Friday, October 30, 2015

Moonlight Musings

Poetry Is Theft

... said some poet, once (it may have been Keats). Many others have quoted it since without attribution, so we don't really know who originally said it. Which rather fits the assertion, doesn't it? Everyone stealing the line, I mean, until its origin is lost or at least becomes uncertain.

What is theft; what is borrowing? What is legitimate allusion; what is illegal and fraudulent? 

Complications of the Internet

In our digital era, where students and researchers use Google and Wikipedia etc., it's easy to copy and paste information. It has become the norm. When is this legitimate and when is it plagiarism? I think it depends whether the source is acknowledged or the material is passed off as your own. When in doubt, err on the side of caution!

In practice it's not always easy, as I find when researching material for The Living Dead and I Wish I'd Written This. Sometimes I give a direct quote; that makes attribution easy enough. But when I paraphrase, and mix information from various sources to make the article more readable, it can get tricky. 

I rely on stock phrases like, 'Wikipedia tells us'. The penalties for breach of copyright, a closely related matter, can be severe. I don't know if the same applies to cases of plagiarism, but a guilty finding would destroy one's reputation as a writer, which many of us might regard as even worse. Even an innocent lack of attribution might cause a student to fail an exam. (Ignorance is seldom an acceptable excuse; we are supposed to check these things.)

However, that's more to do with matters of scholarship. Let's bring the focus back to poetry.

The unwritten word

I read somewhere, once, that some societies don't care about authorship of poems; they just love the poetry. So it doesn't matter in those societies, is not a shameful thing, if one poet uses another's lines and passes them on, perhaps interwoven with his/her own. It's not an intentional fraud, simply something no-one worries about. But these tend to be societies of oral poetry ... or so I read. Asia, the article said, or Russia. 

I don't know about that. Is there somewhere in the world, still, where poetry is only spoken and memorised, never written down? Lots of 'spoken word poetry' happens right now in the Western world, we know – but it is usually written as well. And the Western world is where we take pride in original composition and like to put our names to our creations; even the rappers do that.

I am ignorant of a lot of world history; for instance I know almost nothing of Arabic poetry, or African. So I am open to being educated on this subject. Maybe there is still a tribal culture somewhere, where poets are not proprietary – but in Russia there is a long tradition of poets putting their names to their work, even in the days of Stalin's gulags when it was dangerous to write any poems that didn't toe the party line. In China, Japan, India, Indonesia, etcetera, poets have claimed their writings for centuries, and still do today.

It's true that, before written language, or before the ability to write was widespread, the oral tradition and memorisation were the ways poetry was disseminated and retained, in Europe as much as Asia or any other continent. But whatever happened in ancient times and wherever it happened, for a long time now authorship has mattered to us. I certainly like people to know that it was me who wrote what I wrote.

What's in a name?

So where does that well-known poet, Anonymous, fit into this discussion? S/he wrote such good things! I'm glad they've been preserved for us. But no-one has tried to steal them; it's just that the authorship has been lost. I'm sure, if it was me, I'd rather have something of mine out there with no name on it, getting read, than have it named but unseen. What I would seriously object to, though, would be someone else putting their name on something I originally wrote and passing it off as theirs.  

And yet, we do learn from each other, and borrowing is a well respected tradition too. So when is it allusion and when is it plagiarism? 

Case histories

These thoughts arose when I featured the wonderful Aga Shahid Ali in a recent 'The Living Dead' post. I was startled to discover that his poems were full of allusions, none of them attributed. 

But they were very well-known allusions. The particular poem I featured was a ghazal about rain, which ended with the line, 'No-one has such small hands, Shahid, not even the rain.' Who wouldn't immediately think of e. e. cummings's 'No-one, not even the rain, has such small hands'?

It's interesting to note that Ali has not quoted cummings perfectly; he has slightly altered the line – and yet it is instantly recognisable. His work is peppered with similar examples. As both poet and academic, moving in very literary circles, he must have fully expected that these allusions would be recognised. He wasn't trying to deceive anyone into thinking they originated with him; they were intentional homage. As I said, the originals were very well-known. 

