Thursday, May 27, 2010

my sweet lord

I read a poem today that’s been entered in a contest that plagiarizes another poem. The latter is a terrific short poem about a dog I read ages ago in a review of an anthology and never forgot.

The poet who does the plagiarizing lifts the short poem, which is only three lines long, and plants it smack in the middle of his poem, which is also about a dog. Oh dear, at least change the subject.

And why did I feel horrible when I discovered this, as if I were suddenly “in on” something wrong? I almost wish I hadn’t read it. I guess it’s how people feel who witness a crime, like why was I standing on the corner of 43rd and 7th when the mugger shot the little old lady. It was probably an accident! Anyway, I pointed it out to one of the judges and leave it to her. I say that but it’s clear to me the poem should be pulled from the contest. I hope it is and the guy learns his lesson.

Believe me, I think it’s easy to unknowingly plagiarize something. A line sticks in your mind and one day you can’t remember if it’s your line or if you read it somewhere. I wrote a draft once that had a great line in it and later I realized, hey, that sounds like Anne Sexton. It was Anne Sexton. Luckily the poem never ventured from my notebook.

If you want to riff off another poet, go ahead, but there are limits. Anne Sexton, for example, was a great fan of Federico Garcia Lorca, who wrote in his gorgeous “Gacela of the Dark Death” –

I want the ocean to go on without its bed.


To which Sexton replied in her “Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound” –

I’m surprised to see that the ocean is still going on.

*

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my mom arrived today bearing books and a supply of Crest toothpaste, an American wonder.

12 comments:

Eryl Shields said...

I really hope the guy didn't realise he was plagiarizing the other poem. Though committing inadvertent plagiarism is something I live in dread of.

Billy Joe said...

I often read poems that a poet has put a line from the Bible or some other well-known book of wisdom into his/her own words. Dylan does it quite successfully in his lyrics. Lots of times the very power of his lyrics are based on these re-workings of Biblical lines.

As an experiment, I once took a well-known section from the Bible and rewrote it. Now is that plagiarism?

In the cut-up method which is kind of like mixing in today's music you take other peoples words, poems, whatever, and randomly rearrange them.

Stephanie Low said...

This is a tricky subject and not having knowledge of either the original poem or the one entered into the contest, I cannot comment. However the idea of plagiarism is rather new and I've been reading some interesting articles regarding the subject. I think the discussions are new and interesting and bring up the idea that plagiarism isn't as black and white as it's often presented to be.

http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081387

Billy Joe said...

I failed to say that someone lifting verbatim lines from another poet should acknowledge where the lines came from. In cut-up it might be important to acknowledge the sources.

SarahJane said...

I think the Bible is fair game, and doesn't necessarily need attribution. It's like beginning a poem "Shall I compare thee to a _________?" The poet or writer isn't trying to pass something off as his own. In plagiarism, he is.
So if you write a poem about a dog, don't steal your lines from another poem about a dog.

Ron. said...

"...my mom arrived today bearing books and a supply of Crest toothpaste, an American wonder."

Yes, I'll bet she is.

"...my mom arrived today..."

Oh, how I wish I could say those words.

SarahJane said...

The pilfered poem appears here:

http://talesfromthelaboratory.typepad.com/tales_from_the_microbial_/2009/07/you-gonna-eat-that.html

My error - it's four lines long, three of which are the same.

*
Ron., I'm sorry. That's sad.

Kathleen said...

I'm so glad your mom is there visiting!

Yeesh, about the dog poem.

Today there are lots of collage poems, or poems that imbed lines from other poems, and I have always been troubled by how to credit this. If I do it, I generally use italics to show the quoted phrase and then credit the source in a note (that might end up as part of contributor's note, if not a footnote.) I know Eliot and Pound were big on literary allusions that went uncredited sometimes in final publication; readers were supposed to know where they came from, or something. I know we have a shared language, but I don't think we should be presenting other people's words as our own. Some kind of attribution solution must honor the source!

SarahJane said...

Yeah, the dog poem still hasn't been pulled. I'd almost out the guy, but I don't want to ruin his life. Because I think it could ruin his life. Which is why he shouldn't have done it.

I think italics are good.

There are also often poems titled "Poem beginning with a line from Pablo Neruda," or whatever, so everyone knows.

I've done cento poems, too, collage poems using lines from other poets. "Naked, Come Shivering," which is one of the poem links on the left, is one.

I don't know. I'm not trying to be holier-than-thou. It's easy to make a mistake, but fess up honey and push the reverse button.

Dave said...

I'm all for collage and remix, with or without permission of the authors, but the original authors must be acknowledged somehow, unless it's a source the audience can be trusted to recognize (Shakespeare, the bible). Discussions of copyright can raise interesting points on all sides, but I really think plagiarism is a simple issue, and shouldn't be confused with remix as Billy Joe suggests.

SarahJane said...

I'm with Dave. Totally not kosher!
I had a poet tell me recently, shortly after he found out that we'd have poems in the same journal, that he's used a line of mine in his poem. Would he have told me this if he thought I would never have seen the poem? Was I happy and blushingly honored about this? No. I was pissed off.

SarahJane said...

Update: the poet has now acknowledged the "inspiration" for his poem, adding "after Karen Shepard" after the title. I guess that does it.

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