Plagiarism now playing


Well, the plagiarism thing is playing in full costume. Andrew Slattery and Graham Nunn have been named and the details of their plagiarism have been described in the national press. They have also made rather different statements online about their creative process and what they accept of the charges made so far. 'So far' because who knows how much more work is similarly suspect. They have looked into other poems and seen their own face there. Neither of these poets is major, or even minor (a ranking no poet may like but achieved with strong work all the same). They are journeymen at best, fellow-travellers, but we are the poets they might travel with and therefore there is much to be said of and about their plagiarism (even if it is plagiarism) and much of it is being said.

The examples made public have been pretty conclusive: these two characters lifted multiple lines from various poems not their own and re-used them to create so-called new poems (in Slattery's case) and just his poems, in Nunn's case (because he has lifted entire poems and passed them off as his own). It was an operation.

Some commentators have made noises about editors and judges in competitions 'missing' these fraudulent poems and (ignorantly) giving them publication and even prizes. Maybe, in some of the smaller awards (not always small money though). Slattery picked up some minor prizes. In the Newcastle Poetry Prize there are something like 800 anonymous entries and two established poets as judges. One judge is bound to read every entry. These entries may be one poem or a sequence of poems but up to 200 lines long. This is the proverbial truckload of work, and imagine the reading of it, reading and reading and reading. Want to read 160,000 lines, anybody? It is absurd to assume from the outside that judges are forensic. Automatically identify every line re-used or echoing any line from any other poem ever written by any other poet from any(other)where? Total universal knowledge-memory? Oh sure.

A lot of odd things happen. You miss a few things. After reading some very ordinary poems you can miss a good one. You can stall in front of a poem and not hear it. And as a judge I can recall encountering poems I assumed were poor parodies and/or pastiches of very well-known poets and leaving them aside, out of the running, and much later, when the identities of the poets was given, being embarrassed for me for them, because these were not pastiches, they were genuine poems by the original, the poet. Not very good ones. Or, as Picasso used to say, they were 'Picassos', worthless. But genuine.

Plagiarism in poetry is weirdly different from the art world of forgeries, where a painting is done to seem completely genuine but is actually fake. There is nothing of the actual painter in it except the skill of copying. Our poetry plagiarist (as a type) is a forger in reverse – he is making another poet's work appear like his own. It's almost funny. Yet his own work (unadulterated…) isn't good enough to win praise, or prizes. Nunn has not won any book prize of significance. (I understand Slattery has his first collection placed with Giramondo, but it's not out yet.)

Back to reading. This is where the plagiarist has a special trick. The winning line. The power of individual lines is to make an impression, to 'wake the reader up' as it were. People forget this. Judges and editors may be strong readers, or may not. But they are on alert for that quality we all tend to accept: the maker of powerful lines is probably a good poet, or may at least be on the way to being so. So individual lines of great impact within a poem that may not otherwise hold at that level, still have a very significant effect on the reader. Poetry is the natural place for this kind of cheating: poetry lines can be quite disjunctive, strange, 'wrong' to be right, digressive, the meaning breaking as frequently as the syntax… In fiction it is narrative and event that is plagiarised and these are way easier to remember and therefore identify than the odd strong line – which may be re-ordered or coloured and still retain its power – here or there. Poetry lends itself to interpolated effects.

Cheating in this way is a very deliberate act. It takes skill. Slattery has been lifting and blending many lines into new poems bearing his name. It's a very risky thing, and Slattery seems to have been proficient at this. In my Facebook postings about this I referred to the way the plagiarist must smooth over the seams so the ploy is concealed, and this is surely a subtle poetic skill (like it or not), this colouring, this blending… this awareness of tone and even the strategic shifts of tone needed to move the reading mind on past the arresting lines… This is very deliberate and no poet can claim, surely, they achieved this by accident. It is cool, focussed writing work. It is a dubious craft, but it is a craft.

And targeting competitions is also deliberate, throwing a work into the tumbler of judges' readings, there into the mass of poems, with the huge call on judges to see, to hear, to read tone, invention, feeling, … the anonymity of entries itself unsettling some judges, the question mark forming in their minds about their own level of competence. I once heard of a judge worried to death the winner would turn out to be a 'nobody', fearing and believing the best poems only come from 'somebodies'… Again, though, this is very directed action by the plagiarist. And for many awards, and here the commentators are correct, there are rather ordinary levels of achievement in the submitted poems. Some prizes, like the Ulrick, have in past years, delivered some mediocre winners. The new international awards (like the Montreal) sound impressive and pay big, but look to be hit on by poets very early in their publishing careers.

Here I can see marks of difference in how Slattery and Nunn practiced their plagiarism. Slattery's poems from disparate sources were aimed at the award judges. Where such fiddling would be hard to discern. Nunn, who has lifted poems wholesale, the entire poem near enough, does not feature in the awards lists – whole poems stand a much greater chance of being noticed. He has published online and in collections. Further signs, then, of how knowing these two different operators were, in how they worked.

From the plagiarist's point of view, there is the aspect of risk, the very likely chance of getting caught. But is there some attraction to the abyss of being found out? Is deception a high, like a drug they get off on, getting away with it pushing higher into the accompanying risk? More darkly, is there a shame they are seeking – and a shame-fame? The psychological welfare of these serial plagiarists, caught now in the public square, is also relevant …

Slattery has admitted to his thefts. More or less. Both poets have claimed the cento as excuse: the knowing use of other poets' works to patch together a new item. Sure, but only after they were caught. This is self-serving and disingenuous. But an admission, nevertheless. However, in Nunn's case, after clearly taking entire poems and fluffing a few lines, even de-tuning the poem, he is also saying he will keep doing this, as it's all part of the magic, charming the moment of the poem coming. This is the soppiest, creepiest, most feeble claim I've heard so far, but it made me think about the two of them, their brilliant recall of all those good lines from around the world … So how good is their memory? They should be judges! They would catch plagiarists!

So here is the implied insult to other poets – that they are reduced by being duped, being dumb enough to be duped. That even if they find out they'll be unsure of how to respond. Maybe do nothing. An offense against poetry is automatically an offense against poets. This awareness is why many many poets are very very angry (double double adjectives!). So there is more at stake than the clean/cheat binary – the affect on the public who rarely hear about poetry (unless Heaney dies) and to them even the outcry may look a little unpleasant, which is always a side-effect of scandals.

It is not just that we create things, and read things, we think about how we create them and think about how we think about them. Representation, emotion, form, pattern, these deepen our appreciation of poetry but also of poetry's integrity. And integrity is the one reward we can value in our own struggle: our achievement, our poems, our individuality (our not being someone else) and from all of this, a quality we can all value. Integrity. Pious, maybe, but true. This is my work, it's my style, it's my finding and making, it is no-one else's… and I stand by it. This is what a plagiarist steals from us. By us I mean all of us, which means from poetry itself.

So this plagiarism is responsible for another 'crime'. It brings poetry into disrepute, as they say in the sporties. The cheats are in disgrace which, as I noted online, is a dire place to be. Public humiliation is terrible no matter what the cause, and it's often unjust, undeserved, scurrilous, but when it's for deception, deceit, it is even worse. And there is a paradox when it's the poetry world involved in such a scandal. There is, simultaneously, too little and too much at stake.