Poetry and Plagiarism

It's been an amazing week in poetry.  The TS Eliot Awards had a record audience - established by the poet's widow, Valerie, who died recently, the Award has been gaining in significance.  It's financially very valuable and so prestigious, even being nominated is an honour.  This year the short list included one of my own country-men - fellow Cumbrian Jacob Polley, who has just published his 3rd (only his 3rd!) collection, The Havocs.  It's on my Kindle at the moment. 

The winner was one of the most idiosyncratic contemporary poets - Sharon Olds.  I think she's one of the most important poets living today, but not everyone likes her confessional, incredibly intimate, style of poetry.  Like Joni Mitchell's lyrics, her poetry is about everyone who's ever been part of her life and it's very explicit. Everything laid surgically bare. There's a brutal honesty about it that can be very moving, but also sometimes a little voyeuristic.

 'A normal person wouldn’t want their experience in the public square,'  Sharon said in an interview. 'But I’m not a normal person.' I've often wondered whether she learned to shock in order to get attention.  But that's perhaps a mean thought - I met her once and she is a very kind and unassuming person. She has a personal grace that is very attractive. Her latest collection, Stag's Leap, is about her divorce - the moment her husband left her for another woman. I haven't read it yet, but I've just popped it onto my Kindle to read while I'm away.

I prefer to read poetry in paperback rather than on the Kindle but have been very disappointed by the non-delivery of Sarah Salway's new collection, 'You do not Need Another Self-help Book', ordered from Amazon and lost by an Italian delivery firm who claim not to be able to find my address.  165c is right next to 165 and 164, on the main street with a post box and a big board with my name on it.  Everyone in the village knows where the mad Englishwoman lives.  The village shop (about 300 yds away) even knows me by name.  Could the delivery man not ask?  I plucked up courage (and my best pidgin Italian) to ring up the firm and was assured that it 'was at this moment being delivered'.  But alas ......

This week was also the week that Christian Ward, a 32 year old poet from London, was held to account for plagiarising a number of other poets. - the number increases daily as more poets recognise their work on his website.  His(!!) poems won competitions and were published in magazines and anthologies until a sharp-eyed member of the public noticed that his 'haunting' winning poem Deer on Exmoor was virtually identical to Helen Mort's poem Deer. Only the place names had been changed.  The result was the withdrawal of the prize and a small item in the local paper.  But then the internet took over, and the national press and then the international press, when it became clear (the power of digital communication) that he had plagiarised poets round the globe.  Compare Christian Ward's poem 'The Neighbour' on p.12, with  'After Neruda' (click on Work) by Tim Dooley. Since then the blogosphere has been crackling with victims. The extent of the fraud is breath-taking!  How he expected to get away with it in today's world of social media I don't know.  But presumably he felt that the world of little poetry magazines was obscure enough to hide in.

It's a writer's worst nightmare;  particularly if, like me, you have a retentive memory that picks up words and phrases like a magnet.  I go over and over every line checking that I haven't inadvertently used someone else's words or images.   Most of us acknowledge our 'borrowings' and poems sometimes become conversations between their authors.  Christian Ward didn't just borrow the odd phrase - he stole the whole lot!


  1. cheeky bugger!
    How on Earth did he think he could keep getting away with it?


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