Thursday, 13 January 2011

Writing and Authorship

T.S. Eliot said that "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal". In the age of the WWW it's easier than ever to steal poems (though it's easier to get found out too). Here are some examples of prose/poetry plagiarism and related activities (some more legitimate than others), along with some questions.

Copying Others

  • In the TLS, 1965, it was revealed that "Perfect" by Hugh McDiarmid consisted mostly of Glyn Jones' prose.
  • In 2006 "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life" by Harvard Student Kaavya Viswanathan was withdrawn after an initial print run of 100,000 because over 40 passages were similar to those in 2 novels by another author.
  • In 2006 the author of "The da Vinci Code" was taken to court by authors of a non-fiction book because of a similarity of ideas.
  • It's not unknown for UK poets to send poems by famous US poets to UK magazines, pretending it's their own work. And vice versa.
  • Mike Slippkauskas pointed out to me that Hart Crane's "Emblems of Conduct" is almost wholly an uncredited collage of lines from several poems by Samuel Greenberg.
  • It's not unknown for poets to accidentally copy an image from another poet. If it's done deliberately is it acceptable to claim that it's an allusion?


  • People don't always say that a work they've submitted is a translation of someone else's work. "Stad" (by Grobler) which won the prestigious Eugyne Marais on South Africa (2005) is an almost word-for-word translation of Anne Michaels' 1999 poem "There Is No City That Does Not Dream" from English into Afrikaans. ... Grobler, for her part, has admitted to being a fan of Michaels' work but has denied any intentional plagiarism and said that the similarities were due to "absorption that takes place naturally when one is an avid reader". See for details
  • Should translators of previously translated works check to see whether their translations are too much like the older ones?

Copying oneself

  • In the 2005 T.S. Eliot competition (for new poetry books), the judge Carol Rumens resigned because of her doubts about the eligibility of the winning book by Tom Paulin. Many of the poems had been previously published in a booklet, though most had been changed.
  • Norman MacCaig often sent very similar poems to different magazines - he kept few records, and didn't always keep copies of the poems.
  • Suppose your poem wins a prize. If you change a few lines, would you enter it in another competition?


  • Ern Malley (Australia), Ossian (Scotland), and Araki Yasusada (Japanese, translated into English) never existed.


  • In the past, editors have often contributed to works.
  • Ghostwriters are sometimes not acknowledged. There may be sound commercial reasons for this - both author and ghostwriter benefit. Naomi Campbell once said that she hadn't read her own novel. Jeffrey Archer reads his.
  • Pound helped Eliot a lot with "The Wasteland", more than the acknowledgement might suggest.
  • How many workshop suggestions can you use before being unable to claim that the poem is yours? Suppose someone gives you a fine title or punch-line for a poem which you win 1000 pounds for. Would it be enough to say thanks to the contributor? Also some competitions insist that entries are "your own work", so a peeved contributor could hold you to ransom.

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