this particular incident suitable fodder for the mainstream media, which struggles at the best of times to grapple with the tensions and issues surrounding contemporary literature. Fortunately for journalists, this is a case of clear wrongdoing. Heads can be safely raised above parapets and volleys fired. When TS Eliot’s famous aphorism – “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” – is inevitably given the nod, it’s easy to point out that representing another person’s poem as your original work is probably not what he had in mind. The prospect of becoming mired in what constitutes lawful ‘theft’ is thereby avoided.
But the matter of originality and ownership in poetry remains a live issue, related both to general concerns about the health of the medium, and to questions surrounding the legal concepts of copyright and intellectual property. One joke doing the rounds among poets at the experimental end of the spectrum is that Ward’s near word-for-word lifting of others’ work is only the natural next step of a trend in poetry whereby the range of fashionable styles and subject matter is continually narrowed. Eventually, it is supposed, everyone will be writing the same poem, probably involving an animal, a parent figure and a window.
At the same time, experimental techniques that have gradually been adopted into the mainstream challenge received notions of what makes something ‘your own work’. ‘Found’ poems involve little more than adding line-breaks and a title to a text discovered in a different context. They’re popular, but considered to be ‘light’. Collage extends the possibilities, drawing fragments from one or multiple texts and rearranging them, while various recent forms take a whole text and manipulate its content through algorithms. The cento, a poetic form originating as far back as the 3rd century, steals unashamedly from previously existing poems to produce a new work.
This does lead us to an interesting dilemma. Supposing we took a poem and transformed it gradually, word by word, until none of the original poem remained. At what stage in the process would it be safe to show to the world without acknowledging the original author? At what precise moment does the piece transition from a crime-in-waiting to a mere appropriation, a pastiche, a reworking, a translation, a piece ‘inspired by’ or ‘after’, a burlesque or travesty (to borrow two 17th century literary genres), and eventually, to a wholly original work?
Another question we might ponder concerns the interrelationship between ideas and the expression of ideas. International copyright law protects the latter but not the former. A few years ago, it was very fashionable among young British poets to revive the constrained writing techniques of the Oulipo group, particularly Raymond Queneau. One of those techniques, N+7, involves replacing every noun in a text with the one seven after it in the dictionary. Since Queneau was arguably as much an inventor of poetic form as he was a poet, to what extent could these revivalists be said to be stealing his ideas? And if one were to use the N+7 technique to manipulate, say, a Leonard Cohen song, who is more the victim of thievery: Queneau or Cohen?
Traditionalists should not be sighing and shaking their heads at this point. Experimentalists seek out these techniques not, as some might accuse them, to discover shortcuts but to escape the inevitability of unoriginality – of thievery by osmosis – in remaining true to established methods of composition. The allure of poetic authority (words that just ‘sound right together’) leads to the characteristics of a successful voice – its structure, texture, density, style of address – being shared widely among any close-knit community of poets who admire each other’s work. To some extent, mastery is predicated first on successful fakery. What better way to escape the trap of becoming indistinguishable from the next poet than by reaching outside of one’s own compositional instincts to texts that have a new strangeness to them?
It also works as a way to extend the remit of poetry beyond its rarified epicentre. Through direct interaction with other texts with wildly varying origins – tweets, comics, opinion columns, song lyrics, obituaries, YouTube comments and more besides – poetry goes out into the world and makes its peace with all that is new and uncomfortable. In some cases, it’s even able to interrogate these contemporary texts in a more effective way than (or differently effective way to) a commentary or critique.
But how does one answer the charge that poets indulging in these practices reduce their own claim to authorship? At a reading last year, the poet Ross Sutherland explained how he had ‘collaborated’ with a computer program on some of his poems. “So who wrote them then?” shouted out an audience member. “That’s a good question,” Sutherland answered, before explaining that he saw his role in the process as that of a creative editor. The key theme in his introduction, however, was collaboration. Since we are working with each other all the time, and since even the best of us might be said to be standing on the shoulders of giants, it’s hard to deny that most of what we produce, particularly in the creative arts, owes its existence to more than one mind.
One can overstate that basic truth, of course. Let’s suppose that it’s not so much the labour (or lack thereof) that distinguishes an original from a copy as it is the bright idea, or cluster of bright ideas, that find their expression in the work, and to whom they first occurred. It might be argued that bright ideas, whatever their component parts, reveal themselves to those who sustain a certain mental attunement, one that brings with it a vulnerability to anxiety and self-doubt. The artist, therefore, is someone who makes certain sacrifices in pursuit of originality, while the collagist merely cherry-picks. Except that we must recognise that much ‘original’ art is actually fairly unoriginal, while there are many examples of collage and textual manipulation across the artistic spectrum that have had a profound impact on their respective fields.
It’s also important to emphasise this idea of collaboration because the principle of single-author ownership, when defined too narrowly, leads on all too quickly to egoism, idolatry and pointless conflict. Moreover, the danger is that we greatly restrict the possibilities in art by insisting that our work is carried out alone, unaided, for fear of having to share the rewards. We might humble ourselves with a hypothesis: if it turned out that all our creative ideas were transmitted into our brains by a signal from another dimension, where they already existed as complete works before they occurred to us, then for what could we claim the credit? We would all be plagiarists, and yet the work will have benefitted our environment in exactly the same way.
Other poets on whose work I have meditated in writing this article: Matthew Welton, Paul Stephenson, Chrissy Williams, Roddy Lumsden, Philip Terry, Nicholas Liu. Also worth having a look at Pentamatron – sonnets made from tweets.
Jon Stone was born in Derby and lives in Whitechapel. He is the co-creator of Sidekick Books and arts journal Fuselit. School of Forgery was published by Salt in 2012.
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