Poetry, plagiarism, and the critical art of theft
  • Alyson Miller

By examining contemporary scandals in poetry, including those involving Ailey O’Toole, Andrew Slattery, Pierre DesRuisseaux, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Sheree Mack, this paper explores how plagiarism reveals a series of conceptual and practical fissures, not only about form, but also privilege, trauma, and truth. In doing so, it will make two key arguments: firstly, that contemporary poetry plagiarism is deeply problematic due to its imbrication with notions of identity, as evidenced by a spate of controversies concerning the theft of traumatic narratives, especially those relating to race. Secondly, plagiarism scandals are nonetheless efficacious, able to expose the power structures of literary culture, and highlight the contradictory nature of poetic practices which utilise a Romantic vision of ‘authorised appropriation’ which, as Michael Wiley notes, is often plagiarism in disguise, a form of codified stealing (2008: 220). Moreover, via its framing as ‘a threat, a fear, a panic, a plague’, plagiarism is a subversive force, able to unravel and challenge ‘cultural laws of authenticity and composition’ (Groom 2002: 27, 25). Indeed, instances of plagiarism prove most provocative not in the detecting and denunciation of a literary thief, but in the revelation of the complex and often paradoxical politics which surface from the effects of fraudulence.

Keywords: plagiarism; poetry; authorised theft; trauma; gatekeepers


1. The Ramshackle Girl: Literary Theft and its Provocations

In 2018, the American poet Ailey O’Toole was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for the poem ‘Gun Metal’, part of a chapbook titled Grief, and What Comes After, to be published by the small literary press, Rhythm & Bones. In an interview with The Rumpus (2018), O’Toole emphasised the significance of the relationship between writing and catharsis in her poetry, and the importance of articulating trauma in order to re-establish a sense of self. Indeed, O’Toole remarked that ‘Gun Metal’ specifically offered ‘a great representation of how I started from a place of mental and physical destruction, but eventually collected the pieces of myself and reassembled them into someone new’ (in Hansen 2018). As a marker of the poem’s success, and ‘in honour of who I was, who I am, who I’ve yet to become’, O’Toole had the opening lines to ‘Gun Metal’ tattooed along her arm, and posted an image to Twitter:

girl spitting teeth
in the sink. I trace the
foreign topography of
my body, find God
in my skin (O’Toole, in Flood 2018).

Within 24-hours, O’Toole was exposed as a serial plagiarist, having stolen the opening lines to ‘Gun Metal’ from Rachel McKibbens’ poem ‘three strikes’, as well as including ‘language lifted, in some cases verbatim’, from the poets Brenna Twohy and Hieu Minh Nguyen (Hansen 2018). During the subsequent outrage, the Pushcart committee and literary outlets such as Rising Phoenix Review, Barren, and Peculiars Magazine retracted their association with the poet, rushing to remove O’Toole’s work from their websites; Rhythm & Bones cancelled the publication of Grief, and What Comes After; and social media pundits excoriated O’Toole as a fraud capitalising on the trauma of others. As McKibbens observed: ‘Who are we, if not our words? Who are we if we are not allowed to tell our own stories? I survived my own vanishing. I arrive in my art. This is where I map my forgiveness, my sorrow, my joys. Let it be mine’ (in Flood 2018). The ultimate affront for McKibbens, however, was the tattoo, further evidence of O’Toole’s failure to alchemise a stolen work into something both better and new (Mallon 1989: 25), arguably the most basic imperative of plagiarism: ‘You took the music out of my words, you pulled the teeth out of it, you lessened the work when you rewrote it, and then you went and put it in a really shoddy font. That hurts’ (in Flood 2018).

While there has been a plague of plagiarism scandals in poetry throughout the last decade, the phenomenon is ancient in origins. Marilyn Randall notes in Pragmatic Plagiarism that there is evidence ‘from as far back as classical Greece’ which indicates that ‘“literary theft” was both practiced and decried… clues such as Aesop’s fable of the jay masquerading in the peacock’s fathers, and accusations of unethical pilfering in Aristophanes’ The Frogs, attest to the fact that some form of copying and imitation were often condemned or at least ridiculed’ (2001: 60). Thomas Mallon argues that traditions of imitation derive from the Horatian ‘exhortation to follow others’ (1989: 3), couched in an understanding that invention requires only the most marginal of transformations: ‘you will be able to achieve originality if you do not translate word for word, nor jump into a narrow imitative groove’ (Horace, in Mallon 1989: 3). The word ‘plagiarism’ itself emerges in the second century BC from the Latin word plagium, originally including the ‘theft not just of words but also bodies… plagium meant and still means in civil law “the crime of kidnapping”, especially children; plagiary added the idea of stealing a slave, and of seduction, as well as being “a literary thief”’ (Young 2017: 391). The Roman poet Martial is the first to apply the term plagiarius to refer to literary theft around AD 80 (Seo 2009: 567), however it is not until the eighteenth century, and the attention of the Romantics to notions of originality and genius, that plagiarism adopts its most contemporary forms, grappling not only with complex questions of authorship, but also with concepts of authenticity, authority, and subjectivity.

