A Spade’s a Spade: Plagiarism and Déjà-ku

by Michael Dylan Welch

The following are some comments in response to Sandra Simpson’s essay, “Cleaning up our act”, on plagiarism and haiku, presented on the New Zealand Poetry Society’s haiku website in September of 2013. What follows here is not a regular standalone essay, and presumes you’ve just read Sandra’s essay on these pressing concerns.

1: I too am appalled to hear that “a senior poet . . . said words to the effect that ‘if you see a line or phrase you like, write it down and reuse it’ and ‘if you change one word in a haiku, it’s yours’”. Such advice is cavalier at best. The context in Japanese haiku, of course, is that poets alluded to other poets and poems all the time, but the key difference is that nearly everyone knew the antecedent poem, so they all knew a revised poem was an allusion or parody. And as Sandra says, quoting Gabi Greve, honkadori was often done between poets who knew each other, and thus it was entirely transparent, and a form of poetic play between friends. I once had someone revise a poem of mine:

summer heat —
two squirrels
meet on a wire

Here’s the revision, shared with me directly by the poet, even though it was someone I hardly knew at the time:

barbecue heat —
two squirrels
meat on a wire

I took this to be parody, and thoroughly enjoyed the poet’s interaction with me via direct sharing. I felt honoured. In contrast, it would have felt odd to read the poem in a journal and have no idea if it was intended as a parody or allusion, or if it was a rip-off or just chance similarity, or who knows what. Thus I think the matter of intention (and context) is key to understanding honkadori.

Speaking more generally, borrowing lines from another poet isn’t the issue, within limits. Rather, it’s what you do with them, or how you treat or present them that matters. I recommend reading Jonathan Lathem’s The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism, in which the entire long essay is almost completely borrowed from other sources. He cites the source for every single borrowing, which is of course vital.

I do not agree with Gabi that it’s necessary to give a footnote explaining an allusion, however. That can be insulting to readers who get the allusion, and if less-informed readers don’t get the allusion, they don’t need to have the allusion forced on them. I don’t believe poetry should hold the reader’s hand. Footnotes should be rare or nonexistent in original haiku (translations are a different matter).

For what it’s worth, Cid Corman is famous for saying that if you could change a single word in a poem of his and improve it, he considered the poem to be yours, not his. However, a key point is that you had to improve the poem. If he felt you did, then he truly was happy to consider the poem yours. I wonder if Cid Corman was this senior poet, although I suspect he wasn’t. But then I wonder if this senior poet might have been repeating what Corman said, from another source, neglecting to mention the necessity of improving the poem. In any event, Corman’s stance is a personal choice regarding the use of his own poems — and mighty rare. You can’t apply Corman’s point of view to poems written by other poets.

2: I do indeed say “Rather than dismiss . . . poems merely for their similarity, if they have sufficient artistic merit . . . we can celebrate them”. However, there comes a point where a poem is excessively similar, regardless of artistic merit, and I would say Jim Kacian’s poem about the dog running in its sleep is one of those, far beyond any shadow of a doubt, at least to me. Note that I do not say it is plagiarism, which I take to be the wilful and uncredited reuse of someone else’s words, typically without permission. Rather, if we assume that Kacian’s poem was created truly independently, what kicks in is not the sceptre of plagiarism but the issue of copyright.

George Swede’s poem beat Kacian’s to the patent office, so to speak. George Swede had already written what Kacian believed (we can presume) was original. Same of course with Sheila Windsor’s version, no matter how independently created each poem might have been. If similar poems were indeed independently created, it’s not plagiarism but copyright (and originality) that’s the main issue.

3: It’s really interesting that Sandra quotes Jim Kacian’s “ground fog” poem and the homage to it by John O’Connor. However, there’s more to the story. There’s an even earlier poem by Robert Mainone:

Old frog   
up to his ears      
in moonlight

I consider Jim Kacian’s poem to be excessively similar to Mainone’s, which was the first place winner in the 1977 Henderson contest sponsored by the Haiku Society of America — which I rather suspect Jim has read, although who knows when 1. The poem has been on the HSA’s website for contest winners for many years. O’Connor’s poem is clearly an allusion to Jim’s (even without the addition of “for JK”), and it becomes an homage rather than just allusion by the addition of “for JK”.

But what is Jim’s poem? His poem says “ground fog” instead of “Old frog” (the rhyme between them may not be inconsequential, given how we “remember” things but may think we’re writing freshly), and he does say “my ankles” instead “his ears”, but the core of the poem, to be “up to something in moonlight” is the same. And so too is the overall structure and syntax of the poem (issues that are considered in plagiarism cases).

