The Argotist OnlineTM
Interview with Andy Croft about Plagiarism in Poetry
written and edited over 80 books, including poetry, biography, teenage
non-fiction and novels for children. His most recent books are 1948 (with
Martin Rowson), A Modern Don Juan (edited with Nigel Thompson), Tarzan
and the Blackshirts and Les élephants de Mudfog. He writes a regular
poetry column for the Morning Star, curates the T-junction international
poetry festival on Teesside and runs Smokestack Books.
lives and works in the Bronx, New York. His poems have recently appeared in Underwater
New York, Unlost and the Brooklyn Review. Originally from
Houston, Texas, he’s an associate professor in the library department at
Lehman College, City University of New York.
there a difference between allusion and plagiarism?
The difference seems to be measured simply by the varying noise levels of
approval or outrage. If readers and reviewers think that they recognise most of
the sources that inform the work of a well-known writer, then they are applauded
as “allusive”, “inter-textual” and “ludic”. Anything else is
I have never been remotely interested in “plagiarism” scandals, which always
seem to me to demean everyone involved, like excitable children accusing each
other of copying. All poets writing in English use the same language, the same
alphabet and the same grammatical structure. We are all inheritors of the same
literary traditions. We all drink from the same well. No poet should be so
lacking in humility as to think that they can ever write anything that is
“original”. All any of us can ever hope to do is to restate in a
contemporary idiom what has already been said, probably by much better poets
than we can ever be. An original poem is as impossible as an original colour.
Which is perhaps why, for all the current emphasis on poets finding their
“voice”, so many contemporary poets sound the same...
intellectual content of a poem may be a slightly different issue. But how many
poets can you think of whose work is intellectually “original”? And how many
original ideas do any of us ever have? Unless you are Galileo, Newton, Darwin,
Marx or Einstein, I think it is probably wise not to demand that other people
should be original in their thinking. Anyway, the achievement of even these men
would have been impossible without the work of their predecessors; as Newton
put it, ‘if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of
giants’. In the
circumstances, it seems to me that those poets who gaily accuse others of
lacking “originality” should look again at their own work with a bit more
we can return to the question of originality later. But let’s grant for the
moment that originality in any form isn’t possible and agree that all we can
do is restate what has already been said. Doesn’t the hope to which you
point—to “restate” existing ideas in new language, to see further than our
predecessors—imply that a poet can fail to restate what’s already been said
and simply repeat it? That he or she can fail to “see further” and rather
see the same thing as another poet and call it new? Milton in his Eikonklastes
such kind of borrowing as this, if it be not better'd by the borrower, among
good Authors is accounted Plagiarie’. If
you don’t want to call inept or inartistic borrowing “plagiarism”, I can
accept that. Perhaps we could agree to call it a bad poem or say it’s not a
poem at all or that it (or the best part of it) is someone else’s poem. In any
case, don’t poets (or “poets”) who liberally borrow from other poets and
fail to improve on the original fail at the thing you seem to think a poem at
the very least should do?
Yes, of course. The fear of repeating oneself, never mind other people, must be
a constant for all writers. But notions of “originality” are relative. I
have spent too many years working in primary schools and in prisons not to know
that what may seem derivative, clichéd, tired or borrowed to some readers, can
feel like an exciting and original achievement to others. The ability to ‘see
further than our predecessors’ is largely dependent on education and cultural
access. A cliché is only a cliché if you have read it before. In one sense,
the making of any poem, no matter how clumsy or derivative, is to be celebrated.
As the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra put it, ‘In poetry everything is permitted.
// With only this condition of course, / You have to improve the blank page’.
How many of us can confidently say to ourselves that we always do that?
take your ‘in one sense’ to imply that there is “another sense” in which
not every poem is to be celebrated. Are there then different kinds of
plagiarism? If so, are some forms of plagiarism better, more creative, or more
interesting than others? Are there forms that are less creative or interesting
in your view?
The work that goes into writing any poem is impossible to quantify. First, there
is a life-time of reading, thinking, listening, talking and understanding;
second, the conscious effort to concentrate an idea, fix a memory or crystallise
a feeling in words; third, the patient struggle with the organisation, shape and
form of the words on the page and the sound of their music in your head; fourth,
a series of critical judgements as to when the work is finished; fifth, an
evaluation of the poem’s likely relationship with other readers. Buried
somewhere inside all this are the various stages at which the poet consciously
and unconsciously uses their various source materials, internal and external.
