Plagiarism

“Is it not strange that sheep’s guts could hail souls out of men’s bodies?” Benedick asks as he listens to Balthasar sing and play his lute in Much Ado about Nothing

“There’s part of me, lying on a page,” I sometimes think reading a poem, feeling delight, wonder, and perhaps a touch of envy. “Why couldn’t I get that feeling out there in language that perfect?”

            This feeling made me strangely sympathetic when poet Ailey O’Toole was recently accused of plagiarism. Her poem “Gun Metal” had been published and nominated for a Pushcart prize when another poet, Rachel McKibbens, pointed out its resemblance to her own “three strikes.” In “three strikes,” McKibbens describes her childhood pain in intimate terms: “Hell-spangled girl / spitting teeth into the sink, / I’d trace the broken / landscape of my body / & find God / within myself.”

            O’Toole’s poem borrows McKibbens’s words and images: “Ramshackle / girl spitting teeth / in the sink. I trace the / foreign topography of / my body, find God / in my skin.” Even stranger than O’Toole’s incorporation of someone’s language into her own poem is that she cited in an interview these very same lines as expressing her innermost self. She even had the part about spitting teeth into the sink tattooed on her arm. Poems, like the song that so moves Benedick, hail souls out of people’s bodies.  Hail: not just greet, but also summon. The poem waves a hand in the air. The soul, like a taxicab, arrives on the page and opens its doors. The poem steps in.

            When I was in high school, I worked on the school literary magazine. One year we accepted a student poem that I discovered—a few weeks too late—was by Louis Untermeyer. And I was the only one who knew.

            There I was at fifteen, one minute idly thumbing through my much-loved Golden Treasury of Poetry, and the next—having come across “Coal Fire” and recognized it as the very poem we’d accepted as student work—facing a moral crisis. I remember the sick uncertainty with which I went to bed that night. In the morning, I posed the problem in theoretical terms to my homeroom teacher, who suggested I tell the faculty adviser. “Only someone in pain would do something like this,” she said. “She needs help, and she won’t get it unless she’s caught.” So I told the faculty adviser of the literary magazine. 

            I don’t know what happened to the plagiarizer. I had a gift, in those days, for obliviousness when faced with something that might pain me. But I did wonder what made her do it. Did she love the poem so much she felt, on some level, it was her own?  Or was she so desperate for recognition that the risk of being discovered was worth taking?

            More than fifty years later, looking through Untermeyer’s book, I had no trouble recognizing the poem, with its eerie illustration: a leafless tree perched on a crag, its exposed roots like hairy claws groping for stability. The sky behind is a sickly pale green; darker green moss is draped on the tree’s gnarled limbs. My stomach twisted a bit when I saw it. The poem depicts the primeval origins of coal, trees learning, through photosynthesis, “how to catch flame and yet not burn,” holding fire for “six million years” until they became the coal we dig up and burn, returning light to its origins—fire—which “leaps; is done;/And goes back to the sun.” The plagiarizer was probably feeling a bit like coal herself: forgotten deep underground, her spark buried. Whether she acted out of her passion for the poem or her need for attention, her appropriation of the poem as her own, it seems to me, was an act of love.

            The poets Ruth Graham quotes in her essay “Word Theft” don’t quite see it that way. “I felt kind of violated,” Paisley Rekdal says of discovering that a British poet, Christian Ward, had published a poem of hers virtually unchanged over his own name. Calling 2013 “the year of the plagiarists,” Graham goes on to name five additional poets—all published that year—whose works contain (uncredited) lines written by someone else. British poet Ira Lightman has made a reputation ferreting out such illicit borrowings.

            And certainly professional poets whose work has been appropriated by other professional poets have a right to feel betrayed. There’s not much money—if any—at stake in publishing poetry, so honor is everything. As for Achilles, there is only honor or shame, nothing in between. “Our poems are part of ourselves,” Britain’s poet laureate John Betjeman once said. “They are our children and we do not like them to be made public fools of by strangers.”

            I’m not likely to swipe anyone’s language, nor am I trying to justify dishonesty. But I do feel that love for a poem is hard to separate from ownership, and the poems I love most deeply are those that speak for me—that seem, on some level, to be those I would have written, had I only been able. Poems to which in reading, I bring so much of my own experience (yes, I grieved my mother in just that way), that I almost feel as if I did write them.

            For the remainder of that school year I would wonder when we passed each other in the hallway whether my plagiarizing classmate knew who turned her in. I think not.  But I don’t think she came back the following year and her troubled soul haunts me still, there on page 256 of Louis Untermeyer’s anthology, hovering around “Coal Fire.”

* Citations:

Alison Flood, “Prize-nominated poet’s debut cancelled as plagiarism accusations build.” The Guardian. December 6, 2018.

Ruth Graham, “Word Theft.” Originally published January 7, 2014 at The Poetry Foundation website.

Ruth Hoberman is a writer living in Chicago. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Rhino, Rattle: Poets Respond, Calyx, Adirondack Review, Natural Bridge, and Spoon River Poetry Review and her essays in Michigan Quarterly Review and The Examined Life, among other venues. She is a professor emerita of English at Eastern Illinois University, where she taught for thirty years.

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