If I were the writer of the original poem (Robert’s), it would be easy to feel ripped off. The only exception would be if Jim had deliberately sent it to Robert (but of course readers don’t know that), or if it said “for RM” after it. We might well assume independent creation, in which case I would say Mainone beat Jim to the patent office. However, my hunch is that this is a case of cryptomnesia, which, as Sandra explains, quoting me, is remembering someone else’s words without remembering the source of those words, and thus mistakenly thinking you created them yourself.

Cryptomnesia is truly insidious because of how genuinely and passionately you can believe you wrote the piece yourself. However, cryptomnesia is still plagiarism, a fact that has been demonstrated in many courtrooms for decades. Even if this poem is not cryptomnesia (that is, written independently, despite my doubts of that), it is in my opinion still too similar to Robert’s poem. Others may feel differently, and may also be influenced by which poem they knew first, and for how long (déjà-ku has countless contributing factors — it surely isn’t simple).

4: I’m not sure I agree with Sandra when she says cryptomnesia “is sometimes used as an excuse by those who would play fast and loose with the work of others”. Okay, sure, maybe sometimes — by the unscrupulous. But I think that’s really rare, at least in haiku. I believe cryptomnesia can be cited as a genuine “defence” regarding plagiarism, as a possible explanation for unintentional or excessive borrowing. It doesn’t absolve the person of plagiarism, of course, but it does suggest that the issue could have truly been an accident rather than wilful, even if that’s utterly unproveable. No doubt, some people have wilfully plagiarised and then played the cryptomnesia card. However, I do think that’s rare, and especially rare in haiku circles — in fact, I don’t recall anyone ever claiming cryptomnesia when it has been suggested that they plagiarised someone else or borrowed too much.

5: Why are we loathe to say plagiarism? Because we might be friends with the person, or at least acquaintances. “Plagiarist” is a dark word to brand someone with. The haiku world is small. Is Jim Kacian’s “ground fog” poem plagiarism? If it’s cryptomnesia, then yes, it’s a form of plagiarism (I highly doubt it was wilful plagiarism). It’s easier to call something plagiarism (or even “excessively similar”) if you don’t know the person, or have little relationship with them.

But I think there’s another reason we are loathe to say plagiarism. That’s because haiku is a sort of special case. The shorter a genre of poetry gets, the more likely we are to repeat each other (or even ourselves) or come up with similar (even “ideal”) wording for similar experiences or concepts. If we see a duck landing in water, there are only so many ways to say that. So plagiarism becomes less of an issue in these cases. Instead, it’s more of a copyright issue — someone else may have beaten you to the patent office.

I’ve been studying and thinking about déjà-ku for more than 20 years, and classifying poems in my déjà-ku database for at least 15. People ask me about the matter a lot, even to the point of adjudicating. To the extent that any of us do that, we become the haiku police, and not everyone likes that (I know some people feel it’s somehow “anti-haiku”). But haiku ain’t no port in a storm (to quote Marlene Mountain — see, I just cited a source). And haiku isn’t all sweetness and light (and here I don’t need to cite a source, because I think this is such a common phrase that it can easily be applied to haiku or anything else without citing whoever said it first).

But, to get back on track, no one likes a whistle-blower, yet I think it’s important for haiku poets to look at the alleged plagiarism itself, each individual case, and hold no grudges against whoever blew the whistle. If the whistle is ever blown against us, it behoves us to look at the facts as unemotionally and objectively as we can. Such experiences can be hard pills to swallow, but if the facts give us such a pill, then we know what we must do.

6: A relevant point here is not just the poem but the poet. What sort of integrity does the poet usually have, aside from a possible case of cryptomnesia or outright plagiarism? What sort of pattern has that poet demonstrated? I can think of a few haiku poets (who have repeated entries in my déjà-ku database) whose work shows a clear pattern of reuse of work by others (including allusion and other good kinds of déjà-ku, but also excessive borrowing or worse). In some cases, it might just be naive. They may be too new to poetry, and especially haiku, to know what crosses the line. That fact does not absolve them of crossing the line, but naiveté can make observers be a little more forgiving, like telling a four-year-old he mustn’t steal chocolate bars from the grocery store rather than hauling him off to prison (yet we still have to pay for the chocolate bar or return it to the store). But beyond naiveté, if a poet shows a repeated pattern of inappropriate reuse (even if not wilful plagiarism), that does weaken that person’s credibility.

This is all so terribly judgmental, and I do think we want to be generous with each other, but we should draw the line in an appropriate place and not be loathe to declare plagiarism (or even excessive similarity) when we believe such things occur.

