"A worldwide epidemic of poetic plagiarism"

by Toby Manhire / 23 September, 2013
An Australian poet has been caught stealing others' lines - and he's not the only one.
A Slattery collection.

Normally a poet would be delighted to be mentioned in the same breath as Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. But for rising Australian talent Andrew Slattery, the trouble is that he's enjoyed their company because he’s nicked their lines.

Slattery’s “daring deception”, writes Susan Wyndham for the Sydney Morning Herald, was discovered after fellow poet Anthony Lawrence searched passages online. Just one of his poems, the prize-winning “Ransom”, was found to be almost entirely “made up of 50-odd poets’ work”. Elsewhere, he’d claimed as his own lines by everyone from Nietzche to Tom Waits.

Slattery said he wrote his poems using lines from other poets as "a cynical experiment" similar to the hoax poet Ern Malley created by Harold Stewart and James McAuley in 1943.

He claims his poems are in the "Cento format", which is a collage of lines from other poems. But in proper use poets credit their sources. "I should have disclaimed on the entry forms that the poems were in the Cento format," he said. "I should have included footnotes for these poems. I do not support any use of someone's else's work, in any form of presentation, or in any medium, unless it is clearly acknowledged."

He didn’t attribute, however, and so the plagiarism claims have stuck.

And it is “the tip of a worldwide epidemic of poetic plagiarism, partly driven by the increasing use of ‘sampling’ in the arts, and by the east of cutting and pasting poems on the internet”, says Wyndham, pointing to other examples in Australia and Britain.

For a proper mulling of the "plagiarism/inspiration/homage issue", see this long post by British poet and blogger Katy Evans-Bush.

Slattery’s argument that he was merely conducting a kind of “cynical experiment” doesn’t wash with his peers.

A group of poets including Lawrence issued a statement hoping, writes Wydnham, to “expose a problem they believe is much more extensive than a couple of plagiarists and is damaging the reputation of Australian poetry”.

They write:

Serial plagiarism seems to imply a lack of empathy and, in extreme cases, something like sociopathy. When exposed, some plagiarists say they are simply paying homage to other writers or use words like 'collage', 'cento' or 'sampling'. It seems that, even when the game is up and the evidence is irrefutable, the word 'plagiarism' just can't be uttered.

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