Perhaps in part due to its long history, as well as its entanglement with practices of imitation and appropriation —what might be called ‘authorised theft’ — plagiarism is haunted by confusion. Justin Clemens contends that, while analyses seek to determine what does or does not constitute a plagiaristic act, the results of outrage are persistently divisive, contradictory, and frustratingly cyclical (2013). Mallon suggests that such perplexity emerges in part from ‘an aura of naughtiness, a haze that shakes like a giggle’, as responses to plagiarism fall along a spectrum that ranges from ‘charming literary anecdote’ to absolute violation (1989: xii), a scale which depends upon distance from history, and a critical separation of self and other. In Bunk, Kevin Young argues that plagiarism is not only ‘violent and violating’ but also a ‘sign of power’ (2017: 391-2), recognising the ways in which an act of literary theft impacts upon an extra-textual world. While reactions to plagiarists may vary from laughter at a meaningless ‘jape’ to furious denunciations of a ‘moral wrong’ (Mallon 1989: 2), the implications are intricate and far-reaching. Yet like all literary scandals, the controversies surrounding plagiarism are also uncannily attuned to the machinations of literature and literary culture per se. As Rebecca Moore Howard notes, perhaps plagiarism produces so much confusion exactly because ‘it does far more work than it admits to’ (2000: 474). As a result, the plagiarist often functions to expose the operations of cultural gatekeepers, such as prize committees, for example, or poetry sleuths, as well as the problematic nature of the imperative to ‘make it new’, forever trapped in an impossible dialectic of originality and revision.

By examining contemporary scandals in poetry, including those involving Ailey O’Toole, Andrew Slattery, Pierre DesRuisseaux, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Sheree Mack, this paper thus explores how plagiarism is able to reveal a series of conceptual and practical fissures, not only about form, but also concerning privilege, trauma, and truth. In doing so, it will make two key arguments: firstly, that contemporary poetry plagiarism is deeply problematic not because of ideas about aesthetic practice, but due to its imbrication with notions of identity, as evidenced by a spate of controversies concerning the theft of traumatic narratives, especially those relating to race. In these instances, the plagiarist rather than the victim is the point of focus, thereby positioning the ‘other’ as Self, and effacing the experiences and expressions of already marginalised voices. Secondly, plagiarism scandals are nonetheless efficacious, able to expose the power structures of literary culture, and highlight the contradictory nature of poetic practices that utilise a Romantic vision of ‘authorised appropriation’ which, as Michael Wiley notes, is often plagiarism in disguise, a form of codified stealing (2008: 220). Moreover, via its framing as ‘a threat, a fear, a panic, a plague’, plagiarism is a subversive force, able to unravel and challenge ‘cultural laws of authenticity and composition’ (Groom 2002: 27, 25). Indeed, as the O’Toole controversy suggests, instances of plagiarism prove most provocative not in the detecting and denunciation of a literary thief, but in the revelation of the complex and often paradoxical politics which surface from the effects of fraudulence.


2. A Virus, a Rash, a Worm: Plagiarism as Disease

As noted, contemporary notions of plagiarism persist from Romanticism, most specifically in relation to ideas about originality. In Stolen Words, Mallon contends that Romantic thinking established ingenuity as a ‘cardinal literary value’, thereby defining a ‘new shibboleth, along with the notion of “sincerity” (the literary work as heartfelt self-expression, not witty construct)’ (1989: 24). Such a construct, which emphasises the centrality of self and the revelation of an inviolable ‘Truth’, is ‘perilously porous’, to re-frame Mallon’s use of the term (ibid: xiii), suggesting an uneasiness about the meaning of authorship, as well as the burden of ‘the great literary past’ (ibid: 24), described by Harold Bloom as an ‘anxiety of influence’ (1973). Indeed, it is unsurprising that the eighteenth century, with its Romantic insistence on ‘originality and attribution… was an age not just of rampant hoaxes but also of plagiarism; in fact, it is exactly because of such a newfound need for originality that plagiarism and hoaxes proliferated, providing an anxious expression’ (Young 2017: 406). Wiley observes that the tension has ‘long been one of the embarrassments of Romanticism. Champions of originality and genius, Romantic writers also actively appropriated material from each other and from earlier writers’ (2008: 219). Further, in a form of double-play that might be understood as either hypocritical posturing or rhetorical genius, Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Robert Southey not only ‘engaged in acts of appropriation that looked like plagiarism’, but simultaneously condemned plagiarism as a ‘loathsome’ form of ‘moral turpitude’ (ibid: 220). Thomas de Quincey accusing Coleridge of literary theft neatly captures such duplicitous irony: not only had de Quincey previously decried ‘plagiarism-hunting’ as the work of ‘feeble critics’, but he was also a plagiarist, estimated to have ‘lifted or summarised… at least twentyfold that of Coleridge’ (Mallon 1989: 31). In appeasing the self-proclaimed impetus for authenticity, the Romantics thus sought to codify forms of plagiarism as legitimate acts of ‘borrowing’, positioning ‘creative plagiarism’ as a mode of experimentation that persists in the 21st century via models such as ‘uncreative writing’ (Goldsmith 2011), for example, or ‘unoriginal genius’ (Perloff 2010). Wiley notes that, when accused of plagiarism, Romantic writers ‘actively obscured the lines between plagiarism and authorised appropriation’, although perhaps none quite so eloquently as Coleridge, who ‘claimed the highest authorization for his re-use of earlier texts when, in Biographia Literaria, he famously described “truth as a divine ventriloquist”’ (2008: 220).

