Posted by: Rosemary Badcoe | January 14, 2013

Yours or mine?

It felt a little mean to repeat the story about Christian Ward’s possible plagiarism of Helen Mort’s poem to win the Exmoor Society’s Hope Bourne poetry prize but now it’s attracted the attention of the national press the cat seems to be out of the bag. And when I then compared the other poem he may have ‘accidentally’ submitted as his own, any feeling of sympathy disappeared.  Compare and contrast: After Neruda by Tim Dooley (1995) , and The Neighbour (page 12, 2009). The poetry world, particularly in the UK, is pretty small – people do read what is out there, and eventually situations like this do come to light. The reaction I’ve mostly heard from other poets and readers is a) did he really think he’d get away with it? and b) what on earth did he think he was doing?

As a general rule, if you’re going to pinch things and claim them for your own, poetry isn’t the place to do it. The fame and the money are going to be depressingly limited, however great you become. And surely the point of writing is to tell your own ideas in your own unique way.

Sometimes when I’m reading a poem I come across a phrase that really resonates with me; sets me off in some direction of my own. Generally by the time I’ve finished the actual words I’ve pinched have disappeared or morphed into something of my own. If they don’t, I feel uneasy – can I send this poem out into the world and claim it as my own? Should I credit the original author, or say ‘after xxx’? More awkward is when a phrase I think I’ve just invented seems familiar, but I don’t remember if it’s something I’ve assimilated from reading. Possibly I worry too much – art has always fed off itself, borrowed, stolen and reinvented.  I don’t believe the odd phrase, used as inspiration or to reference another work is a problem. Swiping an entire poem and altering a few words; that’s something else entirely.

If I sound a bit aggressive, it’s because this feels strangely personal – Helen’s a local poet I’ve heard read several times, and Christian has submitted to Antiphon and is someone I’ve (virtually) seen around, someone whom I assumed was aiming in the same direction as the rest of us jobbing writers.

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Responses

  1. I think my main feeling about this situation is one of bemusement. There are only two reasons I can think of for someone to do this, either to promote a literary career or for the money.
    The first doesn’t make sense; if you become famous by plagiarising the poem of a more famous poet then it’s pretty obvious that you will get caught out. The second doesn’t make sense either; there are more lucrative forms of fraud than poetry competitions.

    I think Christian Ward’s reasons will never really be understood, he gives the impression of being a troubled young man and seems to be digging himself an ever-deepening hole with each public comment he makes on the subject. I haven’t actually read a proper public apology to Helen Mort, in fact it often seems that he feels that he’s the injured party. There are damage-limitation steps he could have taken at the beginning, sadly he chose not to take them.


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