On Friday 13 September 2013, Stephen Romei revealed in The Australian newspaper a serious sequence of plagiarisms that had been perpetrated upon the Australian poetry community. The perp was a young guy named Andrew Slattery, an up-and-coming poet based in Newcastle Australia, and winner of a number of prestigious local poetry awards, including the 2010 Rosemary Dobson Prize and the Josephine Ulrick Prize for 2013. Sadly for Slattery, it turns out that this last award proved his undoing. As Susan Wyndham wrote in the SMH, in a piece rather inaccurately titled ‘Plagiarism the word that can’t be uttered’ (given it’s the word everybody’s using): ‘With one of the Ulrick judges, Margie Cronin, [poet Anthony] Lawrence began to Google passages from Ransom [Slattery’s winning poem]. They found about 80 per cent of the long poem was made up of 50-odd poets’ work, some of them famous, such as Americans Charles Simic and Robert Bly, and one Australian, Chris Andrews.’ If part of the literary excitement now involves the hunter’s thrill of tracking down Slattery’s slightest peccadillos, it also involves extending the hunt to others: Wyndham goes on to name the popular Queensland poet, publisher and blogger Graham Nunn as another serial offender.
If good times are here for the blessed, there’s a rocky road ahead for the sinners, as well as all the judges and editors and aesthetes who have been left with poetic egg on their faces. The Red Room Poetry website, which catalogues contemporary Australian poets and their accomplishments, includes among Slattery’s publication conquests a slew of Australian media, including Meanjin, Quadrant, The Weekend Australian, Black Ink’s Best Australian Poems, among many others (to which we should of course add here the dreaded Overland rag). The victims have come from all colours of the political and aesthetic spectrums. It seems Slattery has taken in almost everybody, from internationally famous poets such as Peter Porter, all the way through academic specialists and journal editors and media hacks, not to mention a more general and diffuse readership.
So it should be no surprise that the OzPo community has gone beserk at these revelations — I don’t think I’ve ever been so called, tweeted, spammed, messaged, mailed so many opinions about anything else in such a short time. Clearly, the poets care. Even more strikingly, the scandal has taken on an internationalist cast, with the fearsome UK-based plagiary-hunter Ira Lightman now on the case. Charles Dickens couldn’t make up such a name: Lightman has, in the past few days, been identifying an enormous number of clear and clearly unacknowledged cut-and-pastings on Nunn’s part, which can be found on his twitter-feed @iralightman.
Given the constitutive mutability of the virtual world, Lightman typically screen-captures offending material as evidence before it can be deleted by the perp. As a result, if you now head to Nunn’s blog ‘Another Lost Shark,’ you’ll no longer find the poems that Lightman has targeted – but you will find Nunn’s explicit attempt to respond. Nunn says: ‘Have I credited the original work the way academia would have? No. Does poetry and music have a long history of sampling, of re-purposing, of homage? Yes. Will I continue to seek inspiration and motivation and keys to my memories and experience from outside of my own head? Yes. It’s impossible to do otherwise. But let me be clear, my motivation has always been to charm the moment that has found me into a poem and only that, not to steal and never to cause harm.’
Jeezus. Why is it academia that somehow comes in for a beating for its supposedly preposterously high levels of evidentiary support? Is Lightman being overly academic when he enumerates: ‘Nunn’s ‘Spring Notes’ has 11 words in exactly the same order as Roo Borson’s ‘Summer Grass’. Then 9 words the same in order. Then 3. Then 13….’ Now that’s evidence that would stand up in a court of law (so to speak).
Given the pain and suffering that plagiarism can cause, it’s perhaps not only amusing that so many of those accused of poetry plagiarism continue to plead the Cento Defence. The cento is a form composed of borrowings from others’ poems: the term allegedly originates in a martial context, where Roman soldiers would patch up their garments from the cloaks of their enemies. Why is this so funny as a defence? Because (as is often pointed out), none of those charged with plagiarism admitted they were writing centos until they were exposed; moreover, in reaching for such a defence based on tradition, it seems that the plagiarists don’t know anything about the tradition upon which they’re supposedly relying! Like arguments from authority, self-serving appeals to tradition have a particularly unappealing flavour in the current conjuncture.
But there’s still something mysterious about the psychology of plagiarism: after all, it’s more than likely you’ll be found out given the power of the internet today. I think here of Sigmund Freud’s concept of those ‘who commit crimes out of a sense of guilt’: that is, the plagiarist who plagiarises just to get caught, so that their unpleasant internal life can be given an external legitimation, so that they can find some relief for their inner torment. Of course, plagiarism is typically very upsetting for those poets whose words have been kidnapped – not least because poets tend to have the strongest possible identifications with words, and because there’s so little else as reward in the poetry world other than a little bit of recognition. But surely that’s another motivation again: to hurt those whose words you steal. Even if you’re caught – like Iago in Othello – the payoff is that your victims have been seriously psychologically hurt, not that you’re getting away with it. Of course, that suggests another possibility: the plagiarist who thinks he or she is smarter than everybody else, who’ll just keep going until he or she is apprehended (if ever). Then yet again, there’s the plagiarist who’s been genuinely captured by the words they are themselves capturing … to the point they cannot consciously remember ever inscribing that other guy’s poem in their notebook. In other words, there’s not a single or simple reason for plagiarism: it’s a genuine complex, as they used to say of Oedipus.
