About a Deer: Poetry and Plagiarism

Write a poem about deer.

OK, you don’t have to actually write a poem, but think about the processes involved in writing a poem on a specified topic. Brainstorm and scribble a few phrases about:

  • A deer’s appearance, its most striking features and colouring
  • Its habitat
  • Other wildlife that share a deer’s habitat
  • Personal memories of encountering deer or the management of deer herds
  • Using the deer or its habitat as a metaphor

First thoughts tend to focus on the immediately obvious. For a deer’s appearance that’s the fur, the soft eyes, hard hooves and possibly antlers with a colour palette based around brown. Its habitat is a forest where it lives alongside typical British wildlife. Personal memories might involve a walk through a forest, walking in the grounds of a stately home, witnessing or participating in a hunt or a childhood memory of watching an adult’s reaction to the deer. Perhaps you’ve scribbled some remembered phrases from reading about deer in the past.

All of these initial thoughts now require further exploration. This might involve researching images and facts about deer, reading up on British countryside and wildlife. Or scouring poetry collections, anthologies and magazines for poems about deer for inspiration.

Perhaps your keep copies of poems you particularly like and type them up so you can refer to them easily or to try to deconstruct successful poems to work out what makes them successful. If you are in the habit of doing this, include the poet’s name so you (and others looking through your notebooks and computer files) know who the original poet is.

It is entirely probable that among your notes you’ve included a line or phrase from someone else’s work. Even if you can’t place its source, you’ll know it’s not yours. Poets who read poetry will both consciously and sub-consciously pick up imagery and phrasing that strikes them and find themselves borrowing someone else’s phrase in the process of drafting a poem until a new, more personal image or phrase is found which does a better job.

Writing out someone else’s poem to use as source text for inspiration is not plagiarism, providing the resulting poem is new and recognisably in the voice of the poet writing the new poem. Taking a source text, making a few changes such as altering the location, changing the gender of a person mentioned within and altering a couple of phrases so the new poem is still recognisably based on the source text is plagiarism.

Recently the organisers of the Hope Bourne Poetry Prize found the poem their judges had selected as the prize-winner was in fact a close copy of a poem by Helen Mort, “The Deer”, which had won the Café Writers Open Poetry Competition in 2009. Both original poem and copy can be read on Matt Merritt’s blog (scroll down to the comments section). The copyist has apologised, but only after “This is Cornwall” published the story.

With plagiarism, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. Having your poem stolen by someone else is not flattering. Saying so is akin to telling a burglary victim they should be flattered someone thought their house was worth breaking into or that their possessions must have been worth stealing. That more people have now read the original poem isn’t much comfort either unless those people start buying books and magazines featuring the poet.

If anything positive has come from this situation, it’s the resulting discussion and awareness raised about the issue of plagiarism, both what it is and the fact that no one should benefit from it.



“a pint for the ghost” Helen Mort (tall lighthouse) – poetry review

Helen Mort A Pint for the Ghost book cover

This pamphlet is a companion to a live show where ghosts arrive in a shabby pub after closing time to introduce themselves.  There are ghosts of miners, workers, a hospital ghost, a teacher and a student who died after getting stuck in a shaft whilst climbing the Derbyshire Peaks. 

That hospital ghost lurks in the x-ray machine and extrapolates lives from x-rays,

“…his femur hides the slender penknife

he once held against a woman’s throat, half-cut
on brandy, joking
that his hand might slip, while she stood trembling
against the wall.

Don’t panic, love. It were a joke. I’ve had a few,
that’s all.”

That final couplet rhyme is the only one in the poem.  There’s no dramatic tension either.  Why not, “his femur hides the slender penknife/ he held once. Don’t panic, love. It were a joke. I’ve had a few,/ that’s all./ She stood trembling against a wall, / knife at her throat./ Blaming the brandy as he joked/ his hand might slip”?

This contrasts with “a chaser for miss heath” (yes all poems have cutesy lower case titles) where the narrator is a former, reluctant ballet pupil puzzled at the teacher never making the stage until,

“in shoes that pinch my toes
until they bleed, my back
held ballerina straight,

I wait as she did, too afraid
to walk into a bar
where everyone’s a stranger…”

A ghost that might have lived instead of one reported.  Maybe it needs the live show as not all the poems came alive off the page, but Miss Heath did and that’s enough for me to keep an eye out for future poems from Helen Mort.