A rather different case happened in Australia last year and caused a scandal. A respected poet was found to have used a number of lines from other poets, without attribution, usually changing them slightly. They came from good poets, but from work not all that widely known (though it was out there, obviously, to be found). He did try to play the 'allusion' card, and also to suggest that these phrases were in his head but he had forgotten their origin and thought they were his own. And haven't we all had that experience? A line pops into your head and only later you realise it was a memory of something you read. Or, even worse, you don't realise until someone points it out. How dreadful if you were unjustly accused of plagiarism on the strength of it!

(I remember my dear husband, Andrew, showing me in delight a charming story he'd found on his computer. 'I must have forgotten writing it' he said – a feasible surmise, as he was indeed getting forgetful in his old age. Fortunately, I wasn't. I was able to remind him that a friend had sent it to him. It was true that their writing had similar themes and styles; that's why she wanted to show it to him. So it was a fairly easy mistake for him to make. But imagine how hurt she would have been, and how mortified he would have been, had I not been around to stop him sharing it with the world as his own!)

The trouble was, in the case of the Australian poet, there were so many such instances in his work. It stretches credulity to think someone could be that forgetful! And even if these instances were, as he also (contradictorily) claimed, intentional allusions, they were not well-known like Ali's, so he should still have identified his sources. (Even Ali was assuming a particular, poetically erudite audience. In theory he could unintentionally have deceived others.)

In an even more extreme case, a poet I know had her identity stolen online. Another person not only created a presence in her name on blogs and networking sites, but also stole and posted her poetry there. I don't know if the poet or the poetry was the primary target of this deception, but the poetry was part of the identity of course. The police were brought in and the thief was stopped, but the young poet was traumatised for a long time afterwards. She doesn't post her work online any more, which is our loss.

Those are extreme cases, though. We are much more likely to trip ourselves up without meaning to.

The accidental theft – or accidental give-away

The 'remix' is a popular method now. There are also the erasures and cut-ups which have been around a while longer. And there is all the 'found poetry', which can sometimes be found in other people's writings. I think these are valid methods, and I have played around with them myself from time to time. I am careful to acknowledge what I am up to and where I got the source material.

It gets even more complicated than that. In recent decades writers have started 'asserting their moral right' to be acknowledged as author of their published works. I understand that this is meant to prohibit anyone from altering that work without permission. This seems to be the opposite extreme from another recent practice: sharing one's writings online at sites where other people may come in and edit them. 

No way is anyone going to do that to anything of mine! All my docs in online storage are private, thanks. But, again, my writing is poetry, memoir and related matters, not scholarship. On the other hand, I can well imagine that scholars might have to be particularly careful not to get their stuff misappropriated. 

It's a minefield, isn't it? 

What can we do?

We may exercise great care to ensure that we ourselves are not stealing, but how can we protect our own work from theft? We're a community of blogging poets: our work is out there for anyone to take.

I think, if someone wants to steal it, we probably don't have much hope. The identity thief I mentioned above would not have been caught if she had not also used the poet's actual name and pretended to be her. However, it seems unlikely. 

Because we make our work so public, and participate in a community, anyone who wanted to enhance their reputation would probably steal something less recognisable. Anyone with such considerations would probably not be playing at this grass-roots level anyway, but would have their eye on academic standing or cash prizes. Some of us may do that too, but we are also willing to share our work here, whereas anyone motivated to steal other people's good lines would have to be focused on status and ego.

I think we are more likely to have to guard against the possibility of innocent / ignorant stealing. Most of us do have copyright statements on our blogs, or even on every individual poem. We can only hope it will give people pause and stop them from blithely sharing something that impresses them without asking first.

If they did, you might never know. But if you should find out, the fact of having a blog with dates and actual readers could help in any legal case. Dates can be faked, but if 20 people say they remember reading it on your blog last year, that must carry some weight. You could go one better, by emailing your work to someone, if only to yourself, or putting it in (dated) online storage. You could keep dated copies of all your drafts too. You probably don't need to – but you might.

(A poet friend of mine is also an artist, and one of her sketches appeared as an illustration in one of her books. Some years later a schoolgirl's prize-winning painting was exhibited in a small-town art gallery — where someone who knew the poet recognised that it was her sketch, only slightly altered except for the addition of paint. It turned out that the school art teacher had photocopied a lot of drawings he liked the look of, and given them to his students to play around with. The young girl had no idea about copyright, though the teacher should have. My friend didn't ask for any financial compensation, but her lawyers did insist that the Gallery display a notice saying that the painting was based on her sketch, which it did. I imagine the teacher was told to be more responsible in future!)

