– for Ben Hollander, in Eternity
The question of who owns poetry is in the air these days, like the fragrance of manure on your Sunday drive through the country, but without the ameliorating reassurance of the eventual beneficent utility of manure. Scandals abound. As reported in a recent PoBiz Stock Index Update, the investigative poet, Ira Lightman, has unearthed a surprising quantity of plagiarized poetry populating the latest books and po-mags of the post-avant-creative-writing era. People are shocked. A Canadian Parliamentary Poet plagiarizing Maya Angelou? The winner of England’s Exmoor Society Hope Bourne prize copying another poet’s work? Rupi Kaur, the biggest best-selling poet since Rod McKuen, stealing verses off Instagram? What gives? Charged with the violation of intellectual property rights, the duplicitous thieves are publicly shamed (although Pierre DesRuisseaux, the laureate, is dead) and in the case of Christian Ward, stripped of his Prize (presumably along with his epaulettes and medals).
Nor is the issue limited to a mere 2 or 3 “famous” poets (in so far as the word “fame” signifies in the world of poetry). Lightman, whose energies seem indefatigable, has expressed surprise at how widespread he has discovered the practice to be. Just recently, a recipient of the Poetry Society’s award for her distinguished contribution to poetry, and a vice president and executive editor (for poetry) at W. W. Norton & Company, was outed by Dispatches contributor, William Logan, for copying information in her new book, somewhat ironically titled, Poetry Will Save Your Life. Jill Bialosky, described as “a prolific poet and essayist” by the Paper of Record (certainly copying other people’s work must assist in prolificacy), seems to find the prose of Wikipedia irresistible, but defends herself by characterizing the nasty bits as inadvertent fragments of prior common biographical sources and tropes. Or something like that. As if inadvertent and common were adequate excuses for theft.
But as experts have pointed out, there are many different kind of plagiarism. Plagiarism, at least in relation to poetry, is an especially funny kind of idea, taking on different inflections of meaning depending on how you think poetry. If you publicly express your love of the stock market and plagiarize the New York Times by scanning a full issue of it, you can become a famous conceptual poet and get invited to sit at the feet of the President of the Empire. If you are Kathy Acker, you plagiarize everything you can get your hands on and turn it into a weapon to attack the Empire (no Presidential invitations forthcoming). If you plagiarize a juried article on some breakthrough in chemistry or physics hoping to jump the academic queue, you are likely to be pulverized, destroyed, driven from the community to live forever in the wilderness alone. If you plagiarize a poem . . .. But why would you plagiarize a poem? If poetry is an articulating transformative gnosis, a unique form of voiced sonal knowledge, why would anyone copy someone else’s poem? Of what use would it be?
Part of the problem is with the contemporary use of the word poet. In today’s technocratic statist theo-economic order (Hosannas to the Invisible Hand, may its Holy Fluctuations bless you) it has come to describe some kind of identifiable job within the theo-economic order – a genuine, honest to god, productive career path in a conceptual economy that circulates around the notion of the acquisition, possession, and exploitation of property – in this case “intellectual” property – but property nevertheless, which is a source of prestige within certain sub-cultural formations and exchangeable – like all commodities – for rewards from the Empire. That’s why you aren’t supposed to steal it. It belongs to somebody.
But as anyone knows who has had experience with multiple balls in motion in a dog park full of dogs, the idea of “to belong” is tenuous if not downright delusional. Yet it’s the basis of the entire show. John Locke, the early theorist of emerging bourgeois political/cultural formations, pointed out that property is the basis of the fundamental building block of bourgeois social/cultural/political order: the “Individual.” And the “Individual” – which is here in quotes because it is a figment and needs to be contained lest it drift away – “owns” stuff. Shit “belongs” to it. It belongs to shit. That’s how it knows it’s an individual. That, and the trendy logo on its black t-shirt pocket.
This is the ultimate bourgeois colonization of the poetry of emergent, aberrant knowing. It turns the activity of enwording poetic knowledge in sound into a quantity, an object, property, immediately commodifying it, which is the absolute reverse of the process of the emergent voicing of nomadic regimes of signs. Poet becomes an “identity,” a social, economic role whose bona fides are the commodities he or she has produced which testify to his or her expertise, salable skills, and prestige in the market. The poem is drained of all quiddity, emptied, gussied up with some rouge and lipstick, a corpse laid out in a casket, and displayed as proof the poet really does own poems, those things which belong to him (or her) legitimizing her (or his) claim to the title Professor, not to mention the 6 figure salary that goes with it. With a bit of luck (and a brush of The Invisible Hand), Ms. Bialosky will pick his manuscript out of the slush pile, anoint it with the Norton Seal of Literary Approval, and welcome him into the world of real Literature. Since most people graduating with MFAs into the 9 to 5 workaday poetry world secretly know that no one, except a few of their friends, reads their poetry, who’s gonna know if he slips some really good, time tested commodities by other people into his books? Seriously. It’s just words. Who cares?
Apparently not the 72 writers who signed an open letter in defense of Ms. Bialosky. Calling themselves “Friends of Literature,” they defend Ms. Bialosky’s compulsive affair with Wikispeak by once again characterizing Ms. Bialosky’s copying of text as “not a problem” because the text “consists of commonly known biographical facts gleaned from outside sources.” Here “gleaned” does yeoman’s work, trying to mask the fact of theft in an agricultural haze. Really? That’s the best they can do? Come on, Literature is at stake, and these are its friends, friends, no doubt, with their own stake in the prizes, awards, jobs, and various other forms of art booty Literature bestows on those who toe its line. Most of the 72 signatories are academics, as most poets are today. One wonders what plagiarism policy they have their students observe. Do they give a pass to inadvertent inclusions of common facts that someone else wrote up first?
It may be because Dispatches from the Poetry Wars considers itself an Enemy of Literature that it finds the defense hollow and desperate. Within our temporary autonomous zone we strive to suspend the entire formation of values, disciplinary bodies, rewards, and other institutional control mechanisms that make up the current field and state of Literature. Plagiarism as it operates within the general economy of Literature is irrelevant to Poetry as it operates within an emerging transformative gnosis. This is not because we are trying to brush off what the system clearly identifies as theft by labeling it “inadvertent” and “common,” but because it does not signify, it has no ground from which to assert “belongs to” or “does not belong to” in the ambulant, nomadic engagement with creation. Poetry opens the doors of perception, as William Blake put it, through the invocation of a community in Eternity that freely shares all the Real Work that’s ever been done or ever will be done, mixing it up, disguising it, stealing it, loving it, licking it, rolling it up and smoking it, petting it, mouthing it, digesting it, shitting it, until something called a Poem makes itself known to the world which will never be the same again.
Institutional poetry, the Commercial Poetry Product, which is so far gone now its club members line up by the dozens to apologize for the crassest forms of theft for profit, is already dead, so the whole “Death to . . . thing”, while always a nice way to end and still claiming some deep emotional attachment, is redundant. But long live stealing and borrowing isn’t. Long live the promiscuous circulation of the infinite minds of poetry’s being in common isn’t. Nor is long live sharing for the sake of the unbounded spirit of resistance.
The difference is deep, and it’s for poets to understand.