On Plagiarism in Poetry

A very interesting article in today’s Guardian about poetry and plagiarism. When T. S. Eliot famously said that immature poets imitate but mature poets steal, he did not mean “Find someone else’s poem online, change a handful of words and pass it off as your own, trading not only on their words but even on their chosen crafted form.” But what did he mean? One way in which I start a discussion of this question with students is to suggest to them that when one says “I love you” one is at some level voicing a quotation, not an original thought. By “quoting” in this way, you are entering into a long tradition – of lovers. Eliot’s point was that it is by engaging with the tradition, “modifying the existing order,” that poets enter the “canon” (though, as I argue in my book English Literature: A Very Short Introduction, I much prefer the term “repertoire”). The individual talent is shaped by the tradition and the true talent in turn reshapes the tradition. That is one reason why Eliot’s own poetry is so peppered with allusion, quotation and free translation from the poets he admired.

I’ve been fascinated by the implications of all this ever since I read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence and responded to it with a PhD thesis (which became two books) on how the Romantic poets dealt with their obsessive admiration for Shakespeare. My attempt at a “re-creative” exploration of the subject was the novel The Cure for Love, an act of homage to William Hazlitt that took his habit of quotation as its starting point. It imagines a man with a photographic memory who has read the whole of Hazlitt having an accident that gives him amnesia, with the result that when he recovers his memory his own words and experiences are indistinguishable from Hazlitt’s. This was intended as a kind of allegory of the process whereby the words of the writers we love lodge themselves in our head and speak to – even shape – our own experiences.

Now something along these lines might be imagined as the plagiarist’s defence: “this poem spoke to me, so I made it my own.” Yes, but … There are honourable and time-honoured methods of performing the move of making someone else’s creativity your own, and good words for the techniques of doing so: translation and imitation; quotation and allusion; hommage, pastiche and cento. My poetry collection The Shepherd’s Hut embraces them all (well, nearly all – I actually left out a cento that spliced e.e.cummings with Robert Lowell under the title “From Two Muses for a Third”). But the defining characteristic is that, either explicitly (e.g. in a title, an overt reference, an Eliot-style source note) or implicitly (by way of a quotation mark, a clear indication of change of register) they acknowledge the dialogue with the previous poet – the dialogue is indeed an essential part of the poem’s being and meaning. The reader is supposed to make the connection. Eliot should have said that poets steal proudly, generously and openly. It is unacknowledged literary theft that constitutes plagiarism.

Mind you, the earliest reference to Shakespeare seems to accuse him of plagiarism: the “upstart crow” is an allusion not only to a fable of Aesop, but also to a passage in Horace about bad poets passing off other poets’ words as their own … but the controversy around the authorship and intent of that allusion is a story for another day …

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