I see that a few Poets United people have the 'Copysafe' notice prominently displayed on their blogs. Does that work? And if so, how? I've always wondered.

What about the Creative Commons option? I haven't used it for my own work, but have sometimes been glad of it to get access to other people's (for legitimate reasons, such as to use in I Wish I'd Written This). I imagine that all the detailed wording, combined with free use of the material, would encourage people to make proper attribution. If anyone has licensed their work in that way, what is your experience?

Is poetic theft an issue that affects you? Concerns you? And what, if anything, do you do about it?

Feel free to share your thoughts


  1. You have brought up some interesting things in this article, Rosemary. I think sometimes it is a fine line. You mentioned erasure poetry, found poetry. I think also of book spine poetry. I suppose if the original source is mentioned these might be okay, as it is obvious that the person is not trying to pass off someone's work as one's own.

    I wonder about taking something like a 5 word phrase from a poem and writing a totally different poem from that phrase. I would guess there would be no ownership over five words in a row if the rest of the poem is totally original.

    There are sites that one can check for plagiarism. If a person thinks someone may have plagiarized they can use a plagiarism checker that can easily be found by googling. I've checked things with such a checker once or twice.

    I guess we just have to hope others are honest with their work...and be honest with our own. I think most of us would rather keep our good reputation intact than present work that is not our own as our creation.

    Thanks for this well-researched article, Rosemary!

  2. Very interesting article, Rosemary. If I am using an allusion, say to "Nevermore" or "Alice or Cheshire Cat" I don't because to do so would make me feel like I was assuming the reader wouldn't be smart enough to know what I was referring to. (Long, ungainly sentence but I think you know what I mean.)

    Nearly always when I'm using an excerpt from another poem or title even I say where it is from. But, I am going to err on the side of caution from now on and identify when I'm using anything of someone else's work. Like Mary says, I would be horrified to be thought dishonest.

    Thanks for tackling this grey area of writing.

    1. I think when we hear the words 'Nevermore" we immediately think of Edgar Allan Poe. But really I think that, in this case, Poe does not own the one word....and we could use it without it being thought plagiarism. But if we said "Quoth the raven nevermore" we should attribute Poe. I do think sometimes it is a fine line, something we need to be aware of as we write and read others' poetry.

  3. I hope this becomes a discussion. I put a book together with an artist I admire who told me I could alter any of her work any way I liked. I was shocked! I wouldn't want her or anyone to do that with my work. I once wrote playwright Megan Terry to ask if I could add a scene to one of her plays that I was directing. She said sure, go ahead--but don't advertise it as my play. I like to write living poets and ask for permission to use their work. If I don't get it, I will only quote it partially with a link to a site that does have permission. On the other hand, I LOVE playing with allusion. Is that a double standard? I don't always remember to note who I am using--but an allusion, by definition, intends for a reader to link the meaning of the original with the new. It is never about passing something off as one's own. I don't know how musicians deal with the sampling and mashing that is now common. I don't think those practices should apply to poetry.

    1. Interesting response by the playwright! What did you do? Sounds like a bit of a no-win for you either way, yet I can understand where she was coming from, and it's good that she didn't refuse outright.

  4. Great article, Rosemary. I learned a lot from this. I have a copyright notice on my blog but that is little security if someone really wants to steal something. I didn't know about the plagiarism check site but would like to check that out. But I had heard long ago that you could take a portion of any of your writings and enter them into Google and do a search and see if anything suspicious shows up. I think I may have done that a few times when I was first getting going with my writing but never kept up the practice. I don't know if that's a viable way of checking or not.

    It has never crossed my mind to use someone else's work or even a portion of it and try to pass it off as my own. I do remember with dVerse Poets one time we did erasure poetry where you are working with choosing a paragraph or so of a book and you "erase" parts of it to come up with a new poem. But in that instance we were all told to credit the author for the passage we used. Now I'm beginning to wonder if even that is "kosher."

    I know I have strong thoughts about people stealing and certainly wouldn't want any writing of mine used without my permission or given acknowledgement that it was mine. Lots to think about here, Rosemary.

