Plagiarism - a fundamental truth.

It’s been a rough year for Australian poetry with 3 plagiarism scandals hitting the papers.  I won’t link to the stories nor will I mention the names because the plagiarism’s been proved and those caught in the scandal have made their statements and some their amends. 

There’s a stage at which a point has been made and to pick apart responses, to prove points, to be right, to win the argument adds nothing to the discussion.  There’s been claims of bullying of people taking the issue too seriously.  That there are other more worth causes to get angry about. Well that may be true, but most of us are capable of fighting a number of injustices at the same time.

It’s easy I think, to downplay the issue, when your work isn’t stolen or when your not the one who misses out money, awards, opportunities. Others have tried to shift the blame to a culture of fame and prize winning and while there is some heft to that argument as an influence, I am far from convinced that it’s significantly to blame.  And no doubt the very tools that make writing poetry and sending it out into the world (i.e. the internet and social media) a joy when the accolades come roaring in, make for a very diffuse and pervasive personal hell when criticism, let alone anger is turned back on you.

This post is more about the nebulous construct of the “poetry community” or communities that I,due to geography and inexperience, sit outside of to a large extent.

My own thoughts keep being drawn back to the same fundamental kernel of truth. 

I know and have known since about primary school, that copying another’s work is ethically wrong.  Passing it of as my own work is ethically wrong.

Is this fundamental truth too simplistic?  I don’t think so.

For sure, we age and our spongelike brain soaks up influences, ideas, lines of thought, lines from books, words, word groupings and it can be hard to be sure that you have something original, something that hasn’t been said before. I think this is why my poetry gets rejected – it’s simply not original enough (or it’s shite, or both).  I have yet to find a distinct voice, something others cock their ear at and notice as something new.

But in each of the recent cases(even the international ones), we really don’t need to go past this fundamental, that stealing something belonging to or created by others and passing it off as your own is wrong - wrong on a level that a 10 year old can understand.

But Shakespeare and  [insert famous literary figure here] did it.  So what if they did?  Do we forgive them that wrong because the end result is good? Do we say bugger it and start thieving words left right and centre? No.  We should hold ourselves and the form to higher standards, the work will stand on its merits and all those involved deserve credit.

I have no issue with experimental poetry, with cento, with homage, with re-workings but it has to be clear upfront. The reader, whether they are a newcomer or an old hand needs to know.  There’s at least two reasons for this (and maybe more):

  1. you acknowledge the source and your role as an arranger, a conductor of lines which in itself is a skill – credit where it’s due
  2. you lead readers to discovering other poets, to understanding more about poetry, to broadening their knowledge and experience.

I am less concerned about those who plagiarised, they will continue writing poetry or they won’t, they will give us something of themselves or they won’t ( I hope they do). I am more concerned when the hand wringing and the axe grinding begins and we don’t expect poets to be responsible for their words, when we don’t expect them to be fundamentally honest.

We can forgive and learn or we can ignore and have the conversation again


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