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Plagiarism in Poetry: What is Really at Stake?

24/09/2013 22:25 BST | Updated 23/11/2013 10:12 GMT

There has been a furore in the poetry world recently over fresh revelations of plagiarised poems winning awards and publication. The most notable incident has precipitated C J Allen's withdrawal from the Forward prize. Many questions have been raised, and opinions given, about what constitutes plagiarism in contemporary poetry. But one question still has plagued me: What satisfaction could there possibly be in receiving recognition for a poem that you did not write?

Here, I think, we find a darker matter than plagiarism at work in the world of contemporary poetry. The satisfaction of winning a prize with someone else's poem comes in feeling yourself that-much-more-important a poet, even if the perception is false--justifying perhaps that this ill-gotten recognition is a compensation for other accolades long denied in a world of frequent and repeated rejection. It is the same satisfaction Bernard Madoff may have felt in handing out "investor returns" of mythic proportions when, in fact, he was operating a Ponzi scheme.

The sad fact is that much of the poetry world seems to operate within Sayre's law, wherein the intensity of feeling and importance ascribed to matters like prize-based recognition are inversely proportional to what is actually at stake. In fact, the reality distortion field of the contemporary poetry world seems designed to pull us away from the very reasons we started writing in the first place.

My late friend the poet Sandford Lyne reminds us of this impetus in his poem "Machado, Lorca, Neruda, Jiménez", where he speaks to the budding poet: "You just want to be with them, / touch their sandals, wash their feet, / know a little of their courage, / walk, listen, learn: speak, / one day, perhaps, / one beautiful sentence / with those disciples of the word."

It does take courage to follow after those first loves in a system that values product over process, poet over poetry, prize over participation, commendation over conversation.

There is the poet who seeks recognition, and the poet who seeks to be part of something bigger than herself. For the one, plagiarism is an easy temptation; for the other, the boundaries are really quite clear: emulate and annotate. Be with the poets you admire, through their words. Make attempts, through your own poetry, to further that timeless conversation.

For what is at stake, in the end, for all of us, is our own relationship to the world through the poems we love and the poets who have fed us along the way.