    Gayle ~

    1. Gayle I'm sure erasure is OK if you credit the original author.

      Thanks for the Google tip! Will have to try it.

  5. I have a bit of an internet problem at present. So, having initiated this discussion, I may not be able to join in much immediately. But do please share your thoughts with each other and I'll catch up as soon as I can. I've already learned a couple of things I didn't know before, from the comments so far!

  6. Rosemary, you've written something so informative, thorough and thought provoking. When I first started blogging, I read an article about blog writing. The author stated that we shouldn't bother with copyrights. In stead be flattered if someone stole your lines. I thought that odd. Yet, I haven't thought much about it since. I hope I've never inadvertently stolen anyone's writing. I know I haven't consciously. But you have given me much to think about here. Thank you for this discussion. It helps me take my writing more seriously, as well as that of others.

    1. 'Imitation is the highest form of flattery' - but stealing without attribution is something else again. Yes I suppose it means the thief thought the lines were good, but still, I'd be furious if I ever found out my lines had been stolen.

  7. the ultimate plagerism
    when man claimed to greate G-d
    and he just smiled
    perhaps there's a lesson there
    the problem has existed for a long time
    I believe that in the end
    after all the recriminations and lawyers are done
    all we can do is smile
    or go mad.

    1. God, Shakespeare and Mary Oliver can afford to smile at plagiarism, knowing that people will still credit them for their wonderful creations. For the rest of us, it might be a problem. But I suppose you are right - we can only go on creating in our own names and sooner or later people will be able to see that we probably wrote what we say we did.

  8. So interesting! You know you raise interesting points--in the age of the internet, copying seems to be have become a way of life for many--and that is out right illegal--the more interesting issues are the ideas that are lifted and used and remixed until they become something else--classical music if full of themes that are lifted and changed--sometimes attributed, sometimes not--and I think it happens often as we seek inspiration--we have to be very careful and hope that others will be as well---

    1. As I understand it, ideas cannot be copyrighted - until written down (presumably whether as words or music). But I don't think it's that difficult to say, 'Based on X, by Y.' Why don't people just say that?' Don't theythink it matters?

  9. I think this is an important post, I think without theft and references poetry might be less interesting.. Somehow poetry is always connected, and there are phrases that are easily recognizable, while others are less so. Sometimes the idea behind the poem is more important than the words, and those can never be given copyright.. By coincidence I wrote a poem where I did give attribution before reading this post...

    1. Yes, we do build on what's gone before, and so we should. As you say, poetry would be poorer otherwise. It's how it's done, I guess - and why.

  10. the internet makes theft so much easier - as slight deterrent have even though of posting a jpg image of my words (be they ever so humble!). Language has been spoken so many times before us that there is bound to be repetition and subliminal education will slip in another's words as though heard for the first time. Poets like Eliot made hundreds of references and annotations but plain theft is altogether different - I hope I do not err in this direction - your post is so well researched and a good prompt to us all to be more careful lest we are either thief or victim.

    1. Though it can and does happen, I guess it's some consolation that it's still unlikely to happen to most of us.

  11. Rosemary, this is your most interesting and thought-provoking column yet! It is an act of trust to put our work out there, trusting respect will be a given. It IS so easy to use another's work or parts of it. I think of a young poet who won a coveted prize, and his deep embarassment when it was withdrawm because he had not given proper attribution to a phrase he had used belonging to another. There is a difference, I think, between blatantly using another's line as if it were one's own, and the subliminal stuff that goes on when we read so many poems and a phrase or reference lodges itself in our subconscious. I see often how ideas and similarities springboard off each other's work. Someone's poem will spark another's. Or we will find after the fact we have both used the same word in a poem, unknown to each other till after posting. Synchronicity. Which is a very different thing from deliberately claiming what is not one's own. I, too, know of a poet whose BODY OF WORK was posted on a blog elsewhere by someone passing themselves off as her. It caused her enormous distress and she had to create another blog. I am not sure if she had to take legal action against the other party. It is daunting. Personally, I send my work out in good faith and as far as I know it remains mine. I would rather it be shared and read than hidden away unread. But it is a worry, that this trust can be abused and our work misused. WONDERFUL article, Rosemary. Thank you so much for this. I'll come back to see if there has been any further discussion. I invited the poet whose work was stolen to join us, and hope she does.