While such rebuttals are undoubtedly amusing, the witticisms, aphorisms, and metaphors associated with cribbing expose the potent tensions that plagiarism provokes, particularly between ideas about appropriation as either a necessity to creative brilliance, or as a ‘perversion’ akin to violation or disease. The idea that ‘talent borrows, genius steals’ is often attributed to Oscar Wilde, for example, whilst TS Eliot’s pronouncement on borrowing in The Sacred Wood (1920) offers a more nuanced vision of literary theft: ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better’. It is a rhetoric more contemporarily realised in Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ (2007), a response to Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence in which the argument for the efficacy of plundering is realised via an essay seamlessly constructed of plagiarised texts. The imperative to create a new original from an extant work, as suggested by McKibbens’ fury that O’Toole had ‘pulled the teeth’ (in Flood 2018) from her poem, is regarded as central to the distinction between plagiarism and legitimate appropriation, a point returned to later in the paper. Yet, as noted, aside from entertaining maxims — ‘to steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research’ (Notestein 1929) — plagiarism is most often demonised as a perversion or sickness, ‘a social abnormality, such as illness, madness, and death’ (Groom 2002: 27). Nick Groom observes in The Forger’s Shadow that ‘it is imagined as despotic—contagious, sickening, unnatural, and terminal: to be guarded against only with the most vigilant surveillance’ (ibid). Importantly, it is also figured in abject terms; as Groom describes, ‘plagiarism is a bastard offspring, an illegitimate child that enacts a primal crime: patricide (murdering its origins) followed by incest (breeding monsters out of its own flesh)’ (ibid). The connection of plagiarism with notions of paternity and devourment has been examined by a number of scholars (Howard 2000; Randall 2001; Young 2017), a metaphor which aligns with images of books as children birthed by writers. Plagiarism thus returns to its roots as the kidnapping of bodies, inseparable from ideas about the identity of the author, and a point of originality which has been disfigured as a result of abduction.

As its etymology suggests, an act of plagiarism imbricates literary theft with the forceful possession of another (Groom 2002: 25). Young contends that ‘the plagiarist claims ownership of someone else’s words as well as of a nonexistent self’ (2017: 419), snatching at histories and cultures in order to perform a vision of uniqueness. Moreover, contemporary poetry plagiarism scandals reveal a pattern of pilfering which seeks to appease literary demands for narratives of trauma, particularly those voiced from the margins. The opening lines to O’Toole’s poem ‘Gun Metal’, for example, were not only stolen from McKibbens, who is Chicana, but also cynically co-opted a personal history of violence: the teeth falling into the sink, Kat Rosenfield notes, were the ‘casualties of an abusive childhood that left McKibbens with a mouthful of orthodontia before she was even in second grade’ (2018). McKibbens suggests it is an appropriation resulting from a false sense of the appeal of ‘otherness’: ‘White poets are feeling like there’s not enough of a captivating narrative for them to be listened to, so they’re creating false ones’ (in Rosenfield 2018: n.p.). In 2017, the former Canadian poet laureate Pierre DesRuisseaux was revealed to have plagiarised Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’, as well as poems by Federico García Lorca, and Tupac Shakur (Storr 2017) in the collection Tranches de vie, while in a complex scandal about performance and cultural authenticity, Sheree Mack, a British poet of Caribbean ancestry, stole from an eclectic range of sources to use as templates for an exoticised image of Trinidad. In Laventille, Mack claims to pay homage to a ‘forgotten story’, the 1970s Black Power Revolution; but as Kei Miller asks, ‘forgotten by whom? Laventille… is iconic in Trinidadian culture and literature’ (2015: n.p.). Katy Evans-Bush outlines how the plagiarised works included Douglas Dunn’s ‘Men of Terry Street’ (1969: 17), a ‘signature poem of taciturn miners’ (Evans-Bush 2015: n.p.) set in northeast England. In cribbing Dunn, Mack transplants the poem to Trinidad with ‘strange palimpsest-style changes that make no sense’ (Miller 2015: n.p.). The result is a shell-like approximation of trauma, history, and place that offers little more than a stereotypical echo of the realities endured and celebrated by others:

‘Her words do not evidence any struggle and they inevitably locate Laventille not in Trinidad but in disparate streets and towns all over the world. Her language, which is not her language, does not express any experience other than the experience of theft’ (ibid).

Moreover, the nuanced observations of ‘Men of Terry Street’ are leached, traded for confused, ‘clichéd and tourist-brochure images’ (ibid):

Men of Terry Street

They come in at night, leave in the early morning.
I hear their footsteps, the ticking of bicycle chains,
Sudden blasts of motorcycles, whimpering of vans.
Somehow I am either in bed, or the curtains are drawn (Dunn 1969: 17).


