• The Strange Case of Christian Ward

    There's rarely anything that shakes the rarefied plateau of contemporary poetry. A surprise competition win here or an unusual choice for a university chair there is about all that raises a murmur. Christian Ward, though, has managed to raise more poetry hackles than Cerberus’ and all her pups, when surprised by a small tabby kitten which had taken a wrong turn.

    Christian Ward took a Creative Writing degree at Royal Holloway College and then started sending his poems out, like most serious poets, to magazines and competitions. He had some accepted and won some prizes, but a recent prize, awarded for a poem based on Exmoor, turned out to be a poem Helen Mort had written, based in Cumbria, with a couple of minor changes.

    Enraged poets started to look through Ward's other published work and found further poems bearing striking similarities to the work of other writers. The count stands, apparently, at 15 (Google the name to find out if the tally has risen), with some poems only differing from the originals by a single word. The shout 'plagiarism' is heard loudly in the hills.

    It set me wondering what constitutes plagiarism. Plenty of poets write work based on a quote from another poem, usually italicised at the top of theirs and not part of the new work, but even that’s often considered OK. So for example, if you wrote a sonnet, two lines of which came from one of Shakespeare’s, most people would think that was reasonable, as long as the quote was well used…and credited.

    If only two of the lines were original and 12 were Shakespeare’s, though, there’d be many cross noises. This is fair enough, as a poem takes a lot of effort and passing off somebody else’s work as your own is theft of intellectual property, even if there’s little financial reward. However, there must be some point between 2 and 12 lines where it flicks from a reasonable technique to an unreasonable one. I would guess three or four lines would be the limit.

    And how many words could you use from another poem before you’re stealing; words, after all, are common currency for all writers. How about this:

    An Other To Go

    When children, in little satin shirts and slippers

    press flowers to railings and pick clothes for friends,

    and go for bread and papers in the purple rain of summer,

    I shall run along the pavement and stick candles in the shops

    I shall pay my public pension for the people's youth.

    When old people eat sausages and pickles in the street

    and sit in dry gardens and read of butter and money and pens

    I shall practice sobriety and gobble down three things:

    beer, brandy and nuts, so I can spit at alarm bells and swear.

    But I grow surprised and tired, shocked and suddenly fat.

    The woman doesn't have a red hat and gloves,

    doesn't spend pounds on pencils and dinner boxes.

    A terrible hoard samples that suit we wear,

    that example we've maybe set on the up.

    You ought to know we are for rent now

    and make me good and start my week

    and learn more and say to me, I must not have a…

    must not wear a… go in or out a… am too with us, am now.

    Keep our no, my who, my up and only and but,

    and the purple I shall wear, when I am old.

    This is my poem, perhaps rather more experimental than I usually write, about getting old. If it suggests another, particularly towards the end, that’s probably because it’s made up of only and all the words in Jenny Joseph’s Warning, the Nation’s Favourite Poem. Is it plagiarism?

    5 Comments

    • 1. Feb 20 2013 3:28PM by Country Mouse

      Makes me think of the musical equivalent of sampling and remixing - you may have said that somewhere in the text. (I'm finding the text hard to read, serifs, white on black/varied color background, lines very close. Maybe more interline. Maybe if I wasn't having a migraine!) I like your "sampled" poem, not knowing the other one - I'll have to have a look at it. I mostly like the vivid sharp jangling images that feel oddly like my state of mind right now. Maybe because they created it? ... Also reminds me of... When I taught English, the students liked the treasure box of words exercise - chopped up words of famous poems. Each got a pinch and made up a poem - it really liberated them and some lovely images popped out --- Jackie (Hannah's mum)

    • 2. Feb 20 2013 3:37PM by Simon Williams

      Sorry you're having trouble with the text; I'll see if I can do something about it. Yes, I think it does have echoes with sampling and the same kind of rules apply. It's OK to take a short riff, but frowned on to take an entire track, though remixes have now become accepted, where there's no real equivalent in poetry. The Warning poem is the one which begins 'When I am old, I shall wear purple...' Does that bring it to mind?

    • 3. Feb 20 2013 5:16PM by Country Mouse

      No but I did look it up after I posted the comment. I like your poem better! :-)

    • 4. Mar 15 2013 9:28AM by Rebecca Gethin

      I think your inventive poem couldn't be called plagiarism at all....words, as you say, are a common currency and you happen to have selected the same words as JJ. Brilliant ! Thanks for the idea. Cheers Becky

    • 5. Nov 30 2014 3:47PM by Steve

      Plagiarism is more than mere copying; it is presenting someone else's work as your own. This is why plagiarism will result in the instant 'sending down' of an undergraduate. As an incidental note, Ward was in the year below me at school, and was not known for his academic qualities. It was only when I was looking on Wikipedia at the list of notable ex-pupils from St. Benedict's that I saw his name, and was stunned to find that he was a poet. It was only after a quick Google that I realised that every search mentioned chronic plagiarism, and suddenly the world made sense again.

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