Who can judge which part of the process, or which versions, are more
“creative” than others? Who cares? The only question that should concern us,
is whether a poem is as good as it can be, given the circumstances of the
writer, the writing and its reception.
are you saying that readers of poetry can’t draw from established critical
standards (of whatever sort) or form new standards to evaluate the quality of
poetry? It seems disingenuous to imply that every poem is as good as every other
poem as long as it’s ‘as good as it can be’. A good limerick is a good
limerick, but I don’t think many people would agree that a good limerick,
however good, is as good as a good sestina. Analogously, there are better and
worse examples of poetic borrowing and more skilful—more artful—ways of
drawing on our shared poetic past or from contemporary works. Many poets who
borrow lines, ideas, or images and wish to do so skilfully include notes in
their books that indicate their sources, especially if those sources are less
well known. Does a poet have the obligation to “cite” her sources in some
way if she is borrowing material? Is there a certain amount of material or
threshold that warrants acknowledgement, particularly if the source is
There are so many obstacles between any poem and any reader; signposts on the
page like title, epigraph, acknowledgement, glossary etc. can only help. Unless
of course, they are too obvious, distracting or cumbersome. Personally I am not
interested in calculating how many words a poet may borrow from another writer
without being accused of “theft”, or swapping examples of successful
plagiarists—most notably, of course, Shakespeare, Stendhal and Brecht. And
just for the record, my last three books were comic verse-novels based on Hamlet,
Nineteen Eighty-four and Don Juan.
in the present climate everyone has to be careful to cover their backs to avoid
being dragged into the next public row with the self-appointed commissars now
sniffing around the poetry world for unattributed borrowings. A few months ago,
at a book-launch in Nottingham, I read a new poem of mine called ‘The Sailors
of Ulm’. Before doing so I explained that the poem is supposed to “echo”
Louis MacNeice’s ‘Thalassa’, and that the title refers to Lucio Magri’s
history of the PCI, Il Sarto di Ulm, which
itself was a reference to Brecht’s poem ‘The Tailor of Ulm’. By way
of apology for such a laboured introduction, I joked that I was covering myself
in case there was anyone in the audience from the poetry-police. The following
day one of the principal witch-hunters in the Laventille
affair (who was not there) e-mailed the organisers of the reading to ask if he
could confirm that I had insulted the poetry police.
how do you argue that a good sestina is “better” than a limerick? The world
is full of entertaining limericks and dull, clanking sestinas. I can think of
many occasions when I would rather read a good limerick than a sestina. And if
anyone doubts the value of a good limerick, I can do no better than recommend The
Limerickiad, Smokestack Books’ three volume (soon to be four) raucous,
clever history of Eng Lit in limericks by Martin Rowson.
who is comparing? What is the point of the comparison? In what way is a sestina
“better” than a limerick? What is the measure? The amount of time needed to
read them? The amount of ink required to write them? If a sestina is
“better” than a limerick, how does it compare to a villanelle? Personally I
have always found terza rima difficult to write, but ottava rima enjoyable to
read; so how can I say which form is “better”? Is anyone prepared to argue
that the iambic foot used in most sestinas is superior to the amphibrach of the
limerick? Or are we making a judgement about the relative seriousness of the
subject matter usually carried by the two forms? But who says that light-verse
is inferior to “heavy” verse? This sounds like the old university senior
common-room game of Golden Poets and Silver Poets, Major and Minor, Gentlemen
pressure to evaluate and grade poems and poets seems to me to be both
unattractive and pointless. What is “better”, a motorbike or a banana? It
depends if you are in a hurry or if you are hungry.
agree with you that a good limerick is better than a bad sestina and that
context affects how we value a thing, but my point was about artfulness and
skilfulness not lightness and heaviness. I’m not sure it’s controversial to
say that Arnault Daniel is a better poet than Robert Conquest, though Kingsley
Amis, whom I love, might have disagreed! The Milton quote referred to earlier
seems to clear Shakespeare, Stendahl, and Brecht from the label of plagiarist,
but I think we might also say that they handled their source materials in a more
skilful way that those who are usually so labeled. I’m assuming whatever
source materials you drew from for your verse novel, 1948,
were skilfully handled and even skilfully acknowledged. When we’re talking
about an art—and perhaps more importantly learning an art—being able to
distinguish between better and worse practices seems to be critically important.
