Monday 7 January 2013

Poetry and plagiarism

By the time I make this post, you may well already have read about this through Facebook, Twitter, or wherever. It's rather startling, really, and there doesn't seem to be much question that this is a case of actual plagiarism, rather than the sort of attributed borrowing and reshaping of another's text that goes on in poetry.

I don't know Christian Ward, other than by seeing his poems in magazines, and as I write he is yet to make any sort of public response to what's happened. I'd sound a note or two of caution, though. Given that he's a widely published poet, it seems a very odd thing to do, firstly because he doesn't really need to, and secondly because he must have known that ripping off a relatively well-known poet like Helen Mort would be discovered very quickly. It must be a possibility, then, that this is someone using his name to cause trouble for him. Although that's probably even more depressing than the simple fact of what's happened.

I do know Helen Mort, who wrote the original poem, a little, and she's a very fine writer who doesn't deserve to have to deal with this sort of nonsense. I don't suppose it's much consolation to be considered a poet worth ripping off, or that she might get a little bit of extra publicity.

It did set me thinking, though. I've seen comments that Christian Ward (or 'Christian Ward', as we'll call him for now) might have attended a workshop with Helen, say, absorbed or copied down part or all of her poem there, then later quite innocently have thought it was his own. That doesn't sound very likely to me - in my experience, you do recognise your own writing, no matter how long it is since you've seen it, or how complicated its origins.

Except. I've posted before that I occasionally come across notes that I've made that seem to be based on a particular source, but which I can't place. Perhaps I have written them. I am certain in all cases that they haven't come from another poet, but I can never shake the nagging feeling that they're from some prose work I've read and largely forgotten.

What to do? Slow, patient revision and research seem to be the only answer - the multiplicity of sources available online these days makes it a problem that's only likely to grow.


Unknown said...

Given that I cannot see any confirmation other than this single page on a regional website for this 'offence', I would hesitate to begin gloating before the facts are in... Did someone use his name? Where can one read the two poems concerned to judge oneself?

Matt Merritt said...

I agree - I think it's possible that someone might have used his name, for whatever reason. As far as I know they haven't released the texts of the poems concerned.

Henry said...

The famous case, of course, is Hugh MacDiarmid apparently forgetting that 'Perfect' was copied out of someone else's book. Then Edwin Morgan, I think it was, argued that it's still a very typical MacDiarmid poem. So yes, it does happen, though there may be special circumstances involved.

But quite right, Matt, not to tar and feather the accused. It's a shame that the internet often does so little for that part of the rule of law.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

The "someone else" was the Welsh poet and novelist Glyn Jones, and when MacDiarmid and his publishers were apprised of the fact that it was Jones's prose copied without acknowledgement, they still refused to do anything about it or consider it important. Not nice.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting the two poems side by side... I hadn't seen 'Christian's' entry to the Exmoor competition, but the judges told me it was almost word-for-word like mine. It's clear that this isn't an accidental case of influence, I would say. And as for the person in question attending one of my workshops, I never use my own poems in workshops anyway, so it's very unlikely!

Contrary to a few suggestions I've seen online in comments that I should be 'flattered' by this somehow, I'm just bemused and angry. I'd be really interested to talk to whoever is responsible for the plagiarism, Christian Ward or otherwise and find out what on earth the motivation was. This poem was quite a personal one and the idea that someone would deliberately copy it for a competition is something I find really upsetting. I definitely have a few things to say to the plagiarist, though I doubt I'll get the opportunity to do so.

Thanks for the interesting, thought-provoking blog post, Matt.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I'd also like to tell the plagiarising poet that 'at the River Exe' and the peregrine falcon line don't scan properly within the rhythm of the stanza, in my humble opinion....! ;)

visual poet said...

I agree about the scanning. That's why I admire the judges' ear. Good to hear your side, Helen.

Matt Merritt said...

Thanks very much for posting, Helen, and yes, now it is very clear that this is a straight lift from your poem (with, as you say, a couple of tweaks for the worse). It does seem utterly baffling why anyone would do it, and I can quite understand why you'd be upset.

Anne said...

Helen, I was very sorry to hear this happened to you. It is baffling that anyone who professes to take his work seriously could do something like this. There is irony in a comment he made in an interview, giving advice to young upcoming poets: "be yourself. Write about what interests you and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Your voice is your own and only you will write that way."

Adele Ward said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rory Waterman said...

I'd be very angry, Helen.

I did enjoy your poem, though - and I'd not read many of yours before. It made me want to pay more attention to your writing. I hope at least some good comes out of this in that sort of way.

Adele Ward said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pam Thompson said...

I am astounded and have full sympathy for Helen's reactions . I read her poem online after her competition win and loved its for its distinctiveness. This blatant theft is shocking.

pat jourdan said...

