The Difficulty with Plagiarism

Posted by Expert Gadget Reviewer on Monday, 24 July 2006

It’s been a good week since I last wrote anything on here, so I’ve decided that I probably should (though who I’m obliged to I don’t know, as the regular readers of this blog are almost definitely countable on one hand). However, rather conveniently, I’ve also got something I want to get out into the open, in a huge cathartic blog-sigh, if you will, so I’m neatly killing two rather annoying birds with one feather-seeking stone.

Anyhow, what set me off today was reading Hugo Williams’ ‘Freelance’ column in this week’s TLS, in which he addressed, by way of his own poems, undetected plagiarism. Williams had noticed, in reading a small press magazine, one of his own poems, ‘My Chances’, both re-written and undeniably familiar in its structure, scansion and form. Now, it turns out that the writer (or offender) in question, Ismail Garba (who I don’t shame from naming given that, quite frankly, he deserves it), had taken a fancy to many other poets' poems, and had even taken a classic Adrian Mitchell piece and reworked it, slightly, in homage to Liverpool and England midfielder, Steven Gerrard. But, that aside, such blatant ‘cannibalism’ (as Williams’ refers to Garba’s, and his own, tweaking plagiarisms), has got me thinking – how can a writer defend their subconscious and slight plagiarism anymore than such obvious and deliberate efforts?

I scoured, you see, through much of the poetry I’ve written in the past eight or nine months recently. I read a lot of modern poetry, most notably Nick Laird, Don Paterson, Lavinia Greenlaw, Simon Armitage, Jacob Polley, and Susan Wicks in this past year. And though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, certain turns of phrase have cropped up in a few pieces without me being aware: Nick Laird wonderfully talks of ‘light complicating the water’ in his poem ‘The Length of a Wave’, and I found a similar phrasing in a piece I wrote a good six months after reading his collection. Armitage’s ‘what the hells’ and other colloquialisms have also crept in to a few poems, not to mention a poem I really am happy with that opens with a line I swear (despite not being able to find the evidence to sentence myself to humiliation) I pinched from Ms. Greenlaw. But then, what’s the problem with any of it, really? I remember reading scathing reviews of Laird’s To a Fault when it was first published: the muddy footprints of Laird have been found in Messrs Muldoon and Armitage’s literary estates, reviewers spat, or words to similar effect. But as the reviewer in Poetry Review pointed out, and as I’m inclined to agree with, writers are always influenced by the authors they read. How can they not commit some incidental, minor, and accidental plagiarism? Writing, as we all know, would never progress without writers learning and absorbing from their talented precursors. Garba’s (and the like’s) poems are exempt, of course, offering nothing new or refreshing, nor echoing their influences: instead they simply gobble them up whole. But for new writers like Nick Laird, or Jacob Polley, whiffs of brilliant poets such as Muldoon and Armitage are always going to be apparent in their work: it’s when the stink becomes unbearable that shit-slinging is acceptable.

And so to wrap up with the TLS, in an unplanned but neatly circular finish: ‘Writing is nothing more than a modified form of reading.’ So states Rodrigo Fresan, and in the quotation's context, I’m inclined to disagree, but for our general purposes here, he’s spot on, I reckon. I’m off to dip into Paterson’s Nil-Nil now, then, primarily because he features heavily in my devised dissertation topic for next year, but what the hell, if I catch a lovely turn of phrase or idea that somehow works its way into one of my poems, so be it. And if you haven’t already, read his poem ‘Bedfellows’, an excellently morbid poem that is genius entirely in its own right. And then tell me it isn’t in blatant dialogue with Larkin’s ‘Mr.Bleaney’.