The Men of Success Village

They go out at night, come back early in the morning.
You hear their footsteps, the tinkling of bottles;
sudden blasts of calypso music, whining of dirty mas.
Somehow you are either in bed, or at the table, waiting (Mack, 2015).

Indeed, as recent poetry scandals suggest, plagiarists are attuned to the commodification of marginality as authentic expression. In 2015, Kenneth Goldsmith, whose theorisations of ‘uncreative writing’ unambiguously attempt to re-contextualise plagiarism as conceptual experimentation, ‘re-purposed’ the autopsy report for Michael Brown, a young man killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Goldsmith recited the ‘poem’ at a university conference just months after Brown’s death and the protests and conflicts which it provoked. Young argues that by doing so, Goldsmith makes clear the ways in which plagiarism ‘oddly behaves like racism… Is it that racism is a kind of plagiarism, stealing pain and pretending its practitioners are better, and greater, than they are?’ (2017: 420). Indeed, reactions to Goldsmith’s reading explicitly linked the conceit of the ‘experimental provocation’ to questions about racial politics: poet Ken Chen observed that conceptual poetry ‘literally sees itself as white power dissecting the coloured body’, for example, whilst one group, the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, contended that ‘The Murdered Body of Mike Brown’s Medical Report’ represents ‘the building blocks of white supremacy, a miscreant DNA’ (in Wilkinson 2015). The issue thus returns to a realisation of plagiarism’s etymological roots and practices, to the kidnapping of bodies and their colonisation by the powerful. As Young contends:

In reading and reusing a black boy’s autopsy while Brown’s graduation picture looked down on him from a projection screen rather than a tree, Kenneth Goldsmith re-enacted centuries of black bodies on display, abstracted but not abstract, an example to all. The belaboured black body becomes merely a body of work, while the very name ‘conceptual’ implies that its white interpreters are not only necessary but necessarily all mind (2017: 421).

While Goldsmith defended the ‘powerful’ effects of appropriating Brown’s autopsy, it is difficult not to recognise the ways in which contemporary plagiarists often seek to capitalise on pain, as well as how their manipulations constantly return to an obsession with originality. Goldsmith’s commentary on the public reading, for example, is revealing: ‘The document I read from is powerful. My reading of it was powerful. How could it be otherwise?’ (in Young 2017: 422). The suggestion is that, via plagiarism, Goldsmith has constructed a singular work of art, in addition to revealing a deeper truth about the institutionalisation of American racial violence. It is a conceit which belies an understanding of the ways in which literary theft pretends towards invention and meaning, yet often results in the ‘defacement of another’s experiences’ (ibid: 418). Moreover, as a consequence of such theft, there is a significant shift in focus away from the victim, whose trauma is replaced by the artistic ideals of a cribber — or the ‘uncreative writer’ — whose fixation on a ‘sole genius’, Young observes, remains ‘awfully Romantic’ (ibid). An obsession with originality thus also persists; indeed, Stewart Home posits that ‘plagiarism is the negative point of a culture that finds its ideological justification in the “unique”’… it is only through the creation of unique identities that commodification can take place’ (1995: 49). In this context, Goldsmith co-opts the identity of the ‘other’ in order to contrive a vision of an extra-ordinary self; and by doing so, enacts a colonial form of abduction which imbricates the bodies of texts and selves, transforming Brown into a conceptual experiment, a map that might ‘be traded or erased. Or owned’ (Young 2017: 421).

In Impostor, Christopher L. Miller contends that, whilst plagiarism is not the same as imposture, which involves ‘the appropriation of someone else’s experiences and culture’, the parallels are ‘striking’ (2018, 50). The framing of plagiarism as an ‘irredeemably corrupt original’ (Groom 2002: 27) is particularly fitting in these terms, in which the identities of others — or in the instances discussed here, the ‘other’ — are stolen in order to masquerade as an equally authentic self. As Young notes, a ‘noble vampire, plagiarism makes its living by hiding an ideology of ownership’ (2017: 413). Importantly — and also not unlike the relationship between a disease and its host — there is also a compelling sense of intimacy involved, particularly in the context of ideas about poetry as a medium through which to seek the truth in our experiences (Miller 2015). Moreover, perhaps due to the precision of language that it requires, poetry is associated with the deeply personal as well as with notions of truth and insight, and often infers a close correlation to the auto/biographical. In ‘What is Poetry?’, John Stuart Mill (1833) claimed that ‘the truth of poetry is to paint the human soul truly’, a transcendent Romantic vision of the genre that suggests a potent, personal connection between a creator and the object of creation. Whilst these are slippery, if not problematic, terms, the idea of profound sense of association between an author and their work is a common trope; Young goes so far as to claim that ‘to plagiarise another is to steal a bit of that person’s soul’ (2017: 403) — or perhaps their child. Alternatively, McKibbens describes the act as a form of possession or inhabitation, implying a closer alignment between plagiarism and imposture than recognised by Miller (2018), and a further evocation of ideas about contagion: ‘I didn’t really understand at first how much she had truly climbed into my story and worn my skin’ (in Rosenfield 2018: n.p.). The plagiarist becomes a kidnapper and re-shaper of identities, turning the Self into Other, and vice versa. In relation to O’Toole, Rosenfield highlights how such vampirism functions as a form of violence:

