Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Are we running out of poems?

Originally published at Overland

According to the Daily Telegraph, the Hope Bourne prize is a prestigious poetry competition whose chief requirements are that the each entry be ‘original’ and ‘inspired by Exmoor’. Determined to fulfil at least one of these requirements, a chap by the name of Christian Ward took a published poem by Helen Mort entitled ‘The Deer’ and handed it in as is own under the title ‘The Deer at Exmoor’. As the Telegraph explains:
Mr Ward is believed to have changed only a handful of words from Miss Mort’s poem, replacing ‘father’ for ‘mother’ in the first line, ‘river Exe’ for ‘Ullapool’ in the second verse and changing the reference to a ‘kingfisher’ near Rannoch Moor in Perthshire, Scotland, to a peregrine falcon on Bossington Beach, Exmoor.

I am admiring of Mr Ward’s scheme, which would allow someone to localise with little effort practically any work of literature – and not just in Exmoor. But literary types are very sensitive about attribution, and once the matter was put to him, some time after he won the prize, he didn’t help matters by making some rather feeble excuses:
I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn’t entirely my own work. I had no intention of deliberately plagiarising her work. I have begun to examine my published poems to make sure there are no similar mistakes. Already I have discovered a 2009 poem called The Neighbour is very similar to Tim Dooley’s After Neruda and admit that a mistake has been made. I am still digging and want a fresh start.

I can also reveal that whenever I sit down to write an essay or a blog post, I use somebody else’s as a model. Especially if it’s supposed to be about my personal experiences. Then, as soon as I’ve changed enough words, I post it or send it to my editor. Is there any other way? But you really can’t be so careless as to forget to make the changes! Now it seems that Mr Ward may have been equally careless in the past, and so there he is now, at the forefront of the campaign to uncover his own acts of plagiarism, a task for which he seems eminently qualified and can already boast some early success.

A further incident last week – involving British ‘poet’ David R Morgan – has prompted the Guardian to come up with the headline, ‘Another plagiarism scandal hits poetry community’. Apparently this ‘community’ is now ‘searching its soul’ and ‘asking itself just how widespread plagiarism is’. I am always doubtful when such sharply defined feelings and intentions are attributed to a vast and diverse group of people, but it may be true that the issue of plagiarism is causing a degree of anxiety that is to some degree peculiar to our times. It’s even got its own, zeitgeisty how-to guide: How to Find Plagiarism in Poetry.

It is a variation on a classic contemporary paradox. On the one hand, the internet has greatly increased the human capacity to disseminate texts, including plagiarised ones; on the other, it has given people unprecedented tools for textual matching and analysis over a corpus that – thanks to repositories like Google Books – is approximating the totality of what was published in print before the internet came along, plus all the digital content. Obscure books that could once be trusted to slip further and further into oblivion are now constantly threatening to resurface as searchable texts. You could practically hear them thumping loudly through the plagiarist’s floorboards, like the tell-tale heart in that story by Poe.

I don’t intend to ask why we even care, nor the degree in which the idea of authorship is called into question – some years ago, after one of New Zealand’s foremost writers was caught in the act, I proposed using the term ‘authoriety’ to describe its current slippages – but rather reflect on the peculiar character of this anxiety. How it is bound with the fear of being caught doing what we all must, as we engage in that form of serial theft otherwise known as culture. How it ultimately points to the exhaustion of our capacity to say and mean things originally, which is centuries-old and yet always poses itself as new. Perhaps it’s a question that each generation has to ask: are we running out of poems?

In 1961 Raymond Queneau tried to answer this question, or rather ensure that humanity would never have cause to ask it again. His book, Cent mille milliards de poèmes (sometimes translated as ‘One hundred million million poems’) consisted of ten 14-line sonnets of identical rhyme scheme and matching line endings, with each line printed on an individual strip so as to enable the ‘reader’ to produce up to 10, to the power of 14 different combinations, each one equally valid from a formal point of view, but likely of different semantic and aesthetic value.

I never had the pleasure of physically handling the book, but there are a number of websites that strive to replicate the experience in a computational environment (including some in French and English). Ironically, the base-sonnets are protected by copyright, which all the sites are in breach of. Wikipedia tells me that a French court has so decreed.

Legalities aside, the problem with Cent mille milliards de poèmes is that it’s very boring. It may be a little nicer to play with the print book, but I found shuffling the lines at the touch of a button (or by hovering over the sonnet) so distracting that I had to stop at once. However, this is in fact a reframing of our media paradox: you can have the statistical certainty that the text you just composed has never been seen in this world before, and it still won’t be your poem, or new, or a piece of art (may Dada forgive me). To do poetry the customary way always involves retreading somebody else’s ground. And that’s fine. If there really is such a thing as a ‘community of poets’, it should worry less about running out of words, or about its capacity to catch the odd thief, whose presence should in fact reassure us that the culture hasn’t reached a dead end; that our canons aren’t yet so small that they can be recited by heart.