But to return to your answer to the previous question, there seem to be many
people who care whether large or small portions of other peoples’ poems end up
in another poet’s work, namely poets who find their work published under
another person’s name. Let’s pose a hypothetical situation and consider 1948.
I notice that both you and the illustrator of the book retained your copyright.
Would you be comfortable with someone reprinting unattributed portions of the
book under their name or repurposing the images in an
context (i.e. not as part of a new work of art that transforms the source
material but “as is” or with slight modification) without attribution?
The copyright statement inside 1948 was put in by the publisher. If somebody seriously wanted to
copy some or all of the 150 onyeginskaya sonnets
in 1948 I would be flattered. First of
all it would mean that someone had read the damn thing! Secondly it would
presumably mean that they had enjoyed the book enough to want to do this. And if
they were able to “improve” on the original then good luck to them. It
certainly won’t earn them any money!
impression is that those who are most outraged by revelations or accusations of
plagiarism in the poetry world are not usually the “victims”, but other
would-be writers who feel that their own route to literary success is suddenly
compromised. What is the point of spending all those years on Creative Writing
programmes developing their unique “individual” voice if it turns out that
it is not to so exclusively theirs after all?
follow up to the previous question: How do you handle copyright at your own
press? Most Creative Commons licenses require at the minimum attribution credit
for material designated for reuse or repurposing. But they do have a ‘No
Rights Reserved’ option (CC0)
you consider publishing your work or the work of your authors under a ‘No
Rights Reserved’ Creative Commons license? Would your authors be comfortable
with seeing their poems published in a journal under another poet’s name?
I don’t know—I’m not a lawyer! I have run Smokestack Books for twelve
years single-handedly and unpaid. In this time I have published 110 titles and
sold almost 30k books. I do not have the time, the energy, or the interest to
pursue this kind of stuff about copyright. All Smokestack titles carry the usual
statement about the author retaining copyright to their work. As far as I am
concerned it is a formality. If I am approached by an editor who wants to
include a poem by a Smokestack author in an anthology I pass this request to the
shift topics for a minute. To what degree does the economic structure of the
“poetry business”—a structure which may lead a poet to feel pressured to
produce a certain amount or certain kind of work in order to secure grants or
academic employment—contribute to what your average person might call poetic
plagiarism (an instance in which a poet takes another poet's work and with
little or no modification claims authorship)?
is worth remembering that Creative Writing in the UK emerged as an academic
subject a long time before universities realised that they could make money out
of it. When I worked for Leeds University in the early 1980s I was told that I
couldn’t teach Creative Writing because it was not a “proper academic
subject”. Eventually I was permitted to teach it, but only as part of a
special programme of free courses designed for unemployed people in
Middlesborough (a long way from the university). Of course, Leeds University,
like all UK universities, now runs undergraduate and post-graduate degree
programmes in Creative Writing. But I don’t imagine that many unemployed
people can afford them.
origins of Creative Writing in the UK lie a long way from Higher Education—in
Adult Education, Women’s Education, community arts and organisations like the
Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers. The sudden and distorting
presence of the universities in the poetry economy has brought with it the
imported ideas of intellectual property, critical hierarchies, career-structures
as well as the instincts of corporate lawyers.
poetry is a commodity, it needs to be policed (grammatical rules, unified
spelling, critical standards, canonical tradition etc). And before it can be
sold, it has to be owned (copyright and intellectual property etc). There is a direct connection, I think, between the commodification
of poetry and the privatisation of poetry as a personalised form of individual
expression rather than a means of public communication.
on now! Poets have proclaimed their originality and criticized others for taking
credit for their or other poets’ work (in whole or in part) since antiquity.
But, again, let’s stay with the current topic and restate this last question.
Does the poet who chooses to be a part of the contemporary “poetry
business”, a business which is predicated on the traffic of poems that contain
“the original ‘voice’ of the poet”, as you put it, or of the deliberate
(and acknowledged) subversion of such “voice” poems, have the obligation to
make clear what it is that they are purveying within that marketplace?
