Ausonius declaiming someone else’s words a long time ago
Fortunately news moves slowly in the poetry world; this has grown rather old in the three days it took the Guardian to get back to me saying it was rather old… but you guys don’t care, do you? I mean, poetry books get reviewed a year after publication. So a few days is nothing.
Once again, UK poetry finds itself the whipping boy for the insecurities of the modern world. When the military historian Ben Shephard accused Andrew Motion of the P word (“and it’s not ‘poetry'”), for constructing a sonnet sequence out of quotations taken from his book, A War of Nerves, he inadvertently hit right into the heart of one of the biggest issues going these days. Intellectual property. Not only how do you protect it, or how do you enforce that, but what IS it?
Shephard laid claim to ownership of those words – even though they were all quotations, and didn’t originate with him in the first place. “He [Motion] has no right to claim any sort of legal or moral ownership of the material,” Shephard said. “There is nothing original in this at all.”
Er – except that it’s a sonnet sequence?
Not the most deathless sonnet sequence in the world, as I’ll be the first to admit – and perhaps a bit underbaked – but clearly a beast of a different stripe.
Motion’s explanation – in a paragraph appearing before the poem in last Saturday’s Guardian – was that he was “stitching together” these voices, as he felt he himself had no claim to a personal voice on the subject, having not been there. Shephard, in an angry outburst, put it like this: “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.”
Hmm. Key word, “found”? The quotes in question were all from soldiers and doctors involved in the 1914-18 War, not from Shephard himself. I concede that this may be hairsplitting; and I know Shephard did the original research, though reading his resulting book is also research… someone help me out here…
Shephard continues: “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.”
But if Shephard is warning us of the danger of someone just skipping around and latching onto certain bits, isn’t that just what people do with books? Schoolkids, students, writers, housewives, bloggers – all over the land, they’re at it – ignorantly scribbling notes and taking out the bits they’re interested in. I for one hardly ever finish a whole book. No matter how important your project is, you can only curate an experience; you can’t impose it. Motion has simply sampled parts of the book – the parts that worked with his particular project – and curated them for a different experience.
And this is the crux: because a history book is one thing, and a poem is very much another. Academe has very strict, unassailable standards, which are necessary to ensure the integrity of the academic work. Why? Because we rely on academics to give us verified, cited instances, something as close to facts as we can get.* We need them for our extrapolations. Art, including literary art, has no such adherence to these standards – not because it is less good, or less rigorous in its own way, but because it is doing a different thing. Art is observation – that is, personal observation – extrapolation – commentary. Personal commentary.
For art to have to operate like academe would mean paintings and stories would have to have footnotes. Ain’t nobody want that.
And it’s always been the same, over the millennia. So Motion used the Shakespeare defence, which is strong (really: did you know that “the poop was beaten gold; purple the sails…” was stolen from a history book?). Srsly. And as it happens, Ovid’s legend of Pyramus and Thisbe – on which Romeo and Juliet is (like, obviously) based, just happens to have been translated into English for the first time in 1567, but one Arthur Golding. Bet he was spitting nails!** But did that story belong to him?***
Less strong was his use of the Padel defence, referring the irate historian to Ruth Padel’s poetic biography of her ancestor Charles Darwin; Padel was after all last seen in the mainstream media earlier this year as another poetic whipping boy. (And the comment-writing public hasn’t forgotten it.)
The Eliot defence has come up, of course, but The Waste Land is such a cacaphony of voices, unattributed, uncopyrighted, vernacular, historical, foreign, snatched in tiny snatches, that no one could ever shake a stick, or a writ, at it. And its author in any case threw generations of would-be analysts off the scent with his obfuscating notes at the back. (He later said he was sorry.) Motion has used none of these tactics; quite the reverse. He wore his heart on his sleeve.
Marcel Duchamp shamelessly stole from Da Vinci in 1916.
Other defences that have come up are the common-or-garden modern literary (but not historiographical) phenomena of Dada, Oulipo, cut-up, fold-in, music-sampling, “version” translation, Flarf, Spam, Donald Rumsfeld’s “poetry,” and even the current GPS Poetry “found poetry” project at the Southbank Centre. There are others I can’t even remember. The novelist Jeff Noon samples texts, using dub music as a model, and “remixes” them so much he sometimes takes them to the level of the primordial unit and makes them into anagrams, which he then uses in his texts. I don’t think you could expose him for that. Even those words’ own mothers wouldn’t recognise them.
In music, of course, sampling is everywhere. People even sample whole vocal tracks and put them with other backing tracks. It’s postmodernism gone mad, Tom Wolfe was right, I mean Marshall McLuhan was – we are floating in a soup of other people’s original words, and the European Parliament is e’en now engaged with several important think tanks trying to sort it all out.
But Motion’s best defence of all was sitting there in a corner the whole time. (I told you poetry moved slowly. Will 2,000 years do?) While the online boors & bores go crazy with their “talentless nu-labour imposters” etc, no one has thought of bringing up the Ausonius defence!
Ausonius, a Roman poet, invented the Cento form, which specifically takes phrases or lines or passages from other works and “stitches” them into an original work. Yes! “Stitches!” Centos were great cloaks made of hundreds (geddit?) of patches of leather, to ward off the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. What better model for a poem. And you’ve got to think the Romans knew something about copyright law.
In fact, An Equal Voice is a failed cento, because a true cento should contain no lines of one’s own. (cf. “The Politics of Lipsius (Politicorum Libri Sex, 1589) consist only of centos; there being nothing of his own but conjunctions and particles.”)**** So Motion cheated. He was too original.
Ben Shephard, an extremely rigorous and learned man, may own the research – and his book – but, seriously, does he own the quotes? I’m really asking. Does he?
I’m not sure anyone knows.
The poem is here, complete with credit and acknowledgement, and now you can tell the world what you would have done if it had been you having that great idea for a Remembrance Day poem…
* n.b., there is no such thing as empirical reality.
**Especially if, as some people think, Shakespeare was really Edward de Vere, 17th Early of Oxford – he was de Vere’s uncle. Don’t you just think family plagiarism is the worst kind?
*** No. As it happens, Romeo & Juliet is at the very least a double theft – if not a cento – because its main source is an Italian story translated by Arthur Brooke into The Tragickall Historie of Romeus and Juliet, in 1562. But he died in 1563, so couldn’t complain.
****Wikipedia: academics and students aren’t allowed to reference it. And I don’t care.