Poetry is as intimate as it is non-remunerative, a tiny part of the small word of books where writers lay themselves bare and mine the darkest corners of their lives for art. To steal the words of another poet isn’t just theft, but violation. (ibid) 

As plagiarists feed into a cultural demand for authentic suffering, particularly if associated with alterity, their deceptions reveal the ways in which cribbing is fundamentally an act of power. It is impossible to read the plagiarism committed by DesRuisseaux, for example, as anything other than an appalling exercise of privilege, compounded by the enormous success of the poet. Indeed, according to Jonathan Bailey, DesRuisseaux was ‘widely considered to be one of the best French-language poets in Canada’ (2017: n.p.), a factor which compelled audiences to defend Tranches de vie by initially suggesting it might represent an intertextual homage to the greats (Storr 2017). Bailey argues that while the collection is undoubtedly a compilation of plagiarised texts, a degenerative neural disorder may have been responsible for DesRuisseaux’s ‘confusion’, which is contained to an ‘unimportant and largely unread book published shortly before he died’ (2017: n.p.). Yet had Tranches de vie not been translated from French to English, it is possible the theft would have remained undetected, resulting in the false attribution of 30 out of the 47 poems in the collection to DesRuisseaux. The sources of the ‘crass grifting’ (Jabali 2017: n.p.) ranged from prominent authors of colour to amateur online poets, such as Nicole Renwick, whose ‘Funny…But Not’, posted to allpoetry.com, was reduced from 13 lines to nine, given a new closing line, and retitled ‘Curieux’ (Storr 2017). As in the scandals of Mack and O’Toole, the stolen material was ‘re-purposed’ with minimal edits, failing to fulfil the expectation that the plagiarist will, at the very least, take ‘the next step in the cycle of creation’ (Mallon 1989: 26). A translation of a section of Tranches de vie, for example, reads: ‘You can wipe me from the pages of history / with your twisted falsehoods / you can drag me through the mud / but like the wind, I rise’ (in Jabali 2017: n.p.). It is a clear appropriation of Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’, which does little more than awkwardly shift about verbs and nouns, and exchange synonyms: ‘write me down in history’ becomes a wiping from history; ‘lies’ becomes ‘falsehoods’, ‘trod me’ turned to ‘drag me’, whilst ‘like dust, I’ll rise’ is recast as an ethereal image of wind, lacking grittiness and materiality. Images grounded in resistance and survival are lightened, removed of their gravity and thus stripped of the specificity — the history, trauma, experience, and intimacy — which enabled its original construction.

DesRuisseaux’s plagiarising of Tupac Shakur reveals a similar pattern of colonised text. In Shakur’s ‘Sometimes I Cry’, from The Rose That Grew from Concrete (2009: 7), he writes: ‘Sometimes when I’m alone / I cry because I’m on my own / The tears I cry are bitter and warm / They flow with life but take no form’. DesRuisseaux’s poem offers a minor series of rearrangements: ‘When I’m Alone / Sometimes when I’m alone I cry / Because I’m alone. / The tears I cry are bitter and burning. / They flow with life, they do not need reason’ (in Jabali 2017: n.p.). It might be tempting to dismiss such instances as the results of illness; indeed, questions relating to mental health were also raised in relation both to O’Toole and Mack, while plagiarism is often linked to a form of sociopathy or the pathological (Fitch 2013; Young 2017; Mallon 1989). The results of such a focus, however, once more reduce the broader impacts of literary theft, which is not only deeply personal, but also inherently ideological, couched in the politics of colonisation, cultural appropriation, and race. Young contends that ‘plagiarising another’s pain… is what it means to shortcut the writing process, short-changing both the writer and the reader. Those rhythms, lost — those little changes that… add up to larger losses’ (419). Further, the expression of truth sought via experience is also, if not diluted, then compromised, transformed from the specific and the individual to the generalised and the universal — can DesRuisseaux legitimately make the same truth-claims as Angelou, share in the same weight of history? The recent controversies surrounding poetry plagiarism thereby suggest that its effects are often akin to a form of defilement and indeed violence, particularly accounting for the complex interaction of literary theft with notions of trauma, history, and self. As Randall thus notes, ‘plagiarism is power’ (2001: vii), a political act which functions to oppress, silence, and deny.


3. Appropriation as Masquerade: On the Efficacy of Plagiarism

According to Randall, ‘in the contemporary period — except for contexts in which hate literature, pornography, and sedition constitute discursive crimes — literary theft remains one of the worst possible’ offences in a domain largely restricted to the symbolic (2001: 14). As discussed, propositions of ‘uncreative writing’ attempt to re-frame literary ‘appropriation’ as a form of authorised theft, yet its processes and effects have been largely criticised, particularly given the failure of practitioners such as Goldsmith to attend to the wider political ramifications at play. Questions of the impossibility of originality persist from a Romantic obsession with genius and sincerity, whilst clumsily applied postmodern theory to justify cribbing as another means of intertextual reference, or a vehicle through which to ‘make it new’, inevitably fails to persuade. Indeed, arguments which seek to redeem plagiarism repeatedly return to its efficacy as a creative tool, a means through which to re-invent or re-purpose texts into more compelling, contemporary, or insightful forms. As Mallon contends:

The point… is always that the writer need not blush about stealing if he makes what he takes completely his, if he alchemises it into something that is, finally, thoroughly new. In short, one has an intensification of the classical notion of imitation: don’t just pay homage to the past; ravish it. When Oscar Wilde, replying to criticism that an early sonnet of his seemed awfully Miltonic, said, ‘What the critic calls an echo is really an achievement. I set myself to write sonnets like Milton’s which should be as good as Milton’s’, he was actually showing the restraint of the Renaissance craftsman (1989: 25-6).