No. Poetry is not a marketplace and a poem is not a commodity to be bought and
I may be allowed to regurgitate something I have previously written
(self-plagiarism?) on this issue. Property is a very recent (and contested)
innovation in human history, usually used to determine access to scarce or
limited resources such as land, buildings, the
means of production, manufactured goods
and money. It is a shifting concept; not so long ago, women, children and slaves
were subject to property law. Today we have “copyright”, “intellectual
property”, “identity theft”, “image rights”—and the ludicrous
spectacle of a
chain of British opticians claiming legal ownership over the word
“Should’ve”, while a Danish brewery apparently owns the copyright to the
are three kinds of property—common property (where resources are governed by
rules which make them available for use by all or any members of the society),
collective property (where the community as a whole determines how important
resources are to be used) and private property (where contested resources are
assigned to particular individuals).
is difficult to see how the many various elements of any poem—words, phrases,
grammatical structures, rhyme and metre, emotional syntax, allusions, echoes,
patterns, imagery and metaphor etc.—can be described as “property” in any
of the above senses, except perhaps “common property”. None of these
elements are scarce
or finite; their use by one person does not preclude their use
by any number of others. In an age of mechanical reproduction, it is not
possible to “steal” a poem or part of a poem, only to repeat it.
poetry inhabits the common language of everyday living. A poem can be unique
without being original; it can be “new” at the same time that it is already
known. As my friend the French poet Francis Combes has argued:
belongs to everyone. Poetry does not belong to a small group of specialists. It
arises from the everyday use of language. Like language, poetry only exists
because we share it. Writing, singing, painting, cooking—these are ways of
sharing pleasure. For me poetry is like an electrical transformer which converts
our feelings and our ideas into energy. It is a way of keeping your feet on the
ground without losing sight of the stars. It is at the same time both the
world’s conscience and its best dreams; it’s an intimate language and a
important human activities are not subject to ideas of ownership. Talking,
walking, whistling, running, making love, speaking a foreign language, cooking,
playing football, baking bread, dancing, conversation, knitting, drawing—these
are all acquired skills which we learn by imitating others, but they are not
subject to ideas of ownership.
poetry was always understood to be much closer to these than to those things
that the law regards as “property” (land, money etc.). No one in, say,
fourteenth-century Italy would have understood the idea of “stealing” a
poem. Most cultures, even today, regard poetry as “common property”. Which
is another way of saying that everyone owns it. And if everyone owns it, there
is nothing to steal.
are so many interesting things here I’d like to ask you about. But first, as a
point of fact, poets in fourteenth-century Italy would definitely have
understood the idea of stealing a poem, although what they thought was important
was the formal structure of the canzone. ‘Theirs was a literature that strove
for originality of form almost above all else’, Chambers notes in his Introduction
to Old Provencal. As an example of this concern, he quotes elsewhere in his
book the 12th century troubadour Peire d'Alvernhe’s line, ‘never was a song
good or of any value which resembled the songs of another’.
But I think that it would be rather difficult to write a history of, say, Blues
or Folk Music in these terms. And there are many poetic traditions—Urdu for
example—which rely very heavily on shared phrases and commonly used figures of
who enjoys generic fiction will tell you that part of the pleasure of this kind
of reading is the recognition of its familiar patterns. Not many readers of
westerns or hospital romances, for example, will thank an author for radically
disrupting their expectations of the form.
of the reasons I write almost entirely in traditional stanzas—metrically
precise, rhymingly obsessive, formal straight-jackets—is the creation of a
shared, anticipated music with the listener. It is like joining a traditional
dance with complicated steps that everyone knows. This only works if each new
song in some way “resembles” the songs of others.
Urdu poetic traditions are beyond my ken, but I imagine there are ways that
poets distinguish themselves in terms of accomplishment within that tradition.
That’s certainly the case for the great blues musicians of the United States,
many of whom performed traditional songs, but distinguished themselves by their
unique vocal and instrumental styles and their ability to transform their source
materials. There are countless essays exploring this history. But
I’m glad you took us in this historical direction because I think it prompts a
really interesting question about the complicated relationship we find
throughout history between authorship and originality and ownership and “the
marketplace”, however we define that. We find these complications
Greece in Pindar’s work and at Rome in Martial’s (who first brought the
notion of “plagiary”—kidnapping—into a literary context). We find it in
the Renaissance when the word “plagiary” first enters English.
