Plagiarism: A Prosaic Contemplation

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. … Bad poets deface what they take.”
— T.S. Eliot, quoted in Word Theft, an article by Ruth Graham about plagiarism in poetry

I watched. For hours I watched. Another day, then another day and another, I watched. Certain I had seen that particular pose before. That exact same bend. The river was copying something I’d seen before. Some poem I’d seen? Rivers are notorious for stealing things, taking them downstream, dumping them beneath the surface. Where had I come across this pattern before? Finally like an illusion it flipped over, and I realized the river’s template: the water’s form is mimicry of the bank. As rigid as any plagiarism might aspire to. Ah, but I waited and watched more, maybe at first hoping to catch the bank striking back in anger at the replication. Long enough to see that it was the bank copying its river, rather than what I’d first surmised. Then after several more days, seeing it switch back and forth, hand to hand to hand, one moment the river matching its bank, the next moment the bank copying the river back. Intrigued, captivated, I watched and waited further, a month, a season, as leaves fell into the water to laugh at the reflection, then as ice formed at the edges to harden the lines between. Finally as spring broke into my contemplations, I saw the variations each made to their mirrors, how the current was swifter or calmer in its flow, how the bank slid into the water here or stood solid against it there. And I felt the bank and its river imitate itself inside my own dreaming, twisting and turning and pausing then racing on, always moving but always still there, exactly echoing this bend I’d found deep in our woods. And at that instant, blushed with shame, wondering if any thought or word of any poet is ever truly original. I am merely a bank meeting a river’s current at its edges. I am merely a river tight against a shore. I can’t make any poem mine any more than the river or bank can lay claim to their copies of each other.

I waited until another year had seen the completion of cycles of light and dark, cycles of rain and sun, cycles of the moon, cycles of the seasons, stretching out into the songs of the stars. I had seen the river and its bank change their ways over and over while holding on to their reflections. And I had seen the wind plagiarize the trees and the sky plagiarize the water and the dusk plagiarize both day and night, and a thousand plagiarisms of life and its own landscape, all fitting as precisely as any exact copy, even as each part held true to its own character.

Deception. That’s what’s missing here, I realized: there’s no deception, neither planned nor unintended. Call these not plagiarism, the river to the bank or the stars to your eyes or the storm to the clouds. Nor my muse to their inspiration. Call these all collaborations, in the most holy sense that two lovers can complement each other. No one part deceptively claims it as their own. No one part claims to possess or control.

But I know why this has been troubling me. Sara. Sara, who openly urged her close friends to continue to collaborate with her, to use her words, to make hers ours, to keep her alive through our own voices. So like my river and its bank did that feel when she held our hands to give us her blessing. But is there any point where our respect and love for her cross over to mere plagiarism?

If I were to ever pretend she were not here with me now, yes, I think it could go sour on me, deceiving me myself, then me deceiving others, friend and stranger alike. Not the same as what it’s meant to forget you as I was ordered to do. Your owner and controller attacked us demanding you be left alone, so alone we leave you, with only the void nothing else can ever fill still there to show what it means that you turned your back on love. This, included: don’t be so vain as to think you’re the only one who’s been mean enough to send someone gunning for me. This doesn’t have to be about you just because you deceive yourself and others into thinking it is.

If I were to ever take her words and use them against her and the ones she loved, yes, I think it would go south on me fast, deceiving me, then deceiving others about me and about her and about them. Not something you’d understand. Trust me, throw enough of the bank into the river or divert enough of the river up against the bank, and integrity disappears. Steal my words to pretend them to be your own against what they were made for, and you’ve fabricated a venal deception to no good end.

If I were to make up my own words and put them into her mouth, as if it were what she had said, yes, it would go irreversibly damaged on me, deceiving me and others worse than ever. Not something that bothers you in the least. But as lethal as the descending airplane’s cockpit instrument saying the border between landing strip and sky is 1000 feet when the actual distance is 100 feet. Put your words into others’ mouths, and people die.

Plagiarism is not an innocent act, whether you use someone else’s words as your own or use your own words as if theirs. Either act is a choice to deceive. The deception knowingly does only harm.

No, Sara, we do not abuse your words, your wishes, your love. For your child, for your friends, for your love and for the life you did not lose, we continue to echo you as the river to its bank.

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2 Responses to Plagiarism: A Prosaic Contemplation

  1. slpmartin says:

    An interesting post…one that has me wondering about what event would have triggered it…but quite a good read.

    • Sitting by a river long enough … the Poetry Foundation article on plagiarism (as linked in the starting quote) … active on-going collaboration with Sara, even after, as she encouraged and wanted … insulting sneers at our collaborations by those with selfish motives for distorting the truth … all to recognize a distinction between the destructive deception of plagiarism as contrasted with the creative wonder of collaboration.

      I openly acknowledge Sara’s deep influence over my writing, no apologies, no regrets, no excuses. I pray I imitate her as often as I can, steal from her when I’m lucky enough, but that I never deface her word and its work.

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