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17 September 2013 @ 10:39 am
Learning to Read  
I’m thinking about plagiarism at the moment – well, everyone in the poetry business is – but not so much about why people do it, more about why they often get away with it so long. I don’t think there is a single easy answer, but two elements seem to me to be an undue emphasis on “personal story” and an inexactness both in writing and reading.

See, here’s a poem by Laurence Lieberman (The Osprey Suicides) which describes, in quite a lot of informed detail, an osprey diving on a garfish. Next the Australian poet Graham Nunn writes, or I should say constructs, a poem called “The Goshawk”, using techniques he describes as sampling, mixing, or, most memorably “ I’m reading a poem or listening to a song that a door opens and my mind flashes with images from my personal history. It may be a phrase, a line, a metaphor that triggers this, but when it occurs, I give myself over to the images and ensure I capture them. In doing this, the framework of the poem is used to tell my own story and parts of the original text are creatively appropriated in the formation of a new work”. Quite a few parts of Lieberman's poem, in fact, like the phrases “traces the periphery”, “drops like a discharged projectile” and “like a small geyser”. Hm. (It’s archived on this page, though you need to scroll down some). What Nunn does change, though, is an osprey into a goshawk. But this transformation seems to have been a little incomplete, because this remarkable goshawk is still, like the osprey, diving into the sea and hauling out a fish (mullet this time). That will come as a surprise to the RSPB, who are under the impression that the goshawk is a land bird which eats small mammals and birds.

This, of course, makes a nonsense of the “personal story” claim. The osprey poem cannot possibly have recalled to Nunn a personal memory of a goshawk acting as no goshawk ever did. The claim is, ironically in the circumstances, symptomatic of a modern attitude that a poem is somehow validated by being “true” or part of one’s “personal story”. This may in fact be one reason people plagiarise: if their own personal story isn’t interesting enough, they don’t think first of embellishing it or going beyond it, as you’d expect a writer of fiction to do, but rather of nicking someone else’s, like some wannabe mis-mem author who hasn’t had quite enough mis happen to them.

What’s more alarming is that it took me two readings of the goshawk poem to realise it had to be baloney. Once it dawned, of course, it was obvious; I am no ornithologist but I do know the habits of the commoner birds. That first time, I hadn’t read properly or carefully; I had registered “goshawk” as “bird”, as in “yet another bird poem”. And since the poem has been online for over a year without anyone, apparently, pointing out the error of this fowl’s ways, I can’t be the only one.

A reader who was a keen birdwatcher would have spotted it straight off, but so, to be honest, should most readers. A lot of people have been marvelling that plagiarists can get away with it for so long, and speculating that this just shows how few people actually read poetry,. I think it shows how carelessly we sometimes read. And, sometimes, write. I have read prizewinning (and non-plagiarised) poems which got some detail of the landscape or event wrong, not creatively wrong as in changed for the sake of the poem, which is fine, but plain ignorantly wrong, as in importing an animal into an island where it doesn’t exist, or making a plant flower in the wrong season. For any reader who notices this, the poem is ruined, because the writer’s eye can no longer be trusted: we are liars by trade, but you can only give the main narrative verisimilitude if you get the details accurate. W S Gilbert was dead right about that. The kind of writer who dismisses such errors as unimportant is, I suspect, also in thrall to the “personal story” notion. His poem isn’t really about the event or environment where it’s set; it’s all about him, and as long as he gets himself right, he thinks the details don’t matter. But they do, or they would, if we always read as attentively as we ought. My current excuse is that for months I had been reading books for a shortlist, as closely as I could, and I'd let myself relax as a result. Mea culpa.