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Playing with Plagiarism and Intertextuality

In January of 2013, poet Christian Ward made major news in the UK poetry world when his poem, 'The Deer at Exmoor' won the Hope Bourne poetry prize. It was rather quickly discovered that his poem bore an uncanny resemblance to Helen Mort's poem 'The Deer'. When pushed, he made the extraordinary claim that he realised he was wrong but only because he had not changed Mort's work enough. In a statement published in the Western Morning News, Ward wrote: "I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn’t entirely my own work. I had no intention of deliberately plagiarising her work. That is the truth."

This seems to me, an extraordinary claim: that there is, somewhere, a line that exists where, once crossed, one has changed the work of another sufficiently to claim that it is not one's own, original work.

At first, I resisted this. As a creator of art, I want to think that my ideas are original. I want to be the kind of person who doesn't steal. But the more I thought about it, the more it seems to me that despite his obvious plagiarism of Mort's work (only a few words had been changed) Christian Ward might actually have a point.

Art does not exist in a vacuum. Good art responds to the world around it and this includes other art. In fact, we encourage students to draw from wide reading and to experiment with intertextuality. It is ridiculous to suggest that writers should write as though they have never read anything else. How could we progress ideas without looking to the work of others? Are we to be forbidden to pay homage or criticise the work of others for fear of being termed plagiarists. Ward has used T. S. Eliot's  The Wasteland in his defense. This seems a stretch given that Eliot borrowed widely and used that material to create a entirely different work, where as Ward only changed a few words. But how then should we view Marcel Duchamp's moustachioed Mona Lisa? What role does the intentionality of the artist play and how can we determine that intentionality?

This grey area has become one of fascination for me and is one for many artists. Songs sample other music and borrow lyrics. Musical artists cover songs. Visual artists use techniques developed by others, or parts of other artists' work - in the case of Duchamp and da Vinci an entire work. Writers also borrow techniques. Could A Girl is a Half Formed Thing have been written without the work of Joyce or Woolf? They reuse plots. Amy Tan's Valley of Amazement tells the story of a woman forced into the sex trade similar to Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. Are differences of setting and details 'enough' that it is not plagiarising Golden's bestseller?

I recently attended the 6th International Integrity and Plagiarism Conference and presented a workshop that asked these questions of delegates. The exercises explored the line between intertextuality and plagiarism and asked delegates to think about exactly where that line was. The title of the workshop asked if Maya Angelou plagiarised poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar by titling her seminal memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, after a line in his poem, 'Sympathy'. I was surprised to find that many participants believed she had. Many believed that there should be references in writing so that readers could find the original texts. There was even one who claimed that all art should be "entirely original."

What would this complete originality look like? What exactly should be referenced? I've read over 150 books in writing my novel and hundreds before. How could I begin to reference all my influences? Should I begin with novels or should I go right by to The Hungry Caterpillar which taught me the importance of always escalating conflict? Is the desire to reference and emphasis on complete originality just a misunderstanding of the artistic process? What implications does this have for the arts in academia?

It seems to me that the charge of plagiarism is a dangerous one. I do not think that Ward should be absolved - he clearly stole the work of others and presented it as his own. But I do think that there is some room to respond to and even to appropriate the work of others.

What about the innate slipperiness of language? The same words in a different context could have a different meaning. Would that still be plagiarism? Part of the joy of writing and reading is this duplicity of meaning. By obsessing over text-matching we can easily miss the artistry in writing.

There may be no easy answer to plagiarism in the written arts, especially within the context of academia, but I'm certainly still looking.