Poetry and the boundaries of plagiarism

by Tom Chivers

I’m fascinated by this recent story. Christian Ward, a 32-year old poet from London with whom I’ve communicated occasionally on social networking, has been found to have plagiarised a poem by Helen Mort (whom I also know – in the real world). Christian’s poem, ‘The Deer’, won a local poetry competition in Devon, where the story was broken on 5th January. Save a few words, it’s identical to Helen’s poem of the same title.

Today a statement, by way of apology, has appeared from Ward. It’s not exactly unequivocal though, and that’s what interests me.

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.

It’s that phrase ‘I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own’ which I find so intriguing. He seems to think that’s a fair explanation, that this mode of working is acceptable. But for me, this raises two questions. Firstly, what does using a poem as a model really mean in practice? Do you start with a source text and then start make edits to it? Do you just copy the theme, or the movement of ideas, or the formal techniques? Secondly, at what point in this process does the text become your own?

Perhaps we’ll never know with this work, because Ward claims he ‘rushed and ended up submitting a draft’. Is there another draft, where we might discover how he has transformed Helen’s text into something original of his own? I’d be fascinated to read it!

The wider debate that this minor scandal might provoke is where artistic inspiration and/or appropriation becomes plagiarism. Which in turn asks us to consider what can and cannot be owned by an individual author or creative artist.

Of course this debate is as old as writing itself. TS Eliot had something to say about it:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

In the past, perhaps poets were less desperate for the original, the authentically inspired, and more content to situate their work in a dynamic with the past. Only two of Shakespeare‘s 37 plays have original plots. At the end of Troilus & Criseyde, Chaucer commends his work to ‘subgit be to alle poesye; / And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace / Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.’

David Shields, in his provocative book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, argues for a mash-up culture where everything is remixed, appropriated, open source. This is a somewhat radical position, but also one which has its roots in the Dadaist practice of collage.

Only recently, I published an anthology of poems that included a collage piece by Jon Stone. Jon had collaged reviews by the sci-fi critic David Langford, which caused some embarassment when David came to review the book for The Telegraph. In this instance, the problem – in my opinion (I have no idea about the legal status) – was not one of plagiarism, because the collage process had created a text that was utterly different in its appearance and effects, but of etiquette: Jon had simply forgotten to credit his source.

So perhaps we might say there is: deliberate plagiarism, accidental plagiarism (e.g. Ward, if we believe him – he has also confessed to plagiarising a Tim Dooley poem), deliberate appropriation (e.g. Stone), and finally accidental appropriation.

However we define it, I can’t help feel that Christian Ward’s misdemeanour is a symptom of a wider problem in British poetry: the dominance of creative writing courses, competitions, workshops, and their cumulative dissemination of a derivative and usually conservative poetic. Editors like me often complain of reading lots of poems that sound the same, that share a similar form, tone, turn of phrase, even subject matter. But isn’t cliche just a collectively agreed definition of plagiarism? Ward’s mistake wasn’t sending the wrong draft of his poem – it was thinking that ‘working from a model’ was a process that would lead to anything worth reading in the first place.

An artist’s depiction of the poet