The fact that Slattery and Nunn themselves obviously feel bad or at least concerned enough to give excuses about their actions only contributes to confirming the suspiciousness of their actions. But otherwise, what assiduous readers! What excellent tastes! What talents for assemblage! Indeed, the fact that Slattery got away with it for so long and so successfully implies that he knew his readership only-too-well, knew that the prize committees are so often composed of personages with a mediocre or restricted palate of tastes (and possibly of a restricted knowledge about poetry). The prize-giving panels are therefore partially responsible for this unfortunate sequence of unpleasant events, not so much because they didn’t know or didn’t check the details of the submissions, but because their tastes in poetry are essentially for middling, middle-brow palliatives. In other words, Slattery is an excellent confectioner of prize-winning poems.
So the self-elected bloodhounds now baying all over the place don’t themselves occupy an indefensible position. Katy Evans-Bush recently posted ‘Now I’m a Real Boy!’ a very long piece about the poetry plagiarism scandals,’ in which she notes that plagiarism is not only about a few despicable desperados, but ‘also about a culture that appears to valorise certain kinds of achievement much more than it values authenticity or knowledge, or indeed art or the act of creation. A culture (and I mean everything, here, not just poetry) that’s more concerned with publication, recognition, fame, than with learning how to do it and then devoting oneself to doing it better.’ As is evident from the slightest acquaintance with the internet, global popular culture is today almost entirely plagiaristic in its ever-accelerating quest for a little bit of attention in an attention-deficit-disorder world. The devices, tools and techniques required to participate in contemporary online culture entail that all materials are essentially appropriated, and can only circulate through ongoing processes of sampling and retransmission.
Hence such voices as those of the US poet Kenneth Goldsmith, founding editor of UbuWeb and notorious for his support of what the well-known poetry critic Marjorie Perloff has denominated ‘unoriginal genius’. Goldsmith has himself written books with such worthy if yawn-inducing titles as Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in a Digital Age. Here’s Goldsmith, twittering at Lightman: ‘Plagiarism is not a problem. The problem is not openly admitting that you’re a plagiarist.’ While this is perhaps partially true – for reasons I’ll shortly go into – it’s mainly not. Why? First, because plagiarism IS a problem: not simply an administrative problem for which we can find a solution, but a deep conceptual problem which cannot simply be wished away. Second, what’s the word ‘openly’ doing here? Is Goldsmith really as crassly Cartesian as this makes him sound? After all, one key issue of plagiarism is that it redistributes and complicates the very relationship between ‘closed’ and ‘open’, or ‘secret’ and ‘open’, etc. There’s no simple way to be ‘open’ about plagiarism without misunderstanding what it is. Finally, and most seriously, why is it somehow OK to admit to stealing? Does it not make it stealing if you say you’re doing it? This is surely Yankee free-market imperialism at its most self-deluded and self-righteous. After all, isn’t it so George Washington to do a bad thing and then get some kind of moral kudos by confessing to it? Goldsmith’s is not then the radical détournement of the Situationists’ subversive unoriginality (btw I’ve nicked this phrase from a number of authors) which seeks to undermine the constitutional inequities of the international IP system, but that which epitomises the prime injustice perpetrated by the plagiarist: like a corporation patenting a gene, a plagiarist takes a named, known environmental function – and acts as if it’s his, laughing all the way to the tenured academic bank.
But this brings us to the heart of the matter: that the term ‘plagiarism’ is so over-determined and confused that nobody really has a clue what it means. If you don’t mind me cutting-and-pasting from an article I wrote on plagiarism and originally published in Space, No. 2 (2005), I’d like to specify the following four major positions upon plagiarism still current if usually confused or confounded with each other: 1) the legal, 2) the pedagogical, 3) the ontological, and 4) the managerial. They cash out as follows.
1) The legal position: active since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, an author has a legal stake in their organisations of letters, and not just in the material those organisations are deployed upon. This is the historically very-recent category of ‘copyright’ which, as Mark Rose notes, ‘not only makes possible the profitable publishing of books but also, by endowing it with legal reality, produces and affirms the very identity of the author as author.’
2) The pedagogical position: plagiarism is simultaneously a theft, false work, laziness, insurrectionary, stupid and effacement; it must be vigorously combated if people are to be taught what’s what.
3) The ontological position: every utterance is always-already a plagiarism, composed of borrowed words, spoken on the condition of non-knowledge. As H.M. Paull put it in 1928: ‘The history of plagiarism is indeed the history of literature.’
4) The managerial position: the administrator works with forms for which they are not creators, emitters, but the circulators and pasters of words for which words are themselves mere vehicles for efficiency-markers; as K.K. Ruthven once remarked to me: ‘I write letters I don’t sign and sign letters I don’t write.’
These positions are at once imbricated and incommensurable; they are institutional yet interstitial; they are contemporaneous but cannot be held together without contradiction. Yet, without anybody providing decent distinctions regarding their co-contribution to the concept of plagiarism, the same intense and divisive bellowings are going to occur again and again. In fact, the again and again is something that the injunction against plagiarism was intended to exclude definitively: ‘in modernity, novelty is a necessary condition for information to be accepted as knowledge. Anxieties about plagiarism and the temporalisation of knowledge are coterminous facts’ (I cite myself here, if I am indeed the same person I was when I wrote those words, which I seriously doubt, so I will at least mark that I am doing so so as not to be accused of self-plagiarism, etc.). Plagiarism becomes a thought-crime when we need to find a way to linearise information; it is a practice of time. Today, when everything happens everywhere online, all at once, it is no wonder that plagiarism becomes at once omnipresent and unactionable.
Yet isn’t it the case that all this says something that nobody wants to admit? These current scandals in poetry confirm that people worldwide still desperately care about poetry despite its absolutely essential irrelevance to any economic indicator you might mention, and that – despite the crazy uproar surrounding the instances of plagiarism – this shows that poetry will continue to enjoy a glorious future yet.