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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2 thoughts on “On Plagiarism in Poetry

  1. Unfortunately the virus has spread beyond the cellular wall of poetry and has infected the corpus of the social sciences. Academic institutions are in denial. Their Anxiety of Influence is focused on REF & TEF and performance in international league tables run by THE and QS.

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  2. As usual, the main component of a crime seems to be the premeditated intent to commit one (malice aforethought). When even major masterpieces of attributed originality such as Coleridge’s Kubla Khan turn out to be based verbally on a pre-existing source and hermetically composed of thousands of quotes and half-quotes, it becomes a tad hard to find referents for ex-nihilo creation (the current paragraph may be a rare exception).
    T.S. Eliot took the last line of “Cousin Nancy” directly out of George Meredith. He uses it to terrific effect: a young woman dancing modern dances is compared to a rebel angel by the lights of abiding tradition, and this is encapsulated, precisely, in a quote. But if Eliot had won a prize in a competition in today’s world with that poem, he would have had a problem.
    Picasso’s masterpiece “Les Damoiselles d’Avignon”, maybe the most shockingly original of paintings in its own day, enraged Matisse precisely because it looked like a hostile parody of some of his own works (particularly “Blue Nude”). But we can now see that the entire composition is additionally indebted to El Greco’s painting The Opening of the Fifth Seal.
    However, what Picasso says with this material seems sufficiently different from the message of Matisse or El Greco to pass muster, even if the referencing goes well beyond “influence”.
    I think that “dialogue” is an important word in these cases, provided it is remembered that dialogue can also be antagonistic or transformative (re. Picasso). But in the case of major publishing corporations and judges at competitions being “taken in” by made-to-order winning poems, I think some of the responsability must lie with the publishing house or with the organizers of the competition. If Eliot’s borrowings seem to hang between Heidegger’s postulates and Dawkins’ memes, at least an editor or arbiter of a publishing house or competition should be expert enough that borrowings would have to be either duly pointed or abstruse.

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