January 16, 2013 § 3 Comments
I don’t condone physical violence. I think that the world can withstand, nay, even requires, a well timed insult every now and again, but that physical violence should be avoided. That isn’t to say, however, that I don’t sometimes have the impulse to punch someone in the throat. Today I found myself having such a moment.
Whom do I want to punch, you ask? This dickbag.
The above photograph features U.K. “poet” Christian Ward. He has recently received some press for submitting poems plagiarized from multiple other poets to contests (at least one of which he won) and literary journals.
And when I say “plagiarized from,” I do not mean “similar to,” or “influenced by,” or “utilizing as part of a pastiche of allusion, a la Eliot, Pound, etc.” I mean that he stole others writers’ poems whole hog.
In the case of his submitting a Helen Mort poem to the Hope Bourne prize, he took her poem, changing “Only a handful of words, including replacing ‘father’ for ‘mother’ in the first line, ‘river Exe’ for ‘Ullapool’ further on and changing the reference to a kingfisher south of Rannoch Moor to a peregrine falcon on Bossington Beach,” according to the Western Morning News, who broke the story and are being cited by outlets such as the Guardian and The Telegraph as the source for the particulars of Ward’s artistic theft.
In a response to the Guardian article, made via their website’s comment function (oh the many extra meanings that avenue brings his retort), Ward defends himself, partially by asserting that, were he a more famous writer, the media/the literary community would not be acting as a “lynch mob” (his words) against him. Ward writes,”Remember that T.S. Eliot borrowed extensively when writing The Waste Land. If Eliot had written it today, would he have been accused of plagiarism?”
Ward’s defense here is so paltry, however, that it barely warrants a counterargument. Yes, to some extent, all writing is “borrowing.” The Anxiety of Influence is nearing the fortieth anniversary of its 1973 publication; the literary public understands that new writing is simply reworkings and reimaginings of older writing, to a degree. And Ward cannot himself believe–unless we can add delusion to the list of his evident personality defects–that Eliot’s constellation of quotations and allusions in The Waste Land resembles in any way Ward’s theft of entire small poems without any acknowledgement of their having a source beyond his own brain.
Allusion is distinct from plagiarism, as is homage. Concerning Ward’s alleged plagiarism, I know only the details divulged by various newspapers and by poet Paisley Rekdal, from whom Ward stole, but given the available information, I find it unmistakably apparent that what Ward did was theft, not homage or allusion.
When poet and visual artist Jen Bervin creates poems by excerpting just a few words from a Shakespeare sonnet, she is not stealing the bard’s artistic property but using it as a beautiful block of marble from which to carve something new. When Ronal Johnson similarly “finds” poems within Paradise Lost by whiting out all but his chosen words from the manuscript, he is reinventing. Michael Cunningham extensively cites Whitman in the context of his own expansive narrative. John Updike takes the situation and relationships from Hamlet and imagines from them an ongoing family saga. These writings constitute homage, allusion, reimagining. Ward’s appropriations of other poets’ poems is so far from such acts of new artistic creation that I will belabor the comparison no further.
As to Ward’s contention that the media and the public would not similarly attack a more famous writer, he is quite naive, if he truly believes his own excuse. Modern Western society loves for its heroes to fall. The only thing we love more than celebrities is watching them fall from grace and so that we can string them up (figuratively in the public discourse) like medieval “witches.” For a fairly small, but relevant example, consider the fallout from last year’s revelation of Jonah Lehrer’s plagiarism; Lehrer was excoriated in the media at length, and while popular, he was not wildly famous, and was, for the most part, only plagiarizing himself.
This has become quite a serious post for The Snarkist. In explanation of my tone, I must state that I am a poet, one working to write, publish, and make my way in the literary world we currently have. Ward’s actions insult not only my vocation but also my ethical world view, and in the face of an insult this grave, only grave language comes to me. For Ward’s plagiarism is not simply a theft of words, or of accolades, but an undermining of individuals’ experiences, emotions, and private minds.
Paisley Rekdal, whom I mentioned briefly above, discovered recently that Ward stole one of her poems, “Bats,” a poem that she considers deeply personal, as well as intimately tied to her experience as a woman, which gendered experience Ward flippantly disregarded by changing her speaker from a female to a male before selling the piece as his own. On her blog, Rekdal wrote a cogent “open letter” to Ward, describing her response upon learning he had stolen her words, relaying baldly both her anger and her feeling of violation.
