How do you write a poem? Giving credit where it’s due

Perhaps you decide on a theme, perhaps a image springs to mind, perhaps you are reminded of an incident that happened to you in the past or a first memory, perhaps you had an abortive attempt to get some words down on the page and decided more research was needed, perhaps you came across a poem and wanted to write a response to it, perhaps you were flipping through your notebook and came across an interesting idea, perhaps you saw a poem with a format that seemed appropriate for you theme and you decided to write your poem in that format.

It’s very rare a poet sits down in front of a blank screen or blank page and writes a poem without any preparative thought process.

It’s equally rare for a reader to read a poem with a completely blank mind. Readers bring their own experience, memories and baggage to a poem. One reader may hate ballads because she remembers being humiliated after being expected to learn one by heart and messing up one of the lines when asked to recite it in front of the class. Another reader may love the ghazal and be pre-disposed to look favourably on any she reads. Another reader may find that your poem about a tragedy triggers memories of involvement in a similar tragedy and her response to your poem will be informed by her memories.

Many readers are also poets who commit take a phrase, image or poem to memory or a notebook to refer to again later. These notes may then become sources for new poems. The new poem may take the form of a call and response with the original poem as a call and a new poem emerging from the lines written in response. A new poem may arise from taking an image, brainstorming and creating a poem from the brainstormed ideas. A poet might start with a line from another’s poem and write a new poem based on that line. Found poems, including erasure poems, use an original text and reformat it into a poem but generally the original sources were not poems and the found or erased poem offers a new slant or focus on the original and can be read independently of it. Cut-up poetry takes a source or sources and cuts out lines or phrases to make a new poem. All of these are legitimate sources for new poems, providing the originals are credited where the new poem uses lines from the original(s).

How much of the original source do you have to include in your new poem before you need to include a credit from the original?

If you have no intention of publishing the poem written in response to other or using cut-up, erasure or found techniques or by ghosting (basing a new poem on the structure or imagery of another), no problem arises. The new poem stays in a notebook or file never to see to the light of day; like a workshop exercise to try out an unfamiliar form or experimenting with an image. The problems arise when poets seek to publish a poem that was based on another source.

If you’ve written an ekphrastic poem inspired by a piece of art, which could be a painting, a sculpture or even a piece of prose? The usual way of crediting the original is to add a note “after” with the name of the artist. The understanding here is that the poet has tried to capture a feel, atmosphere or sense of the original piece of art in their poem in a response to the original art. I’ve written a poem, “Good Morning Midnight” (included in “Yellow Torchlight and the Blues”) after Jean Rhys: the poem tries to capture the atmosphere and feel of Jean Rhys’s prose but does not quote from it.

If you use cut-up, found or erasure techniques, you should credit the original text(s).

If your poem B is based on a line by poet A in their poem A, a credit should be included.

Parodies are not plagiarism, neither is rewriting a story from the viewpoint of a different character providing you have invented the different character’s voice and not simply rearranged the original story (although in both cases it helps to credit the original in case your readers, who may have a different cultural background, are unfamiliar with it).

But what if you’ve used a call and response or ghosting techniques to write your poem? Here the line between plagiarism (the wrongful appropriation, close imitation or purloining of other writer’s work) and a new poem becomes more difficult to define. When scaffolding is used, the idea is that the scaffolding is removed and a new building stands, independent of that scaffolding.

The ‘fair use’ argument (usually used where works are quoted from in a piece of criticism or review or in students’ work) may not be enough either. A poet may only have used 23 words of another’s poem, which might be justifiable if the original was a thousand line epic, but if the original was only 30 words, then 77% of the original poem has been used. It’s difficult to argue a poem that is 23% the poet’s own work is a new poem and doesn’t need to credit anyone else. It’s not possible to reduce an argument to simple mathematics either, if those 23 words were the essence or structure of the original, the second poet absolutely should credit the original poet.

It is possible to publish poems based on other’s work with or without credits being given. Editors, publishers and competition judges have not read every single published poem and, even if they had, would not necessarily recognise that the poem they are reading is based on another poet’s poem. Poetry works on trust. Most competitions include in their rules that entries must be the original, unpublished work of the entrant and trust entries comply because they don’t have time to check. Most publishers and editors ask for original work and trust that poets know the law around copyright and are aware of plagiarism so don’t submit work that breaches either or both. In turn, reviewers trust that books or pamphlets sent for review are of unplagiarised work. Where proper credits have been given, there shouldn’t be a problem. Where credits have not been given, trust is broken.

I’ve discussed here ways in which a plagiarist may redeem themselves and re-build broken trust.

The biggest mistrust will come from poets whose work has been appropriated. A poet who has spent time and effort in drafting, editing and re-drafting a poem, particularly one based on a personal experience, will not want their work plagiarised. It is not flattery, it is theft.

Using another poet’s poem as the basis for your own is fine, but if you wish to publish the resulting poem, make sure it can stand alone without any trace of scaffolding and be prepared to give proper credit.

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