And of course we find it today.
we want to call it originality or not, authorship and being recognized as the
author of a work seems to be central to poets’ self-understanding to this day,
even among the Communist poets you refer to in your essay and among those who
largely agree with your points about language and poetry.
case in point might be the American novelist Jonathan Lethem, who was
interviewed after the publication of his excellent essay, ‘The Ecstasy of
Influence’, which makes many of the same points you’ve made about language,
the commons, and the impossibility of writing anything fully original. In an
interview following it (forgive the long quote), he clarified his views on
originality, saying, ‘I think originality is a word of praise for things that
have been expressed in a marvelous way and that make points of origin for any
particular element beside the point. When you read Saul Bellow or listen to Bob
Dylan sing, you can have someone point to various cribbings and it won’t
matter, because something has been arrived at which subsumes and incorporates
and transcends these matters. In that way, sourcing and originality are two
sides of the same coin, they’re a nested partnership’. He goes on to expand
on what he means by “originality” by relating it to the notion of
“surprise”: ‘You want to feel surprised.
my description proposes some sort of dutiful, grinding, crossword puzzle
work—“let me take some Raymond Chandler here and graft it to some Philip K.
Dick over here”—that’s horrendous. You, the author, want to experience
something that feels surprising and uncanny and native. You want to take all
your sourcing and turn it into an experience that—for you first and foremost,
and then of course for the reader—feels strong or urgent in a way that mimics
some kind of natural, automatic process’.
of this leads me to a two-part question. First, as opposed to what we might call
a “strong” notion of originality, one that sees authors as capable of coming
up with wholly original thoughts and expressions over which they can claim total
ownership, Lethem seems to be putting forward what we might call a “weak”
notion of originality, one that emphasizes the author’s ability to surprise
herself and us regardless of source material. I’m interested in what you might
think of Lethem’s take on the word “originality”, which in spirit seems to
be not that far from Milton.
from the perspective of Lethem’s “weak” notion of originality, it seems
like you’re conflating “strong” notions of “originality” and
“ownership”—possessiveness over property rights—with “authorship”
the weaker sense—surprisingly marvelous writing and the pride that comes with
such accomplishment. You
criticize those who decry plagiarism as defenders of private property because
you believe that a poem is not a commodity that can be bought or sold and that
it’s on these strong grounds that they base their objections. But is it fair
to say that it’s on those grounds that most people find the plagiarist
pathetic? Mightn’t the objectors to plagiarism/inept borrowing/bad poems
(however we want to describe unsurprising writing) be objecting to the
plagiarist’s false (and rather sad) claims of authorship and his implicit
denial of others’ surprising achievements (however modest) rather than any
violation of notions of ownership?
like the concept of “surprising” writing, although it has to be said British
literary culture seems interested only in “unsurprising” writing at the
moment. I don’t know Jonathan Lethem’s work, or this essay, but it sounds
like a very useful account of my sense of the way I write. During the two days
we have been conducting this conversation by e-mail, I have also been writing an
obituary, proof-reading a children’s novel, copy-editing an anthology of
poetry and trying to finish a poem about the refugee crisis in Europe. I have
also written about sixty e-mails and half a dozen letters. But I don’t think
that it is true to say that I have been exercising a “weak” originality for
most of the time and saving my “strong” originality only for the poem
(especially as it borrows, self-consciously, some phrases from Byron’s Childe Harold). Or does such deliberate—and irreverent—borrowing
represent a kind of “strong” originality in itself? Which kind of
“originality” are you and I using in this conversation?
why should the
poetry world suddenly be the focus of these questions about ownership.
Why now? Why poetry? Why not the worlds of, say, ventriloquism, athletics,
topiary or pottery? Who benefits from the importation of this legal vocabulary
current moral panic over “plagiarism in poetry” seems to me to derive from
several overlapping elements—the post-Romantic privatisation of feeling and
language, the fetishisation of “novelty” in contemporary culture,
half-hearted notions of intellectual property, the long-term consequences of
Creative Writing moving from university adult education onto campus as an
academic subject, the professionalisation of poetry, and the creation of a large
pool of Creative Writing graduates competing for publication, jobs and prizes at
the same time as a catastrophic decline in the number of poetry publishers.
result is an unpleasantly competitive poetic culture, once described by the poet
Sean O’Brien as a bunch of ‘ferrets fighting for mastery of a septic
tank’. If there were any money involved it would be tragic. But considering
the tiny amounts of money that anyone ever earns from poetry in the UK, there is
something grimly comical about poets accusing each other of stealing something
which belongs to everyone.
Andy Croft & Robert Farrell