Poetry and the boundaries of plagiarism

I’m fascinated by this recent story. Christian Ward, a 32-year old poet from London with whom I’ve communicated occasionally on social networking, has been found to have plagiarised a poem by Helen Mort (whom I also know – in the real world). Christian’s poem, ‘The Deer’, won a local poetry competition in Devon, where the story was broken on 5th January. Save a few words, it’s identical to Helen’s poem of the same title.

Today a statement, by way of apology, has appeared from Ward. It’s not exactly unequivocal though, and that’s what interests me.

I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn’t entirely my own work.

I had no intention of deliberately plagiarising her work. That is the truth.

It’s that phrase ‘I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own’ which I find so intriguing. He seems to think that’s a fair explanation, that this mode of working is acceptable. But for me, this raises two questions. Firstly, what does using a poem as a model really mean in practice? Do you start with a source text and then start make edits to it? Do you just copy the theme, or the movement of ideas, or the formal techniques? Secondly, at what point in this process does the text become your own?

Perhaps we’ll never know with this work, because Ward claims he ‘rushed and ended up submitting a draft’. Is there another draft, where we might discover how he has transformed Helen’s text into something original of his own? I’d be fascinated to read it!

The wider debate that this minor scandal might provoke is where artistic inspiration and/or appropriation becomes plagiarism. Which in turn asks us to consider what can and cannot be owned by an individual author or creative artist.

Of course this debate is as old as writing itself. TS Eliot had something to say about it:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

In the past, perhaps poets were less desperate for the original, the authentically inspired, and more content to situate their work in a dynamic with the past. Only two of Shakespeare‘s 37 plays have original plots. At the end of Troilus & Criseyde, Chaucer commends his work to ‘subgit be to alle poesye; / And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace / Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.’

David Shields, in his provocative book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, argues for a mash-up culture where everything is remixed, appropriated, open source. This is a somewhat radical position, but also one which has its roots in the Dadaist practice of collage.

Only recently, I published an anthology of poems that included a collage piece by Jon Stone. Jon had collaged reviews by the sci-fi critic David Langford, which caused some embarassment when David came to review the book for The Telegraph. In this instance, the problem – in my opinion (I have no idea about the legal status) – was not one of plagiarism, because the collage process had created a text that was utterly different in its appearance and effects, but of etiquette: Jon had simply forgotten to credit his source.

So perhaps we might say there is: deliberate plagiarism, accidental plagiarism (e.g. Ward, if we believe him – he has also confessed to plagiarising a Tim Dooley poem), deliberate appropriation (e.g. Stone), and finally accidental appropriation.

However we define it, I can’t help feel that Christian Ward’s misdemeanour is a symptom of a wider problem in British poetry: the dominance of creative writing courses, competitions, workshops, and their cumulative dissemination of a derivative and usually conservative poetic. Editors like me often complain of reading lots of poems that sound the same, that share a similar form, tone, turn of phrase, even subject matter. But isn’t cliche just a collectively agreed definition of plagiarism? Ward’s mistake wasn’t sending the wrong draft of his poem – it was thinking that ‘working from a model’ was a process that would lead to anything worth reading in the first place.

An artist’s depiction of the poet


  1. Angela France says:

    “it was thinking that ‘working from a model’ was a process that would lead to anything worth reading in the first place.”
    I agree with you – the way this exercise appears to be used is very different, from what he has said, to responding to, or being inspired by, anothers work. (and I do teach CW). I have tried it as an exercise when I was feeling blocked but didn’t find it of any use – it felt mechanical and far from creative. I have, a couple of times, been intrigued by a slippery line in another’s poem which has led to a number of poems triggered from the original line in the sense that the line has made me think in a new way – but I doubt anyone could find any trace at all of the line that started it in the poems.

  2. This issue isn’t restricted to literature … I recently fell out – permanently, I fear – with a friend, another photographer (Jo), who had based a series of photographs on the work of the late Francesca Woodman. Woodman was a talented but troubled young photographer who produced a series of ‘confessional’ self-portraits before committing suicide in New York in the late ‘80s; as a result, her inventive and self-lacerating images have acquired the patina that only an early death can confer. As part of a degree course, my friend Jo did a series of naked self-portraits which ‘referenced’ Woodman; she went on to sell said images in a commercial gallery with no reference to Woodman at all. I discovered Jo’s debt to Woodman many months after her show; after I had been to Jo’s exhibition and congratulated her for the best work she had ever done. (She sold prints at £400 a go, her show was a modest success.) Later, courtesy of someone’s Facebook album, I discovered the original and superior Woodman image on which Jo had based her self-portrait. I took this up with Jo and an argument ensued, which ended up with Jo justifying her failure to cite Woodman in her exhibition by claiming that most of the new work going through the (prestigious) photo gallery where she works is derivative, so why pick on her?

