23 June 2015

The Plagiarism Debate

There's been a lot of discussion about plagiarism recently, following some high profile unmaskings, the latest of which you can read about here. And it seems to have got people feeling very nervous.

I'm sure there's no debate over the fact that if you pass someone else's poem off as your own, only changing a few words, or use thinly disguised tranches of another person's work, it's unacceptable: it's plagiarism. But what about the odd line or phrase that may have crept into a poem through the subconscious? Or something factual that you have jotted down in your notebook and subsequently used in a poem - should you provide footnotes for these sources of information? What about intertextuality - are you going to credit Ovid if you mention Daphne or Narcissus?  Do you have to credit the BBC News if a poem came via one of their stories? What about art - if a painting or a sculpture inspired your work, but the poem has moved on from its connection, should you credit the artist, even if by doing so you compromise what the poem is now 'about'? Where is the 'line of necessary accreditation'?

And what about coincidence? It does happen that the same metaphor occurs independently to two different people who've never met, and never read each other's work. Worrying about that is enough to completely paralyse the pen!

It's made even more tricky by the working methods many poets adopt. If you look at any creative writing handbook, or attend poetry writing courses, you will come across a plethora of writing prompts in which you are encouraged to springboard off other people's poems. There is a whole sector of poetry which works with the adaptation and appropriation of existing texts, and many writers will from time to time use related methods. My father died recently, and both before and after his death I found it very difficult to write. My need to write, however, was enormous, and one of the routes I found very helpful was to write down random phrases from various ephemeral texts such as newspapers, jumble them up, and filter my experience through them. These odd phrases may now be peppering my poems - in fact, 'salting' them might be a more appropriate metaphor, since they add flavour but are not visible, are dissolved into rather than sprinkled on the resulting text. Do I need to credit The Guardian et al? The ideas they now express are a million miles from what they were saying in the original context, and to be honest, most of the words were pretty mundane anyway when chopped out of context.

So how careful, and how fearful do we need to be? I don't really have an answer. I think if people get paranoid they're not going to write good poetry. All the words have been used before, and all the ideas come from what everyone has in common - being a human being. Nothing is new under the sun (that's from Ecclesiastes!) but there are new ways of seeing. If we use someone else's way of seeing, and we know we have done so, we need to credit it. So if one writes a draft of a poem that springboards off another work, it is good practice (and might save a lot of grief later) to make a note on the poem so one doesn't forget its method of genesis.

Regarding the odd phrase creeping in via the subconscious, though - I'm not sure there's much one can do, except stop writing altogether.

Which, I have to say, seems a tad drastic, given what my cat, after much internet research, is telling me...

Image: Sally Douglas

16 June 2015

What I'm Reading this Week: 'Mandeville' by Matthew Francis

I heard Matthew Francis read at the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival at the end of May, and was unable to resist buying his two most recent poetry collections, Mandeville and Muscovy (both from Faber).

Mandeville is a retelling of the travel tales of the purportedly real, more probably fictional, C14th explorer Sir John Mandeville. In this collection of interlinked poems, Matthew Francis takes us to situations that many travellers would recognise alongside many that they would not. In a foreign inn, the traveller tests his phrasebook:
Give me soup. This wine is bad. What have you put in it?
I am a pilgrim. A merchant. I am lost. Help me.
I am sick. Tired. I am wounded. I have hurt my foot.
And on the road, the familiar is made strange by being in unrecognisable language:
                  ...underneath the sound and look
the meaning of things has changed: road rain tree bird cow man 
broken into pieces and floating before your eyes,
as if it was only the words that held them in place.
As he travels, Mandeville sees things that are more and more amazing: The Land of Darkness, the Amazons, the place where 'the ants are as big as dogs' and dig for gold, and the Gravelly Sea where waves are made of stones
    ...drawn and redrawn on the stillness
as if a field could plough itself, or the desert frown
This book is a fantastical journey, filled with wonderful images, but it is as much about the nature of travel and what it does to us, and the nature of language and how the unfamiliar can set it loose from its own moorings. Definitely worth a read.