Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:13

Poetry belongs to everyone

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in Poetry

Andy Croft wrote The Privatisation of Poetry for Culture Matters a few months ago, and it has been amongst the most popular and influential articles on the site. He has attracted a good deal of criticism for his application of communist philosophy to poetry. Here, in an article republished from The Argotist Online, he defends and extends the thesis advanced in that article. See also Alain Badiou, Communism by Way of the Poem, and Alan Morrison, The Poetry of Common Ownership.

Q. Is 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 ‘plagiarism’.

Personally 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...

The 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 humility.

Perhaps 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 Eikonclastes wrote, ‘For 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 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?

Q. Are there 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.

Q. So are you saying that readers of poetry can’t draw from established critical standards (of whatever sort) or form new standards in order 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 contemporary?

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.

Clearly 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.

But 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.

Anyway, 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 and Players.

The 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.

Q. I think the Milton quote referred to earlier might clear Shakespeare, Stendahl, and Brecht from the label of plagiarist and I’m assuming whatever source materials you drew from for your verse novel, 1948, were in some way skilfully acknowledged. 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 uncreative 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!

My 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?

Q. A 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) ( Would 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 poet.

Q. Let’s 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 and claims authorship)?

The narrow economics of the contemporary poetry scene in the UK undoubtedly encourages the idea of poetry as property. This seems to me to be a wholly pernicious idea, inimical to genuine creativity. It derives in part from the way that the broadsheets, the BBC, the corporate festivals and the prize-giving circus create and maintain a hierarchy of poets (and a hierarchical idea of poetry) based on the lists of corporate publishers. It is also a result of the way that so many poets much further down the food chain these days make a poor living as part-time Creative Writing teachers in universities.

It 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 Middlesbrough (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.

The 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.

If 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 a means of public communication.

Q. Hold 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 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 sold.

Perhaps 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 word ‘probably’.

There 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).
It 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.

All 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:

Poetry 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 public necessity.

Most 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.

Historically, 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.

There 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 speech.

Anyone 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.

One 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.

Q. But I’m glad you brought up this period of literary history because I think it prompts a really interesting question about the complicated relationship throughout history between authorship and originality and ownership and ‘the marketplace,’ however we define that. We find these complications in 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 the Renaissance when the word ‘plagiary’ first enters English. And of course we find it today.

Whether 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.

A 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 marvellous 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. If 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.’

All 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.

Second, 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’ and ‘originality’ in 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?

I 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?

And 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 into poetry?

The 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 professionalization 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.

The 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.
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Andy Croft

Andy Croft has written and edited over 80 books, including poetry, biography, teenage non-fiction and novels for children. He writes a regular poetry column for the Morning Star, curates the T-junction international poetry festival on Teesside and runs Smokestack Books. He lives in North Yorkshire.