So as one who has spent his entire career on the fringes of the poetry world, I am more than a bit amused at the recent plagiarism scandal in the poetry world. In the same way that opposition to the ETS is actually a symptom of a deep seated fear of change and of science so too is this plagiarism scandal the symptom of a much deeper problem. There are others words that we dare not say as well, words such as incompetence and monotony, and the most dread of all words ownership.
I look back at some of the events in my life and I have to laugh. Many years ago while living in Brisbane and working in some soul destroying proletarian sort of job an academic knocked back my submission to an anthology of poetry telling me that I did not speak the language of the working people. Too stunned to reply I could only laugh. Later I entered the Vogel Award, not that I am a novelist of any sort, but I wanted to see if I could write a full length novel. I have no bitter feelings for having lost for my book was not very good. But the point I want to highlight is that this was the same year that the award was won by the execrable The Hand That Signed the Paper. A remarkably nasty little book that went on to win the Miles Franklin award! As a side note a previous winning novel Jack Rivers and Me was not written by the claimed author.
So here we can see a pattern of foolishness.
But enough of my nonsense and moving right along. It was with great amusement when I jumped onto the computer and saw a series of posts and comments about the most recent scandal in the poetry scene. Every single post attacked the individual involved. Some saying that the poet refused to travel the searing road to find his own voice, others, like protesters in front of Scott Morrison's office chanted shame, shame!
Now it is not my intention to defend the poet, Andrew Slattery, as I do not know him from a bar of soap. But rather I wish to find any deep seated failures that allow this to happen. For like anything else in our world, the poem is not a thing, but rather a relationship between people.
So besides the terrible word plagiarism, the first word we must bring up in relation to this “scandal” is incompetent. First I have to note that it has been almost three years since he won the Rosemary Dobson Prize. Three years and nobody from the judging committee noticed! Even more shocking to me is this sentence from the SMH article that leaves me shaking my head. An entire poem was lifted from the philosopher Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. Have none of the judges ever read Beyond Good & Evil? Surely one of the most unique voices in Western philosophy and the doyens of literature in Australia did not notice. This is surely a level of incompetence that makes the sins of the poet pale into insignificance.
In my travels as a poet I have at times had a foolish or unreasoning fondness of the idea of the gloss. Submitting my poems to various journals and what-not, I was informed (again by an academic) that to use a gloss was an example of pretentiousness and that modern poetry could not be pretentious. I retorted that if pretense is from the word to play, who if not a poet could be pretentious. So the gloss is no good, in-text citations are clunky and disturb the flow. Foot notes seem better, but to my mind the best thing to do would be to mention in a bit of a proem that this is a cento with lines from XYZ poets. But would the poem then pass the muster of the academy? I think not, I am happy to be shown wrong. All of this lifts the cover on the sleeping lump that is poetry in Australia. That it is too closely bound with academics, and we can note that academic is close to the word anemic. For that is what passes for poetry in Australia today, a bloodless, lifeless regurgitation of the known.
The third and final point I wish to make concerns the idea of intellectual property. Did the Homeridae even care about intellectual property? For is not the literal definition of rhapsode a stitcher of words? This was noted by Pindar
In the same way as the Homeridae,
Singers of stitched words...
Did Shakespeare feel he was plagiarising when he used, for example, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe as the basis for Romeo and Juliet? Did the medieval balladeers feel they were plagiarists when they recycled lines and tunes? And what of the works of Eliot or Joyce, to name just two?
Or to quote Pound
seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines
no picture is made to endure nor to live with
but it is made to sell and sell quickly.
Plagiarism as a crime (or sin if you prefer) rises with Capitalism, for the ancients had no problems with the idea of recycling and reusing works. In our bourgeois world (and I would invite my readers (however few they may be) to join me in recreating bourgeois as a word that expresses contempt) where the individual is risen above all, and the very idea of the co-operative spirit is brought into doubt what are the pressures on the author? It seems to me that copyright and intellectual property, while sounding helpful and fine in theory are used by big conglomerates to control thought, and art in our society. One only has to look at the shameful acts of the Disney corporation in ripping off fairy tales and then claiming ownership of the idea of, for example, Snow White. Or the equally shameful and bogus claims of Men at Work and the Kookaburra Song. So keen where they to defend their rights that tehy did not even know, until an unfortunate episode of Spicks and Specs. Examples of publishing companies abusing copyright can be extended seemingly endlessly.
So here we have it, my thoughts on this topic. The words that can not be spoken are, incompetence -- the incompetence of judges. Monotony, the stranglehold of writing held by academics who seek only to reinforce their own position. And of course the vile words of ownership, which seeks to make money at the expense of art.
Could this all have been avoided? Yes, the author could have noted the use of other writings, but would it have won? With the storm spreading across facebook, I doubt it, for too many seem to place an individual originality above the work of art. But from my point of view, this whole imbroglio was worthwhile as it allowed me to do some research into the ancient idea of the cento. Was the poem good, were the ideas good, did you enjoy and
learn something? So we must finish with a half-forgotten quote from Ezra Pound, “it is a poor critic who talks of the artist and not the work of art.” For now we know more about Andrew Slattery and very little about the actual poem written.
painting from http://www.kounterkulture.co.uk/blogs/charlotte-bracegirdle-and-las-meninas