    1. This is like the case of identity theft I cited. It's kinda creepy and I think these perpetrators are mentally disturbed. At least the work still appears under the poet's real name, even if not by their authorisation. But what if the person were then to publish inferior stuff - one even just different - under that same name? Scary!

  12. I also would be interested to know if using the creative commons statement protects one's work better than just requesting respect for copyright? Does anyone know?

  13. This is such a relevant and thought provoking article. Plagiarism is so common in this blogging world. Earlier, I was very apprehensive about sharing my poems and stories in my blog because I was scared that someone might steal it. But with the passage of days, I stopped worrying about it and thought that fear should not come between me and the joy of creating. I enjoy writing and posting poetry in my blog and sharing it with like minded people. The joy exceeds my fear. Thanks for this amazing article.

    1. I'm glad you made that decision, as evidently we all did.

  14. Rosemary,

    This is a superb piece of very informative writing, which should be of benefit to the Poets United community. I personally understand that dreadful moment, when you realise that your own words, have been grabbed by an outside body and reset within their Blog presentation. This happened to me, via an American company called I emailed them several times in relation to their unwarranted theft of my poems, but to no avail. I found that the legalities between the UK and US differed in many ways and that it was quite impossible for me to have pursued an actual legal route. Instead, I had to remove my Blog, Ethereal Awakenings and begin again. I was very upset and nervous about sharing any further work at my Blog for some time. It felt quite horrible, knowing that this same great internet of connection and communication, around the world, with people who shared an interest in writing and poetry, was also a very dangerous place, with opportunists and thieves. I remain very vigilant and to some extent, restrained about posting certain poems at my Blog, ever since that bad experience. I'm not sure how we can truly trust readers not to be tempted to plagiarize or copy, the words we have been brave enough to share and always in a spirit of amicable trust. Thank you Rosemary for highlighting this reality, which seeks to plunder our good natures...

    1. It must have been very upsetting and frustrating! I think in your shoes I'd have felt inclined to keep my original blog and use it to scream out to the world what had happened, naming and shaming. (I'm a Scorpio. We can get vindictive like that.) it's good that you didn't let it inhibit your future writing and posting.

    2. Rosemary,
      I'm also a Scorpio!! However, in the circumstances of realising that AN.other is actually content to be openly stealing and reposting one's own property/ words, it felt very much like an invasion of my place; my Blog had effectively been compromised and that felt horrible. I needed to start afresh, especially as there was little I could do, to erase the presence of from my Blog. I'm happier now, but am not totally convinced, that our words are ever secure, from the bigger world of thieving eyes...Eileen

  15. Thank YOU, Eileen, for your very valuable comment, and for what we can learn from your truly horrible experience. I cannot begin to imagine the feelings of violation you must have had. We do put our work forward in trust, and I cannot fathom the mind of someone who would steal someone else's deepest thoughts and words. I am so glad you shared this input with us, as we can learn a great deal from it. Someone tried to be me on facebook a while back but my friends were vigilant and dispatched the person before I was even aware of it. Stealing your work and your blog is infinitely worse. I am glad you were brave enough to create another blog and continue to share your work. We all would have been the losers otherwise. Thank you for your very valuable contribution here. It reminds us that we are vulnerable when we put our words out there, and that there are unconscionable people in the sphere. Fortunately, there are many many more wonderful ones, and your experience does not happen often. But that it happens at all is unacceptable and very scary.

    1. Sherry,

      I was buoyed by the goodness of the support and friendship, afforded to me by my friends at PU. We are like a family and I believe that we can very quickly recognize an intruder, when they may arrive into our community, or indeed, at sites like Facebook. It's probably akin to finding a burglar has broken into your home and taken some items and perhaps, touched other things during their rampage. A horrible event, but by good grace and courage, it's possible to restart and carry on. We must remain faithful to our writing hearts and minds!!Eileen

  16. Thank you for thoughtful consideration of an important topic.

  17. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. I am more and more of the opinion that we must keep writing as well as we can, and sharing it. That way our own voices are recognisable to our readers. Just think of this poetic community - don't you recognise with pleasure each individual voice that belongs to it? So varied, and each unique!


This community is not meant to be used in a negative manner. We ask that you be respectful of all the people on this site as each individual writer is entitled to their own opinion, style, and path to creativity.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Blog Archive