Surely at this point, the prize should go directly to Helen Mort herself? It is such an obvious duplicate that mere 'plagarism' doesn't cover the situation - carbon copy, more like.
We often see lines in others'work that leap off the page and those lines may stay in our memory and seed other poems, but this example is outrageous.

Adele Ward said...

Adele Ward said...

I have removed my comments, although I said nothing against anybody concerned, as I believe this is turning into a legal case so will wait until that is resolved.

visual poet said...


by Christian Ward

The deer my father swears to God we never saw,
the ones who stepped between the trees
on pound-coin coloured hooves,
I brought them up each teatime in the holidays

and they were brighter every time I did;
more supple than the otters we waited for
at the River Exe, more graceful than the peregrine
falcon landing at Bossington Beach.

Then five years on, in the same house, I rose
for water in the middle of the night and watched
my father at the window, looking out
to where the forest lapped the garden’s edge.

From where he stood, I saw them stealing
through the trees, and they must have been closer
than before, because I have no memory
of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur

their eyes, like his, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.

EXMOOR REVIEW, 2013, ISSUE 54, winner of the Hope Bourne poetry prize....


by Helen Mort

The deer my mother swears to God we never saw,
the ones who stepped between the trees
on pound-coin coloured hooves,
I brought them up each teatime in the holidays

and they were brighter every time I did;
more supple than the otters that we waited for
at Ullapool, more graceful than the kingfisher
that darned the river south of Rannoch Moor.

Then five years on, in the same house, I rose
for water in the middle of the night and watched
my mother at the window, looking out
to where the forest lapped the garden’s edge.

From where she stood, I saw them stealing
through the pines, and they must have been closer
than before, because I have no memory
of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur

their eyes, like hers, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.

Winner of the Cafe Writers Open Poetry Competition 2009, Norwich

janet said...

Oh dear! I had abstained from saying anything on this matter until I actually saw the two poems side by side, but I can now understand the robust comments of the original judges who were so disappointed. Mort's poem is excellent and a worthy winner of the Norwich Cafe prize. However, the personal element in it and the fact that Christian Ward's effort is such a facsimile justifies, in my opinion, Mort's response. I am sorry for all concerned: Mort, the judges, even `Christian Ward` who entered it in the competition as his own. Poetry does not deserve this.

cloggie said...

It would be a simple matter to find out who 'Christian Ward' is by finding out who banked the prize money.

Anne said...

Christian Ward has issued a statement about this today.

Anonymous said...

His "explanation" (used Mort's poem "as a model for my own" but didn't deliberately intend to copy) is as shallow as his "apology"!

Tom Wiggins said...

I was rather shocked to hear about this. Last June, Christian sent me a message through Twitter to say how much he'd enjoyed reading one of my poems. The positive feedback put a smile on my face for the entire weekend. That gave me the confidence to submit it to some magazines and I'm happy to say that I've just secured a publisher for it. We've been tweeting each other occasionally ever since. Before I saw the two poems side by side, I maintained that he wouldn't have knowingly plagiarised somebody else's work, but the striking resemblance and blatant amendments speak for themselves. It must be very upsetting for Helen and the organisers of the The Exmoor Society. The returning of the prize money and a personal apology to Helen is the first step in regaining the poetry community's trust, but because of his kind words that came completely unsolicited last summer - which (for me, at least) is exceptionally rare - I for one will allow him the opportunity to restore his reputation, however lengthy that road may be.

Rob Miles said...

...and I got Second Prize in that very same Hope Bourne Competition. I thought the Third Prize, which I heard for the first time at the reading at the Exmoor Society's AGM was great.

Matt Merritt said...

Rob, I'd hope that you'll now be awarded the first prize, then.

Tomas, I agree that Christian should be allowed to restore his reputation, but he really needs to make a genuine apology to Helen and the competition organisers first. But in the long term - well, musicians who have admitted plagiarism haven't generally been ostracised, so there's no reason this should be any different.

Andrea Neidle said...

This is clear plagiarism
and quite shocking - particularly
for those of us who write and blog our work. It's now all too
easy for anyone to copy or be "influenced" by another's work
and then to pass it off as their own.

Ian B said...

I disagree that we can always recognise our own writing. I have found lines in my older notebooks that now strike me as usable - though I genuinely have no idea whether the lines or mine or someone else's that I have copied. Yes, I should take more trouble when writing notes in the first place, but most writers I've spoken to are rather slipshod in their notemaking. The notebook is the room where you can be as untidy and informal as you like - no visitors will go there. To accuse someone of plagiarism is to impute that there was a conscious intention to steal some other writer's intellectual property, It may be a simple, and understandable mistake.

Matt Merritt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Merritt said...

I'd agree if it was a few isolated lines, Ian, but in the case of Helen Mort's poem, the two pieces are identical except for a few words, and one of those changes is of geographical location, to make the poem eligible for the Exmoor competition. I can't see that as a mistake.