Yet this is undoubtedly perilous territory, reliant on the judgements of reading audiences as well as attention to those tenuous rules which seek to separate legitimate ‘borrowing’ from unrepentant grifting. The tensions and debates surrounding controversies are inevitably circular and remarkably heated, yet rarely in relation to the ideological effects of plagiarism. Alternatively, scandals involving unauthorised thieving tend to highlight anxieties about literature and literary culture per se, particularly in relation to prizes, and the regulation of poetic forms such as the cento, found, blackout and erasure poems, intertextuality, collage, and pastiche. In this way, accusations of plagiarism function ‘as significant barometers of literary power struggles’ (Randall 2001: x), and are often focused on status: of the plagiarising author, the duped audience, and the conquest of the detective. Moreover, as discussed, plagiarists retain an uncanny ability to expose the tastes of the literary market, exploiting its predilection for ‘high aesthetic value and moral seriousness’ (Carter 2001: n.p.), including a hunger for narratives of trauma and ‘otherness’, as well as an association with the canonical ‘greats’, which help to demonstrate the ethical sincerity, empathy, and even intellect of the consumer. As David Carter notes of the Australian context, ‘good books and good reading are lifestyle and identity “accessories”’ that have the power to endow readers with aesthetic and ethical integrity’ (ibid). Resultingly, a number of poetry frauds have enjoyed such success due to being attuned to these markers of high cultural and literary value, able to shape their ‘craft’ according to the preferences of those gatekeepers — readers, prize committees, publishers, academics, reviewers — who patrol the establishment.

Plagiarism is thus potently subversive, forcing into question ideas not only about genre but also cultural hierarchies. Katy Evans-Bush, for example, discusses the ways in which institutionalised literary norms create an environment that permits plagiarism to flourish. It is, she argues, ‘about a culture that appears to valorise certain kinds of achievement much more than it values authenticity or knowledge, or indeed art or the act of creation’, a culture that is ‘more concerned with publication, recognition [and] fame’ than with learning craft (2013: n.p.). The 2013 scandal involving the plagiarist Andrew Slattery neatly encapsulates a number of these concerns, largely in part because of the enormous accomplishments realised by the poet before being publicly excoriated as a literary thief with tendencies that looked ‘something like sociopathy’ (in Fitch 2013: n.p.). A poet and a screenwriter, Slattery has appeared in prestigious Australian literary magazines and publications such as MeanjinQuadrant, The Weekend Australian, Black Inc’s Best Australian Poems and Overland, and ‘won or been commended in more than 30 poetry prizes in Australia and Britain’, including an Awgie for a short film script in 2007 and two Australia Council grants in 2008 and 2010, each to the value of $15,000 (Wyndham 2013: n.p.). Peter Porter described him as a ‘new and original talent’ (in Wyndham 2013: n.p.), however shortly after being awarded Griffith University’s Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize (valued at $10,000) for ‘Ransom’, Slattery was outed by ‘three poetry heavyweights’ — Anthony Lawrence, David Musgrave, and MTC Cronin — as a serial plagiarist. In response, Slattery firstly adopted the Malley Defence, claiming an exercise in radical poetic experimentation, before reverting to the more commonly employed Cento Defence, a combination of conceded apology and aesthetic barrier against denunciation. 80 per cent of ‘Ransom’ was comprised of the works of 50 other poets, including Charles Simic and Robert Bly, while ‘an obsessively footnoted dossier’ produced by Lawrence, Musgrave, and Cronin revealed that much of Slattery’s oeuvre was a result of cribbing from sources such as Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits, including an entire poem lifted from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (Fitch 2013; Wyndham 2013). The vehemence associated with Slattery’s ‘re-purposing’ is arguably a direct result of the feat achieved by the poet, who successfully persuaded the literary and cultural elite of an original genius at play: somewhat embarrassingly, and unlike DesRuisseaux’s clumsy ‘sampling’, Slattery’s work had been widely and critically celebrated as brilliant. As Clemens observes:

If good times are here for the blessed, there’s a rocky road ahead for the sinners, as well as all the judges and editors and aesthetes who have been left with poetic egg on their faces… The victims have come from all colours of the political and aesthetic spectrums. It seems Slattery has taken in almost everybody, from internationally famous poets such as Peter Porter, all the way through academic specialists and journal editors and media hacks, not to mention a more general and diffuse readership (2013).

