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Saturday, 11 August 2007

Have You Read It Before?

What do you most look for in a new poem? Speaking personally, I look first for something I have not read or heard before, after which I would hope to gain from it some fresh insight, to be shown something or someone in a new light. Finally, to fully satisfy, there is the requirement for a distinctive voice. I say "finally", though in fact there remains an extensive list of potential requirements, but the three I have given are enough for now, they represent, as I see it, both a very demanding expectation and the three absolute essentials, in that the absence of any one renders the poem poorer for its loss.

These thoughts were prompted in part by suggestions made in the media recently that Ian Mc Ewan has been guilty of plagiarism. To the best of my knowledge, the P word has not actually been used, but the implication has been made, and that strongly. Specifically it is said that "Enduring Love" is a somewhat below par rewrite of Stephen King's "Misery", and "Atonement" owes far too much to Lucilla Andrews's "No Time for Romance". One question raised, inevitably, you may think, by these charges, concerns that of the drawing of the line between inspiration and plagiarism. As always, everyone, it seems, would draw it somewhere else. I doubt whether there could ever be an objective standard laid down. "If more than 30% of the words in more than 40% of the book are replicated in their original order, the work shall be deemed to be...." I don't think so, do you?

The problem of the P word does not occur so much in the same way in the case of poetry. (Or do you know differently?) Here, plagiarism tends to be replaced by slavish imitation combined with a failure of the imitator to establish some essential distance from the imitated, a lack of that distinctive voice, in other words. How many would-be poets have lost their way in the wilderness trying to be yet one more Seamus Heaney? How much poetic talent has been lost that way? Poetry may not suffer from the P word to the extent that prose does, yet I think I more often read a poem than a novel with the feeling that I have read it before.

Echoes of other poets, even quotes, are common, but in any poem worth its salt they are positive: a phrase strikes sparks and invites us to consider a line from Eliot or Heaney. It all adds to the density of the poems, to the layers of meaning or possible meaning. To its ambiguity, perhaps. An image from the pen of Yeats or a metaphor from MacDiarmid may provide a loom of light above the poem's own horizon.

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