Is it plagiarism to use real quotes in poetry and fiction?

>> Tuesday, November 10, 2009


There's a very interesting piece in Monday's London Times about a poet who is accused of plagiarism by a non-fiction writer. Part of the poet's defense of his appropriation: So what? Shakespeare did it all the time.

The non-fiction writer, Ben Shephard, is the author of A War of Nerves, which examines the psychological effects of warfare on soldiers. The poet is Sir Andrew Motion, who was asked to write a poem about war veterans for The Guardian newspaper. What Sir Andrew did was to read Mr. Shepherd's book and take quotes from it--things soldiers said--and rework them into lines in his poem. Here are some examples, per The Times:
From A War of Nerves by Ben Shephard (2000):
“War from behind the lines is a dizzying jumble. Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust reports . . .”
“marching men with grimy faces and shining eyes . . .”
“bloody clothes and leggings lying outside the door of a field hospital . . .”
“I have been in the front line so long, seen many things . . .”

From An Equal Voice by Andrew Motion (2009):
“War from behind the lines is a dizzy jumble. Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust reports . . .”
“marching men with sweat-stained faces and shining eyes . . .”
“bloody clothes and leggings outside the canvas door of a field hospital . . .”
“I have been away too long and seen too many things . . .”
Sir Andrew calls it "found poetry." Mr. Shepherd calls it something else. "Of the 152 lines in An Equal Voice, all but 16 are taken directly from A War of Nerves," Shepherd says. "There is a word for this. It begins with ‘p’ and it isn’t poetry."

More from The Times:
Motion described his poem An Equal Voice as a stitching together of voices of shell-shocked people, from a variety of sources, into “a poem by them, orchestrated by me”.


But Shephard said: “What Motion actually stitched together were 17 passages from my book A War of Nerves: the ‘voices from a variety of sources’ were not ‘found’ by Motion, but by myself. Of the poem’s eight stanzas, five consist entirely of material from A War of Nerves, very slightly rejigged; in the remaining three stanzas, extracts from the book sit alongside reworked passages from Siegfried Sassoon — the only other source used. Of the 152 lines in An Equal Voice, all but 16 are taken directly from A War of Nerves. There is a word for this. It begins with ‘p’ and it isn’t poetry.

“There is a further issue. My work can be lazily ripped off like this, without any recompense — what did The Guardian pay Motion for copying out my research? Yet every time I quote a line of poetry in a book, I have to pay. As most of the words here are not Andrew Motion’s — the entire first stanza, for example, is taken almost unaltered from a letter written by the American psychiatrist Thomas W. Salmon in 1917; I could list the generals, psychiatrists and soldiers whose words provide the rest of the poem — it would be obscene if Motion’s estate claimed copyright on this material. If a poet’s words are not his own, why should anyone pay to use them?

“And the poem itself? In War of Nerves I warned that it would be all too easy, given the nature of the subject matter, to take material out of context and ‘pull together a collage of horror and pathos’. Andrew Motion has now done exactly that.”
Sir Andrew's response is surly and defiant:
“He doesn’t get it, does he?”, the poet said of Shephard. “This is ridiculous. He has got completely the wrong end of the stick. To blow off about it like he has done completely misunderstands what found poetry is. It has a long pedigree, which he seems not to be aware of."


This long and honourable tradition, the poet explained, involved quoting or rearranging existing texts to alter their emphasis. He cited Ruth Padel’s book based on the writings of her great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin, work by James Fenton and Anthony Thwaite’s dramatic monologues in Victorian Voices.

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra borrowed whole passages from Sir Thomas North’s Life of Mark Antony he said, including the description of her barge: “The poop was beaten gold; purple the sails . . .”
The poem's title, "An Equal Voice," was also taken from Shephard's book--but Sir Andrew ran an attribution for that with the poem in The Guardian. It appears it was never his intention to disguise the sources for his material.

So which is it? Found poetry, or plagiarism? I've taken quotes--things real people said--from non-fiction research and put them into the mouths of my own characters. But I've never tried to pass them off as my own work in narrative passages. In Samurai Shortstop, in particular, I remember reading the comment of an early Japanese critic of baseball that it was a dishonest sport that encouraged 'stealing' bases, and I put those words in the mouth of Sotaro. I didn't see this as plagiarism--they were things someone real once said, and now they were things my characters were saying in their stead. When I wrote a play based on a mine disaster in 1902 in Fratersville, Tennessee, I made a point of using some of the trapped miner's own words--which they wrote on paper to their loved ones--verbatim in the play.

On that score, I agree with Sir Andrew--I was extrapolating from found non-fiction material to create a work of fiction. But I think Mr. Shephard makes a very interesting point when he asks if the poet's estate can now claim copyright on that work--can Sir Andrew now charge anyone who wishes to excerpt his poem, when he himself excerpted those pieces--for free!--from another source?

Ah, the murky world of copyright and fair use. What say you? Plagiarism, or found poetry?


6 comments:

Britt Kaufmann November 10, 2009 at 8:05 AM  

As a former English teacher, I must get on a soap box about plagiarism. As a poet, I hop right down.

The poet did mention the source material upon publication. He was giving due credit.

And let's get down to what Shephard is really grousing about: money. Seriously? You're going to begrudge a poet money? Does he know how hard it is to even recoup your expenses for paper, pen, postage, computers, etc. by $ earned from poetry!?!

I'll bet he earned a lot more with his book than the poet is going to get out that singular poem. And what is Shephard getting out of all this: a lot of free publicity.

I think, Alan, by writing fiction you are let off a lot of hooks. (Poetry doesn't have such distinctions -- even when it's fictional, if you use "I" everyone will assume is autobiographical and therefore true.) As a novelist, you're expected to do research so your "fiction" is "historically accurate" -- but you're not purporting that this is work generated solely from your imagination. I believe too, that non-fiction writers write about their subjects to inform others' lives and works... that's why they're writing to begin with... to change perceptions in the world, to be the catalyst for countless other small changes.

I know many YA books list "Other Reading" or somesuch at the end of novels, have you (your publisher) done this and included your source material?

TheOtherOne November 10, 2009 at 10:47 AM  

I would vote "found poetry" if it were "found" in multiple sources. But if 75% of it came from one single source, it's not like you put much working into the finding, is it?

edithspage November 10, 2009 at 11:06 AM  

Since he gave credit, the question could be, Plagiarism? Poetry? Or Free Marketing?

Alan November 10, 2009 at 1:27 PM  

@ Britt: I did list a lot of the books I used for research in the back of Samurai Shortstop. In The Brooklyn Nine, I included a few historical notes on each chapter, explaining what was real and what wasn't--bit I didn't include a bibliography.

Alan November 10, 2009 at 1:28 PM  

@ TheOtherOne: Fair point.

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