Certainly, that Slattery was acclaimed for so long, receiving significant financial rewards as well as the profits of cultural capital, reveals the gatekeeping function of literary elitism, which relies on the same voices being heard on constant repeat. While Toby Fitch notes that the ability to ‘assemble affective lines into a prize-winning pitch’ to dangle ‘above those big fish’ is less subversive than it is attention-seeking (2013: n.p.), Clemens acknowledges the ways in which a staid monoculture, comprised of prize committees with ‘a mediocre or restricted palate of tastes’, transforms poetry — at least that which is validated by the literary establishment — into little more than ‘middling, middle-brow palliatives’ (2013: n.p.). As ‘an excellent confectioner of prize-winning poems’ (ibid), Slattery’s extensive plagiarism confirms a formula for literary value, and poses a major embarrassment for publishers, prize-givers, funding bodies, and expert readers: how discomforting not to recognise those great texts, however artfully cribbed. As Fitch notes, the ‘outrage becomes awkward’ (2013: n.p.). Indeed, like any form of hoax or imposture, plagiarism scandals expose cultural faultlines, as the thief demonstrates — intentionally or otherwise — an uncanny understanding of gaps in power and meaning. In Faking Literature, KK Ruthven states that fraudulent literature is a ‘symptom of the culture into which it intervenes’ (2001: 193), a sign of an institutional or paradigmatic gap that allows existing social narratives, generic conventions, and literary establishments to be exploited. Ruthven further observes that disruptive texts, such as fakes, forgeries and plagiaries, are ‘even more anarchic than literature because they question those institutions which identify and process the “genuine” article’, exposing the ‘weaknesses in those publishing, reviewing and prize-giving practices which constitute the literary world’ (ibid: 198). In the instance of Slattery, while Australian poetry may have been abuzz before the scandal (Fitch 2013), it was also revealed to be narrow and insular, serving a static tradition in the interests of a privileged few.

As noted, plagiarists regularly cite the Cento Defence in attempting to be exculpated from their literary crimes, claiming to be practicing a mode entirely composed of lines from other poems. It is a strategy that is usually, and most fittingly, ridiculed, particularly given the ways in which a plagiarised work becomes a cento only in (panicked) retrospect (Clemens 2013). The alternative is ‘unintentionally appropriated’, or to coin a more memorable title via Kei Miller, the Mosquito Defence, derived from a criminal anecdote: a man who ‘confessed to stabbing his wife in the neck…insisted he was not aiming for her, but for a mosquito perched on that neck’ (2015: n.p.). Yet what is interesting about the discourses surrounding the outing of a chronic cribber is the scrabble to defend other poetic practices which rely on various acts of scrounging and re-purposing as legitimate. Fitch, for example, expresses indignation about how ‘the very legitimate poetic practice called “collage” is being dragged through the proverbial mud’ and how other forms are implicated in suspect borrowings, such as homage, misquotation, and mistranslation (2013: n.p.). Mallon distinguishes genuine appropriation, through which an original work is formed, from plagiarism, a repetition without difference, via a curious mixed metaphor about farming and cooking: ‘What’s understood… is that what’s harvested is ploughed back, used to seed the next step in the cycle of creation. It is not put unchanged onto the dinner table by someone who pretends he’s been cooking all day’ (1989: 26). The major malcontent with the plagiarist is often that so little has been transformed (as witnessed in the cases of DesRuisseaux, Goldsmith, Mack, and O’Toole), a trait which often enables the theft to be more easily detected, but also permits a dismissal of the work as a failure in relation to ideas about intertextuality, patchwork, sampling, and other experimental methods. Further, in these instances, criticisms frequently focus on the lack of quality and sensitivity of the plagiarised work, expressing dismay, such as with McKibbens, that the result of pilfering might be so disappointingly poor, teeming with clichés, for example, and nonsensical replacements. These responses are complex, revealing not only how reading audiences critically function in the determination of what constitutes a plagiaristic act, as examined by Randall (2001: 99), but also the tenuous nature of other literary categories reliant on extensive ‘quotation’ as a mode of creation.

In terms of aesthetic value, the insistence that a plagiarised text may well be an authorised one if judged to be of literary virtue is inherently unstable, regardless, perhaps, of Romantic posturing to the contrary. It is also fundamentally hypocritical; as Mallon contends, while a controversy in the current moment is relished, there is discomfort in ‘dealing with charges against the long-dead great’ (1989: xiii): 

The desire to keep our literary gods from being indicted is intense and persistent. Everyone enjoys a good scandal in the present; anybody can work up relish for the raw wound. What we seem far less able to endure is that plaster cast falling from the library shelf: its shattering somehow bothers us more than the live body going off the cliff. Scholars will tie themselves up in knots exonerating Coleridge. (33) 

The works produced by Coleridge or Wordsworth or TS Eliot are undoubtedly more compelling than the efforts of Mack, Slattery, and O’Toole (some might argue), and yet all three contemporary poets have been significantly lauded, via the accolades of prizes, publication, funding, dedicated reading audiences (including academics and media pundits), and, in the instance of Mack, a doctoral degree. Given that literary value is ostensibly conferred by the gatekeepers of such bodies and institutions, the notion that one form of plagiarism might be authorised while others vilified raises some significant questions about the shifting, subjective, and fragile nature of the borderlines which determine authorised from unauthorised theft. (As Alasdair Gray’s ‘Index of Plagiarisms’ in the appendices of Lanark (1981) playfully suggests, systems of attribution are nothing if not profoundly ambiguous.) The contradictions of such boundaries are deftly revealed by the Slattery scandal in relation to the quandary of whether or not the offending plagiarist ought to be awarded the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize. In line with advice from Griffith University lawyers, the poet was ultimately disqualified on the basis that ‘Ransom’ breached the conditions of the award: the work submitted must be ‘original and not composed substantially of other authors’ work, whether or not they are disposed in a new form or order’ (Wyndham 2013: n.p.). Regardless of how other texts might be attributed, re-visioned, re-constructed or re-purposed, in legal terms at least, patchworking fails to be original.