I easily identify with the feelings Rekdal expresses. I recently wrote a poem about my brother, a competitive cyclist, nearly dying in a serious accident that occurred during a race. It’s maybe the most emotionally wrenching poem I’ve ever written. If someone took that poem and passed it off as his or her own work, I cannot articulate the violation I would feel.
For, to steal a poem is not just to steal a work of art, an object made of language, even a piece of cultural capital; it is to steal the emotional and intellectual experience that the actual poet had to endure for the poem to exist. To steal that which is the most private and sacred part of the self: my mind, the world that only I have access to but which I, by writing poems, can represent, in some pale reflection, to others.Claiming my poem about my brother would mean claiming and infringing on the pain, grief, and love it expresses.
Ward did something similar to Paisley Rekdal.
What a recklessly inconsiderate act. What heartless disregard for the humanity of another. What rabid disrespect, placing one’s own gain above the mental and emotional integrity of another person.
Ward’s actions sicken me. You’ll note that, in introducing him above, I placed the characterization “poet” in quotation marks. I cannot bring myself to call him a poet because I believe that poems work to instill empathy in those who read them, such that poets are humanizing the world by allowing readers to experience, as they cannot so fully through any other art form, a different person’s perspective. Of course poetry functions in society in a more complicated manner than this, but I believe a reverence for personal consciousness is located in the very form of the modern lyric poem.
Ward has displayed no such reverence for consciousness. What he does show is disrespect for other artists, as well as an immense arrogance. For his arrogance lays not simply in feeling the right to claim others’ artistic output as his own, but in doing so in a rather blatant manner.
While the purloined poem most mentioned in news articles, Helen Mort’s “The Deer,” does not appear in full text in any official capacity on the web that I could easily locate, the poem can be found on a personal blog in its entirety, in a post dating from January 2011. This is but the third result of a quick Google search, with the first two results currently being articles about Ward’s plagiarism of the poem. Still, Mort’s poem was, we could say, still fairly obscure. We cannot say the same of Rekdal’s poem, however.
The full text of “Bats” exists on Poets.org, as well as on the Michigan Quarterly Review website, VerseDaily.org, and various blogs. These are official, not apocryphal sources. Feed in the title “Bats” and three words from the poem’s opening–I used “unveil,” “jagged,” and “silken”–and the Poets.org link appears as result number one. Yet though a five second Google search could blow his cover, Ward was not deterred in his theft.
The spectacular hubris of taking such an accessible poem and claiming it as your own betrays an interesting aspect of this story: Ward wasn’t particularly careful. Were I to try his “gaining prestige via the theft of someone else’s artistic work” game, I’d at least chose a poem that isn’t laughably easy to Google. Poets.org, VerseDaily.org–these sites aren’t even someone’s transcription of the poem onto a blog with purple text and pictures of cats; these are high-traffic websites. Poets.org is, alongside the Poetry Foundation website, probably the web’s most visible source for poems (at least the most visible source that respects copyright; PoemHunter.com, in addition to being visually gross, seems less than concerned with the legality of online publication).
Is the flagrancy some of the fun, for Ward? Was he lazy? Did he simply think no one checks poems for plagiarism and so he needn’t worry?
Regardless of his motivation, Ward stole, repeatedly and blatantly. To call himself a poet and treat other poets with such disrespect constitutes an ignominy of the basest kind. And Ward’s response to the criticism he has lately faced? He whines about anger displayed toward him, not because some of it features the specific cruelty that internet anonymity allows, but because “[I] don’t deserve it.”
“Deserving” is a funny notion; it seems connected to something like karma. While I may not condone the hateful or violent speech he now finds himself receiving, I will note that Ward is simply experiencing the same disregard for an individual’s dignity and wellbeing that he demonstrated by stealing the emotional experiences and creative works of others.
On his album “Stay Human,” musician and poet Michael Franti asserts, Every single soul is a poem. To that I would reply, And every poem is a soul.
In such a world as ours, why can’t these small things at least–these scraps of words, worth little money and littler fame–be sacred?