    Ultimately, beyond all notions of collage technique or referential post-modernism and across all disciplines, you find a sea of mediocre artists who want to be ‘be’ someone and can’t accept why they aren’t. Christian Williams’ gloss on his actions is an unwitting example of exactly this mindset: a bankrupt attempt to defend the indefensible. There is a world of difference between, say, Stravinsky’s re-composition of Pergolesi, and some sweaty fantasist flattening out a volume of contemporary poetry beside his laptop. We should be robust about this.

  3. Tom Chivers says:

    interesting, david. though I can’t help but feel a little sympathy for Jo. it’s certainly not plagiarism, is it – just unacknowledged inspiration?

    also, not sure why “sweaty”?

  4. Jon Stone says:

    Bit of a lazy copy and paste from Facebook, where I commented in response to this post:

    This poem in particular was likely plagiarised because it did actually win a prize and has what many might consider to be the hallmarks of a prize-winning poem. What Tom has noted is that Christian’s explanation presumes that using the model of a prize-winning poem is an understandable strategy. Imagine he had written a different poem based on Helen’s, won the competition, and then explained his methodology. Would we react by thinking, “What a hare-brained scheme! Why would anyone do that?” or would we perhaps nod to ourselves and think, “Yeah, I could see that working.”

    I think the latter, which would suggest, wouldn’t it, that we do cynically believe, on some level, that judges are attracted to certain types and models of poem more than others, and that suspicion in turn will cause more people to write more poems that tend to adhere to this narrow range. Let’s be frank – poems dealing with the memories of loved ones are a regular feature in prize lists. And if the poet came up straight away and said, “Thanks for the prize money, guv. Funny thing: my [loved one who is subject of poem] is alive and well, and this is a work of pure imagination” – we can well imagine the judges being miffed, feeling deceived even.

    Which to me suggests that part of the problem (well, I think this is part of the problem anyway and all this is just extra evidence) is that the personality of the poet as a human being is weighed too heavily in judgements. This is why it’s so hard for outlier styles of poetry to enter the mainstream, why the mainstream, against all noble effort, remains so steadfastly middle class – the more obscured the person behind the poem is, the harder they are to relate to perhaps, the less chance a poem has of being looked upon kindly, except when it possesses some other extraordinary feature.

    On another note, my blunder regarding not crediting David Langford was probably a good thing to happen to me. I’ve been doing quite a lot of work based on transforming other people’s material – not just collages, but ‘versions’ and translations, replies etc. I usually take care to credit, and my general feeling is always that I want people to know exactly what I’ve done – even have access to the original text, if possible – because seeing how the transformation works is part of the intended pleasure. A good obvious example would be the sonnet I made out of bits of Tom Jones lyrics – it’s simply a much better listening/reading experience, I would suggest, for the audience knowing where the lines have come from.

    BUT it is easy to get complacent. One thing I find is that these collage/rearrangements/translations are often so much work and involve so many of my original ideas going into them that it’s very easy to fully mistake the final piece for something wholly your own. You certainly feel there is much of you and your personality in it. So it’s good to get a sharp-but-painless reminder that you must be oh-so-careful in acknowledging your sources when doing this kind of work.

  5. Dot says:

    For me what differentiates amongst artists is integrity; being proud of inspiration – and the commercail art work seems to act as a foil to this; for example the reapproriation of black, femal, working class creativity – Amy Winehouse for example; proud of her links for example to the Specials; get what commercial credit did they recieve: I live round the corner from their local; it’s been empty some years…

  6. Oh gosh, interesting developments – well the whole issue is perplexing. Tom, you’re so right about the murk. I like your post.

    I know a poet from a war-torn region who was taken up by a v senior figure in UK poetry, who wanted to translate his poems. According to him, he even went to this poet’s home a few times to help with the translations. Once settled in North America, and trying to rebuild his life and career in a new language, he wanted to use these translations of his poems, but found that the senior UK poet had published them as ‘versions’, and thus owns all copyright to them, content and all.

    The central image from an unpublished poem of mine (before I had a book) turned up in a poem in a big magazine. I took it up with the poet, well known to me, to whom I had shown the manuscript – who said that it didn’t matter because it was a completely different poem and the image was used differently. I believe this was a genuinely held belief, but noted that I’d never been shown the new poem, nor asked, nor was I cited. (I’ve been known to put people in my acknowledgements if they give me a WORD.)