Indeed, to return to issues of categories, while the Cento Defence is often cause for humour, if not frustration, the rush to protect other poetic species from the label of plagiarism is suggestive, revealing a deep-seated anxiety about the questionability of other forms and their relationships to ‘borrowed’ texts. Fitch argues, for example, that ‘one of the reasons poets have been compelled to use collage has been to subvert the myth and tired conceit of the all-seeing Poet at the centre of the Poem. It’s a political stance, not a narcissistic one’ (2013: n.p.). Yet as Young provocatively argues in the context of Goldsmith’s conceptual poetry, the ‘thief’s recognizing the stolen property doesn’t make him the owner’ (2017: 418) — or, indeed, an original genius. A number of forms, including the cento, specifically rely on citation in order to avoid the possibility of infraction, but it is questionable as to whether or not acknowledgement reduces the impact of the writing strategies at play, as Goldsmith’s ‘uncreative writing’ makes so clear. Howard goes so far as to suggest that not only is originality a ‘chimera, but so is citing one’s sources; Susan Stewart explains, “An ideal… device of citation would be a full (and necessarily impossible) history of the writer’s subjectivity”’ (2000: 474). Following the furore of scandal, the publisher of Mack’s Laventille, Smokestack, committed to re-releasing the collection with three of the most contentious poems removed and attributions added elsewhere. The decision was met with outrage, with some commentators even insisting that, for the book to be regarded as legitimate, it ought to obtain copyright permissions and include full versions of the poems upon which the ‘new’ work was based. Yet in literary terms, citation meets the criteria for appropriate use; as Randall highlights, charges of plagiarism rely on the ‘presupposition of covertness’ (2001: 29), whereas identification as imitation requires that the reader is able to recognise the source text(s), either explicitly —a reference having been included — or by familiarity and deduction, presuming a level of existing knowledge. Mack’s cribbing thus exposes a dilemma of form, bringing into light the slippery, contradictory nature of those modes — and their gatekeepers — accepted as legitimate, and those demonised as theft. As Mallon wryly observes, ‘one can barely conduct a study of plagiarism amid the deafening sound of literary pots roaring at literary kettles’ (1989: 31).


4. The Anarchy of Culture-Jamming: Conclusion

As Groom notes, plagiarism is a subversive force, proving ‘rather unruly and ungovernable, and yet phantasmic and even uncanny’ (Groom 2002: 28). The outrage it provokes is divisive and combative, and yet often associated with the levity of a prank or something ‘naughtily amusing, like vicious long-ago theatre reviews or quarrels between neo-classicists’ (Mallon 1989: xi). The frequent sense of unwillingness to confront the literary thefts of the past with the same fury attached to instances in the present is indicative of the tensions and contradictions of literary culture, particularly in its elitism. Howard contends that the very term plagiarism is deeply problematic, not only because of the violent gendering of its tropes and metaphors relating to authorship, but also due to the ways in which it ‘supports the worst sort of liberal-cultural gatekeeping, maintaining a false distinction between high and low literacy’ (2000: 475). The confusion surrounding poetic forms is an example of the ways in which the borderlines are patrolled; the lack of certainty as to how to distinguish cribbing from sampling, collage, intertextuality, and patchworking, for instance, highlights an anxiety about just how tenuous those categories might be. Framing plagiarism in these terms is not at an attempt at its defence, or even to suggest that all forms of appropriation are its equivalent; rather, it is to argue that there is considerable ambiguity about creative practice that reveals the boundaries between authorised and unauthorised theft might be more permeable than admitted. Indeed, the purpose here is not to argue that plagiarism might be considered a legitimate act of creation; as Clemens contends, as an activity it is an issue, one that is administrative but more significantly, ‘a deep conceptual problem which cannot be simply wished away’ (2013: n.p.). As discussed, it is imbricated in questions of identity, related to the kidnapping not only of the words but also the lives of others. The plagiarist commits a political act, one which functions to silence and possess, and one that, in the case studies examined here, is deeply colonial in nature. And yet plagiarism is profoundly efficacious, if not also, to draw on Ruthven’s term, anarchic, able to expose the machinations of literary and culture power. In the outrage it fuels, literary cribbing is akin to a moment of culture-jamming which, as Julia Abramson observes, ‘draws attention to the conditions under which deception was allowed to transpire’ (2005: 25): the work of the plagiarist ‘an illusion, but one that points insistently to that which makes illusion possible’ (ibid: 145).


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