Plagiarism epidemic

News & Awards

The poetry world in the UK has been rocked by two recent plagiarism scandals. In the first, which was exposed in the Guardian on January 13, the winning poem of the Exmoor Poetry Prize, 'The Deer at Exmoor'  by Christian Ward was found to be a rip-off of a poem by Helen Mort called 'deer'. Ward claims that he was modelling his poem on Mort's and had been careless in submitting an earlier draft. Sounds a bit lame to me.

If that wasn't bad enough, the American poet Charles O Hartman was aghast to discover that one of his poems was being passed off by the British poet David R Morgan as his own. What is it with these middle initials? The Guardian of 22 May reports that

Assiduous digging by the online poetry community, led by the poet and academic Ira Lightman, then discovered that Morgan, a British poet and teacher, had lifted lines and phrases from a host of different writers. One of Morgan's poems, “Monkey Stops Whistling”, won him an award. Opening: “Stand to attention all the empty bottles, yes … // the long-necked beer bottles from the antique stores, / the wine bottles and pop bottles left on beaches; / steam off the labels and line the bottles up, the green ones / with the brown, black, yellow and clear ones,” it was found to be virtually identical to a 1981 poem by Colin Morton, “Empty Bottles”.

“When an American poet spotted his own poem under David R Morgan's name on a website that blogs new work, he contacted its editor, and its editor contacted me. Within around one hour, I'd found a dozen more. Everything online by David R Morgan that I could find since Jan 2011 I could trace 90% of to another person's poem,” said Lightman, who also discovered an alleged plagiarism of Roger McGough by Morgan dating back to 1982.

It's difficult to know what would lead a poet to systematically lift another poet's work. All poets borrow or steal from time to time – without it there would be no such thing as literature – but it might be a sign of the pressure, real or imagined, on a young poet to get him or herself noticed. We often forget that there are more people alive on the planet right now than have ever lived, and that the competition to be noticed as a writer is intense. In Australia, you only have to look at the explosion in the publishing of poetry to realise that the likelihood of being able to stand out from the crowd is pretty slim.

Still, that's only one explanation. Other explanations could be laziness, greed or plain rat cunning. It's hard to say – one thing is for sure though: never trust a plagiarist's explanation for their actions, as it may have been lifted from somewhere else.