    But then, I’ve also made poems out of other people’s words; I’ve used emails, and while I got in no trouble for it it’s true I didn’t ask the person (an old friend) who sent them.

    Jon, you’re really right about the work of a collage. My email poems came out sounding as if word for word from the originals, but I had changed them hugely – into blank verse, into stories, into a consistent voice, into a cohesive thing, into a sort of aspect of my own memoir. This whole area of collage and found poetry and Informationism etc does change the nature of the playing field, and were all still learning what goes and what doesn’t. Look at Andrew Motion’s bother the other year.

    But this particular issue impacts not at all on the Christian Ward story – which is more about the general unambitious and lazy nature of much of what gets produced, published, treated as ‘good enough’. It’s possible even he is being genuine (though if he was trying to use a ‘personal poem’ as the basis for his own ‘personal poem’, you’d think he’d spot that it wasn’t *his* experience [yet?] in the poem), but in that case it speaks of a personal bar placed worryingly low.

    The idea of the ‘version’ is a bit pernicious in practice. I’m not even really happy reading a translation unless I have at least the original and preferably a second translation in front of me. With a ‘version’, you’re going: well what IS it? Which bit is yours? What did you change and why? All the important questions raised by the work itself remain unanswered.

    But in support of the modelling idea, here’s an example: Donaghy’s ‘The Drop’, which is structurally modelled on ‘The Coming of the Magi’. THAT’S how to do it. It was such a completely new poem that he didn’t even have to think about crediting Eliot. I only discovered the link when he discussed it in Magma magazine.

    Re David’s ‘sweaty’ I think he’s just engaging in some Expressionist characterisation. & from what I heard at the time, ‘Jo’s’ photos were pretty much straight copies.

    And now I feel I’ve said too much, and would like to emphasise that I love everyone.

  7. Julia says:

    I have been following this debate with interest – it seems to be the real difference here is that of either being inspired by another poet – something I suspect most poets would admit to – or that of deliberately setting out to model your poem on someone else’s poem – not usually acceptable – although there are a lot of alternate versions of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird – which are homages to the original poem and based on the structure. Maybe the difference is that most poets know the original and so a homage is instantly recognisable…

  8. Ms Baroque says:

    Oh Lord. How annoying. I didn’t realise I was posting the above comment under the login I was clearly under. It was me. x

  9. I don’t buy his apology. Even if it were true, it would be evidence of plagiarism, just a more subtle kind. And I don’t believe him. The fact that he only changed the words that were absolutely necessary to make it all Exmoorish makes it unlikely that this was an early draft.

    The prize should go to Helen Mort – she didn’t write about Exmoor but after this fiaso she deserves it!

  10. And David replies …

    Ideally, I would post the images by Jo and Woodman respectively for others to draw their own conclusions; but I don’t feel I can do that. But I have read the poems by Helen and Christian …

    People rip off the work of others for all kinds of reasons – and in the worlds of TV and advertising, where I have occasionally worked, it is carried out on an industrial scale (and there can be serious financial and career implications for artists who are plagiarised at that level; Bridget Riley suffered greatly from this in the 1960s). What Christian Ward and my photographer friend Jo both have in common is their appropriation of another’s very personal work in order to seem more accomplished and insightful as artists. We aren’t talking about the formal concerns of artistic discourse or any kind of ‘homage’ as neither Chris or Jo acknowledged their sources – it’s just attention-seeking. They do it because they want to appear interesting as people.

    Anyone with a pencil can be a poet, anyone with a phone in their camera can be a photographer; but not everyone can write a good poem or make a decent photo. Poetry and photography share a private, ‘confessional’ mode; but what if you have nothing to confess except your own poverty of imagination?

    1. Josie says:

      I totally agree with you… as a teacher, a poet and a university graduate who grew up in a time when academic plagiarism was punishable with expulsion, I am flabbergasted at the audacity of some self named poets, who come to poetry writing from a model… ha… that’s the terminology used to describe a mediocre C student… using the model… meaning they are incapable of higher level thinking.. of imagining their own creations… why are they poets then?… if they can’t write why are they writing? .. ah right.. they don’t have to know how to write… they can just copy

  11. (… or even a camera in their phone …)

  12. Welsh Dave says:

    Does this help?

  13. bengwalchmai says:

    Well this is awkward – Christian Ward found to have done it again: over on Facebook, Carrie Etter’s post of January 30th, 2013 found that Christian Ward changed one word of Matthew Olzmann’s poem ‘How Much’ and Ward then had it published in Poetry Wales in August 2012…

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