Not the Year of Plagiarism

You might remember 2013 as the year of poetry plagiarism. Or perhaps you have left that sorry business truly in the past, and you went through 2014 reflecting on the fundamental decency of poets and are expecting similarly great, honest things from 2015. That’s nice.

I don’t really wish to rake up old toads, but a recent article by Rachel Galvin in Comparative Literature Studies reminded me of that rash of incidents and has reoriented some of my thinking about them. Also, it has helped me to remember that what happened in ancient times may yet happen again.

Because 2013 wasn’t really ‘the year of poetry plagiarism.’ It was just the year that poetry plagiarism was exposed. (A good summary of the events and the exposures, by Ruth Graham, can be found here.) In brief, poets Christian Ward, C. J. Allen, Andrew Slattery, David R. Morgan, Graham Nunn, and Vuong Pham were challenged about the authenticity of their work and admitted to range of offences, usually committed over a long period of time, sometimes their entire careers.

I am not interested in examining the plagiarists’ psychology. I will not speculate on how any joy can be wrung from someone else’s sponge. I don’t wish to defend plagiarism on specious Conceptual grounds by saying that, in fact, the purloined poem is better and more representative of our times than poems written by poets labouring on into the long Romantic twilight, long after they should have downed their obsolete tools. I have not got time to hear Eliot’s ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal’ invoked. It is a canard that would probably seem truer if it were sunk to the bottom of the sea and seen again, as if for the first time, a thousand years hence.

I was interested in hearing the victims’ perspectives at the time, because I empathise with those to whom writing has caused pain, however it happened. But this is not what I am going to discuss now.

My point is structural.

In ‘Poetry Is Theft,’ Galvin is concerned with various Latin American, Caribbean, and North American poets who use appropriative and recombinatory practices. She refers to these practices as ‘cannibalistic’ whilst also acknowledging that texts may have a fluid ‘relationality,’ a notion she draws from Édouard Glissant and others. But among the texts she cites, it is not usually relations between equals. ‘At times,’ Galvin writes, ‘poets cite, rewrite, and name other poets as a way to accrue cultural capital to their own texts in a way that is deeply self-conscious of power imbalances.’ Specifically, the power is held by those with institutional, racial, sexual, political and other privileges. In assimilating and reproducing other texts, especially ‘canonical’ or ‘approved’ ones, poets can challenge power and usurp some of it for themselves. Projects like ‘Tan Lin’s “plagiarism,” Sergio Waisman’s “creative plagiarism,” [and] Harryette Mullen’s “recyclopedia”’

deliberately play upon the anxiety associated with plagiarism, which is linked to the notion of a sovereign textual subject: a subject that ‘purports to double mimetically the authoritative and self-contained subjectivity of the author,’ or what has been commonly called the lyric ‘I.’

There are two ways, I think, to connect these ideas to the practices of the Gang of 2013.

On the one hand, what we think of as poetic plagiarism inverts the traditional, ‘acceptable’ system of appropriation. We might think of this as a system of respectful allusion, the use of and reworking of tropes, commentary on literary tradition, etc. In this model, the strong poet is an apex predator that eats those weaker than itself. And virtually all culture is weaker than the poet. In the case of plagiarism, however, things are reversed. In Galvin’s model, the weak (the obscure) is cannibalising the strong (the well-known, the worth-taking-from). But, of course, this type of appropriation can also be a gesture of resistance against colonial or cultural oppressors. A sort of suicide-bombing at the last resort, and perhaps not ignoble. If we were to view the 2013 plagiarists as unfortunates, outsiders, this might make sense. But it doesn’t. These were poets with reputations, books, positions. With everything to lose.

So, on the other hand, we might consider the plagiarists as the ones with the power. Let us consider an argument on a slightly different kind of wholesale appropriation, a critique, by Heriberto Yépez, of Conceptual writing:

[The Conceptualists] reiterate colonialist practices. By means of manifestos, anthologies and membership, they erase or take over other histories.

[Kenneth Goldsmith’s] politics attracts students, academics, writers and readers who are undecided between the consensual and the arty. Conceptualism is a cultural manifestation derived from expansionist North American politics. That’s why appropriation is its foundation.

It is easy to think of plagiarists as expansionists. What is the poet who tries to pass off another’s work as his own but an imperialist of narcissism who feels that he can plant his flag on the shore of any poem and claim it by right? It belonged to someone already? Not any more! And it never did! And the pronoun ‘he’ is absolutely apt here. It is worth noting that in all six cases discussed by Graham, the plagiarists were men. I am not a statistician, but I know not-by-chance when I see it. Their victims were not always women, but often they were. Ward commandeered work by Paisley Rekdal, Sandra Beasley, and Helen Mort; Pham helped himself to a poem by Ruth Ellen Kocher; Slattery, breathtakingly, arrogated passages from Dickinson and Plath (!).

Perhaps there is a new category to tally up in the VIDA Count: the representation of men who not only write their own texts but also claim the texts of others. It’s not as simple as saying that all plagiarists are men (I would not say something like that), or that all plagiarism is, as it were, a white-collar crime, but it is simple to note that what happened in 2013 happened in a certain way. It is right to examine that. And it is also right to remember that the conditions that enabled what happened then have not gone away.

When insecurity and entitlement meet and fall in love, plagiarism is the child.

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