finders keepers? the clash of intellectual property and a venerable poetic tradition

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.


Filed under Living With Words, poetry

9 responses to “finders keepers? the clash of intellectual property and a venerable poetic tradition

  1. Superb Ms Baroque. I can’t imagine why The Guardian wasn’t interested. It has plummeted in my estimation.



  2. Laura Orem

    I’m definitely with you on this one, Katy. I think Motion was very clear and up-front about what he was doing; he attributed his source; he created something new. I spend most of my waking life teaching 18-year-olds about intellectual property and citing sources and blah blah blah, so I’m hyper-sensitized to any whiffs of plagiarism – and there ain’t none here. In fact, the only thing I can smell is Shephard’s rapidly fermenting sour grapes.

    And no, he doesn’t own the quotes.

  3. The plagiarism’s the thing / with which to catch the conscience of the king.

  4. Simon R. Gladdish

    Dear Katy

    Good analysis. Ben Shephard spent over ten years doing the research. Andrew Motion then spent ten days picking out the plums and received ten times the money and attention. I’m not surprised that Shephard was pissed off. In fact, what Motion did was very reminiscent of what Dan Brown did in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ which was basically a rewrite of ‘The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail’. I realised this immediately as I had read the second book first. Two of the authors of ‘THB&THG’ took Dan Brown to court and lost so I doubt that Shephard will be issuing any writs. Incidentally, I noticed that public opinion was overwhelmingly aginst
    Sir Andrew and now if you type ‘Andrew Motion plagiarism’ into Google, you get tens of thousands of pages. Perhaps they should republish the poem as ‘An Equal Voice’ by Sir Andrew ‘Lloyd’ Motion and Ben ‘Good’ Shephard!

    Best wishes from Simon

  5. Simon, I agree, but I’m not sure I think it’s Plagiarism. It’s more like How the World Works. Motion did credit the book, he never claimed to have written the lines- that is what would have been plagiarism. And I’m not that interested in the kind of public opinion that gets expressed in the comment threads. Most of it operates at a very low level of either knowledge or insight. Public opinion likes someone to rip to shreds, and I’m also not interested in that. Ben Shephard produced The World at War, and thus deserves our huge respect if nothing else. And Motion also wrote that biography of Keats. It’s not like he doesn’t know the difference. He credited Shephard.

  6. Chris Kaiser

    I think Motion should have cited his sources, rather than say the voices were taken from a variety of sources. It would be one thing if he lifted a phrase or two, but he takes the quotes whole! Someone else did all the research to get those quotes. He has to give credit where credit is due.

  7. Joelle Biele

    Thanks for posting—fascinating. I’m not aware of British copyright law, but if this were the US, the way I understand it, Motion would be fine re Sheperd in that Sheperd does not own the copyright to those quotes–they are not Sheperd’s original material. However, if this were the US, Motion could be in trouble under fair use, because of the amount of material he used without seeking permission from the publisher. It’s clear Motion wanted to do the right thing–he uses the book’s title and Sheperd’s name in the title, pointing readers to his source.

    Sheperd seems to want the poem treated as an academic article, where quotation marks and page numbers would be expected (“Veteran Smith as found in Sheperd’s book…”), but the poem appeared in a newspaper, where citations are not used. And like you show, poets have a lots of different ways (and non-ways) of citing their sources. If the poem were to appear in a book, putting page numbers in the notes would be great–I’ve rarely seen poets go that far–and what Motion has done is what many poets do, point out their source either in the title or the end notes. But at least in the US, this would most likely be an issue for a publisher to take up under fair use, not an author under plagiarism, because this is not Sheperd’s original material.

  8. It’s only a shame that Motion’s work was such a poor example of the “stitched poem” (I like that reference, Katy, to the cento) and that in this he was neither original in form, or in content. There are plenty of poets who are creating “found” poetry that are not quite so journalistic as Motion’s creation. These voices do speak directly to us, whether in Motion’s poem or Sheperd’s book. Svetlana Alexievich’s “Voices from Chernobyl” (published by Dalkey Archive press) is one of the most moving and poetic books of the last decade, easily rebooted as poetry, but one has to always be careful of this level of appropriation; the end result – the poetry has to be worth it. The Eliot comparison isn’t really applicable, I think, he took the “noise” of the city and made it important, in the Wasteland, these voices were already there. In the end, this isn’t a debate about poetry at all, but about publicity. Motion’s in the strange position of being a poet whose work does gain publicity, but for every reason other than the poetic. It’s a laureate poem, from someone who is no longer laureate. Not a problem in itself, but perhaps not particularly interesting.

  9. I was lecturing to art students about conceptual art and googled Duchamp Mona Lisa under Google images. The image you’ve used is cropped and a misrepresentation of Duchamp’s work which gave me the opportunity to warn my students about using the web as their only research tool. Today I decided to look for the context of that image- all the more astounding!

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