You're right about the notebook though, of course - it will differ from writer to writer, but one of the things I was getting at (before I'd seen the two texts) was how easy it is to unconsciously reproduce lines from elsewhere.

Ian B said...

Matt, what you wrote in response to my comment certainly makes sense. Let's hope that the person responsible breaks silence soon with an explanation / apology.

Matt Merritt said...

Ian - could you repost your second comment? I tried to approve it from my phone, but it hasn't shown up, and seems to have disappeared from my email inbox, too

Will said...

Crikey, can't believe I've just seen this. Have you heard any more Matt?

Anonymous said...

Read the Canadian poet Don McKay's poem 'Philosopher's Stone' then read the Australian poet Graham Nunn's poem 'Fortune', both online. Plagiarism, excpet no-one wants to know about it. Thats fucked up.

Em Swain

Anonymous said...

The Australian poet Graham Nunn has plagiarised the Canadian poet Don McKay - here's the evidence:

Philosopher's Stone by Don McKay

-- and when, after I've wasted a lifetime looking,
picking over eskers, browsing beaches, rock shops, slag,
when after I've up and quit, you suddenly
adopt me, winking from the gravel of the roadside
or the rip-rap fo the trail or the
jewels of the rich;
when you renounce your wilderness and move in,
living in my pocket as its sage, as my third,
uncanny testicle, the wise one,
the one who will teach me to desire
only whatever happens;
when you happen in my hand as nothing
supercooled to glass, as the grey
watersmooth rock that slew Goliath or the stone
no one could cast; when you come
inscrib ed by glaciers, lichened, mossed,
packed with former lives inside you like a dense
mass grave;

when you cleave,
when you fold,
when you gather sense as omphalos, inukshut,
cromlech, when you rift in the stress
of intolerable time;
when you find me as the moon
found Li Po in his drunken boat,
whe you speak to my heart of its heaviness, of the soft
facts of erosion, when you whisper in that
tongueless tongue it turns out,
though it can't be,
we both know--

Graham Nunn's 'Fortune'

and when, after I’ve wasted a lifetime looking
picking over poets, browsing beaches, shopping malls
when, after I’ve up and quit, you suddenly
adopt me, smiling from the carpet of the Royal George

when you renounce your wilderness and move in
living in the back room as its sage, my other
the one who will teach me to desire
only what happens

when you come, inscribed by solitude
dog-eared, faded, packed with former lives
inside you like a matryoshka doll

when you gather
when you fold
when you find me as the moon
found Li Po in his drunken boat
when you speak to my heart of its heaviness
the soft facts of erosion

when you whisper in that
infinite tongue all that the world allows
all one could wish for
though it can’t be

we both know

Anonymous said...

Dear 'Em Swain'...
Is there anyway to get in touch with you about this?

Signed, a very interested observer

visual poet said...

Nunn plagiarized from Roo Borson, Don McKay a second time, Philip Lamantia, Robert Hamberger, Elyse Fenton and David St John, at least, on his blog, mostly in 2009. He has removed these, since these comments on this thread came to light, in the last 2 weeks. I screen captured them before he did so and posted them on my Twitter feed @iralightman

Anonymous said...

oh my. Regarding Graham Nunn's poems, some of your so-called 'evidence' is a stretch.
He did apologise and acknowledge his wrong-doing re: Don McKay.

Also, I'm interested to hear people's views on sampling. While plagiarism is an issue, sampling is increasingly entering poetry and other art-forms.

visual poet said...

This is nonsense. Have a look at my Twitter feed. There is wholesale borrowing. On several occasions many lines in succession are taken outright. As an excerpt of the poem taken from, with the only changes: synonyms or proper nouns

visual poet said...

Compare Nunn's poem Spring Notes with Roo Borson's Summer Grass

The willows are thinking again about thickness,
slowness, lizard skin on hot rock,
... frogs begin a disconcerting raga,
one note each, the rustling blades grow green -
and it tires, the lichen-spotted tin canteen
suspended in the river weeds like a turtle
up for air:... there
the little girls lean continuously across a rusted
sign that says Don’t Feed the Swans
and feed the swans. The swans are reasoning beings;
the young cygnets... bright-eyed, learning
what has bread, and what doesn’t.

Spring grasses are thinking again about thickness
slowness, lizard skin on hot rock.

Beyond the grasses, frogs
begin a disconcerting raga

one note each, the reeds rustle green.
A lichen spotted can, suspended

like a turtle, comes up for air. Three little
girls lean continuously across a rusted

sign that says, Don’t Feed The Ducks and
feed the ducks. Ducks are reasoning beings

the young ones, bright-eyed, learning
what has bread and what doesn’t.

Chopin is the season, all that high
heady racing in upper keys, as I head home

to make dinner. One more chance
to light a candle and make no wish.