Saturday, February 9, 2013

Making It

There's been a considerable brouhaha in poetry cyberspace of late about a case of plagiarism relating to a young poet, a poetry competition and now - it transpires - some prestigious magazines. I'm not going to go into the details here, as that ground is well covered elsewhere.

My first reaction to the story was one of puzzlement and mild disbelief. Why would anyone do that? However, on reflection, it seems almost inevitable that this should happen at some point. I can have no insight into the psychology of this individual case. And yet it seems to me that any system that seeks to recognise intellectual or creative merit is bound to lead to unfair practice at some point.

In education, demonstrating learning and intellectual ability is the key to getting hold of a certificate that will help you to get a better job and have a better life, in the material sense at least. That isn't the only thing education is about, but it can't be ignored. When students mis-use the work of others, they can often feel like they deserve that qualification and that better life, but find themselves disadvantaged by pressures of all kinds: not least of time and money in these days of high fees and working low-paid jobs to make ends meet. Plagiarism in an academic context is often a symptom of desperation, not a sign of deviousness.

In the world of poetry, with lots of hopefuls and limited exposure to be shared around, a clear system has developed that provides recognition to some, and little or none to others. There are plenty of guides to this sort of thing, and young poets are regularly counselled to try to win competitions and get published in the right sort of journal. If you are looking to get a collection published, the web pages of the small presses will soon tell you that you need to be able to provide this kind of evidence before they will consider your work. That makes sense to them, as it will at least weed out a few of the many submissions they will in any case receive. As a whole, this system is not planned by anyone, but it all amounts to a fairly coherent set of mechanisms that can leave young people feeling that it's difficult to 'make it', as the co-editor of the Salt Book of Younger Poets, Eloise Stonborough, recently complained.

Need this be so? Not necessarily. The mechanisms of selection in different areas of intellectual or creative activity vary from culture to culture. For example, over the last few years, German politics has experienced a series of revelations about high-level politicians who have been caught plagiarising their doctoral theses. This problem wouldn't occur in the UK, where there is no expectation at all that a politician will have a PhD. In Germany, many young politicians making their career try to study for a doctorate on the side and find that they just haven't the time - the temptation to plagiarise is clearly significant.

In poetry, we certainly need some sort of filter that brings some to prominence. That filter is as much a service to readers as to anyone else, as they would easily get lost in the mass of poetry books and magazines produced every year. There may be other ways of providing that filter that are less likely to produce the feelings Stonborough expresses. Nevertheless, we will have to accept that, whatever system we have in place, it's bound to produce aberrant behaviour among a small minority for whom 'making it' sadly becomes an end in itself.

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