7: The matter of what “we believe” is not to be overlooked, or passed by too quickly. It can be personal, by which I mean subjective. One person might look at Jim Kacian’s “ground fog” poem and feel that it’s plagiarism. Another might look at it and say, if it was created independently, that it’s excessively similar, and thus a violation of a prior copyright. Yet another person might look at it as homage or allusion, although I would argue that’s unlikely in this case, especially when no note saying “for RM” went with the poem (although I don’t think such a thing should be required for all allusion in haiku). Another person might not care about any similarity, and not even think of it as allusion. And yet other readers might have no knowledge of the prior poem and believe it to be original.

Where tension can occur is where one person might justifiably draw the line in one place, while other readers might draw it elsewhere, not even counting where the “offending” author might draw the line. Here I think of the late Robert Spiess, who was so gentle and encouraging with hundreds of people who submitted to Modern Haiku, yet did not hesitate to call out plagiarism or to maintain his ethics in a firm and well-reasoned manner.

8: For what it’s worth, I get inspired by other poems all the time. A single phrase or even just a subject from a poem (of any length, not just haiku) will sometimes get me going and a new poem results. This happens to me a lot when I go to poetry readings (nearly always for poetry longer than haiku, mind you). We should indeed feel free to get our inspiration wherever and whenever we can. But at some point we should assess our work and ask ourselves some questions — where did that come from, and did I just restate someone else’s ideas or images in different words? Did I go too far? The best answers to these questions come from experience in the haiku art, both as a reader and as a writer. It seems, by the way, that Graham Nunn has gone too far in the cases cited about his poetry recently. I fear that the excesses apparent in his longer poetry lead me to wonder now about his haiku. But let’s not throw out all of his babies with the bathwater.

9: I’ve cited Alan Pizzarelli’s poem before on the matter of déjà-ku:

out of the water
out of her suit

He changes just one word, “itself”, to something different, “her suit”. But what a huge difference it makes. It’s brilliant, transforming the first line from a flower to a person. Of course we all clearly know the antecedent poem by Nick Virgilio. In fact, this parody depends on that, the same way John Stevenson’s brilliant one-word poem,


requires readers to know Cor van den Heuvel’s one-word masterpiece, “tundra” — and its influential place at the core of haiku history (and it’s playful reference to Cor himself). My point here is that haiku, perhaps more than any other genre of poetry, requires, or at least greatly benefits from, an informed reader. I recall Seamus Heaney saying exactly that, and rather passionately. More than just knowing allusions and contexts when we read haiku, we also benefit from knowing to look for seasonal reference (we can easily go beyond looking at what’s written to do things such as applying winter to the white page around Cor’s “tundra” poem, as well), to look for a juxtapositional structure, to look for what is deliberately left out or implied, and much more. A good haiku can be intuitively successful with someone who is relatively unfamiliar with haiku, but many excellent haiku may well be beyond that same newbie’s scope of understanding.

I think the apprehension of déjà-ku, both the good and bad kinds (they’re mostly good, please note), can be positively affected by one’s knowing the haiku canon as deeply as possible (Japanese and English), and by getting one’s own feeling for what goes too far in copying or borrowing, without being an obvious parody or allusion, and what sorts of variations are sufficiently original.

Sufficiently! Like I said, many of these issues are distinctly subjective. How do we define sufficiently? It’s hard to say. But I would hasten to add that where something is clear, like plagiarism (even in cases of cryptomnesia), we should politely, but firmly, call a spade a spade.

For more on déjà-ku (a term I coined for haiku poems that bring other poems to mind in various ways), please see the following sites:

An Introduction to Déjà-ku

Selected Examples of Déjà-ku

Some Thoughts on Déjà-ku


Footnote 1,  Jim Kacian’s response:

I’m certain that in my research toward a comprehensive anthology I have encountered Bob’s poem, though I admit I don’t specifically recall it. However, there is circumstantial evidence that would argue that my poem cannot have been sourced in it. I came to haiku in the mid-1980s, by which time Bob’s poem would have been out of any sort of circulation (it appeared in 1977). My poem was composed sometime in 1994 or 1995, prior to the time when the Harold G. Henderson Contest results for its earlier years were readily available (that is, before HSA put these things online), and it has never been my habit to read past contest results, even if such were available. And it would be several years before I began my work towards Haiku in English, so I would not have encountered Bob’s poem until much later.

So while cryptomnesia might well be a real phenomenon, other indicators would argue against it being a factor in this situation. I’m sure I’ve been the victim of it at one time or another (who can remember?) but this is certainly not one of those times.

Editor’s note: Michael Dylan Welch has written this response to last month’s article, Cleaning up our Act by Sandra Simpson. He is a well-known writer and editor who lives near Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. He has been writing haiku since 1976 and teaching it since 1990. He is vice-president of the Haiku Society of America, founder of the Tanka Society of America and co-founder of the Haiku North America conference and has many books – as editor, author and contributor – to his credit. For a full biography, go here.