Cleaning up our act

by Sandra Simpson

The vexed issue of plagiarism has been making waves in Australia in the past few weeks – at least three poets have been found to have re-used parts of poems by other people without giving any acknowledgement as to where the words, lines, phrases and titles have come from.

Read more at the Rochford Street Review.

Two of those poets also write haiku but I want to make very clear that there is no suggestion whatsoever that either Graham Nunn or Vuong Pham has appropriated the unacknowledged work of others in their haiku or that their work in haiku and its related forms is anything other than original. Both have apologised for their actions on websites that in 2016 are no longer available.

Unfortunately, once the word “plagiarism” is uttered – and discovered to have foundation – entire bodies of work become tainted. Or, as Jeanette Winterson said about a plagiarism scandal in Britain last month,  “if you plagiarise an earlier poem, are you always then a plagiarist, can you never be trusted? Should we judge the poet or the poem?”

If I write spring moon
or mountain, is that
haiku plagiarism?

Billy Collins

This piece is not designed to be schadenfreude but rather serve as a warning to us all to be very, very careful in the way we approach our writing. A number of years ago when I was a still a fresh-faced newcomer to haiku I was at a workshop listening to a senior poet who 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”. I can still remember the frisson of shock that went round the room, generated by the more experienced members of the audience. No one said anything but the disapproval was palpable.

It seems to me now that it was an opportunity missed. Disagreement should have been voiced – it may not have deterred the speaker, but it would have set things straight for the less-experienced writers.

Plagiarism or coincidence? 

The question of plagiarism in haiku is problematic. Such short poems – say 10 words – based on human experience and the natural world will see many, many poems written on the same topic. These common-experience poems will have a good chance of using many of the same words in the same order while setting the same scene.

Take these haiku:

humid night –
the old dog runs
in his sleep

Sheila Windsor, published 2006

spring breeze
the dog runs
in its sleep

Jim Kacian, published 2000

warm spring breeze
the old hound runs
in his sleep

George Swede, published 1983

(See George Swede’s Editor’s Note to John Stevenson’s essay in Frogpond 34.2, the link is in Further Reading below, for comment on the last two haiku.)

And doubtless there are many more like these.

With so many people writing haiku and with the poems containing so few words, the laws of probability mean that it is more than likely similarities will regularly occur – more regularly as time passes and the collection of published haiku grows ever larger. The question, then, becomes more to do with our abilities as poets and topic selection, as well as the responsibility of editors to reject well-worn topics or haiku that come round on a regular basis.

In his essay on what he terms “deja-ku”, Michael Dylan Welch’s advice is to relax. “Haiku is such a narrow field of poetry that we should expect to repeat each other from time to time. No one owns experience, and we are surely likely to have similar experiences and use similar words to write about them. So long as we write from genuine and heartfelt experience … our poems will at the very least be well-intended, and hopefully speak to something real and authentic in human life.”

That a poet in Scotland and one in New Zealand and yet another one in India may all write a poem about clouds reflected in puddles at the beach is not plagiarism, the experience is far too common for that.

Everything’s honkadori 

In the introduction to the third edition of the American Haiku Anthology editor (and poet) Cor van den Heuvel says (as quoted in Mr Welch’s essay): “The writing of variations on certain subjects in haiku, sometimes using the same or similar phrases (or even changing a few words of a previous haiku), is one of the most interesting challenges the genre offers a poet and can result in refreshingly different ways of ‘seeing anew’ for the reader. This is an aspect of traditional Japanese haiku which is hard for many Westerners, with their ideas of uniqueness and Romantic individualism, to accept.”

This practice of changing a few words in the work of another is called honkadori (which means something like “writing a new poem but alluding to another poem” or “the art of quoting”). I agree with Mr van den Heuvel that it’s an idea that’s hard to accept, especially for those of us brought up on “fair play”.

a line borrowed
from another poet
spring rain

paul m.

Gabi Greve, who has lived in Japan since 1977, has this to say about honkadori: “… the poet changes just a few [words] to show his appreciation of the original. This technique is used when two haiku poets are very close and respect each other.”

After showing an example, Dr Greve goes on with this illuminating comment “… if the reader does not know the original you are referring to, he will think all the lines of a haiku are original from the poet. So if you write a haiku with an allusion, better give a footnote with the quote you are referring to.”

In his essay on deja-ku – a term he has invented for haiku that bear some relationship to another (or others) – Mr Welch says: “These relationships are good in some cases, such as parody, homage, and allusion, and not good in other cases, such as plagiarism, cryptomnesia (remembering someone else’s poem without realising that one is remembering rather than creating it), and simply being too similar or insufficiently fresh or original.”

Homage and allusion 

Both were widely used by the Japanese masters – and are still employed today. In this pair of contemporary haiku, the author of the second poem demonstrates, clearly, that he is paying homage to the first.

ground fog —
up to my ankles
in moonlight 

Jim Kacian, published 1997

dusk –
up to my ears
in birdsong 

for JK

John O’Connor, published 2000

While in this pair, the first haiku is so well known that it should be clear to anyone familiar with haiku that the second is both allusion and homage.

summer grasses –
all that remains
of warrior’s dreams

Matsuo Basho, 17th century

summer grasses
a golden fuzz
on the blowfly’s belly

Sandra Simpson, published 2008

Cryptomnesia  

Cryptomnesia does, I believe, happen, but equally I also believe it is sometimes used as an excuse by those who would play fast and loose with the work of others. Why are we so loathe to say “plagiarism”? Partly, perhaps, because it is such a deep and final word (refer back to Jeanette Winterson’s comments on mud sticking forever). A slip up that’s happened once, and goodness knows human minds are faulty, is far more forgivable than a pattern of behaviour.

autumn breeze
a pine cone waddles
toward the shore

Allan Burns, published 2007

hot wind
a pine cone waddles
to the pond

Ernest J Berry, competition prize winner 2012

The author of the first haiku was generous in his comments about the second poem. “It’s always hard to know whether someone is outright plagiarising or whether maybe something stuck unconsciously in his or her mind. I know I’ve accidentally echoed things in my own work and been rather mortified about it later.”

For his part, Ernie Berry says: “Was I aware of the first haiku? There are degrees of awareness. I read so many haiku that I don’t always know if what I’ve written is mine or if I’ve read it somewhere. It’s a hazard and it’s always worrying me. The last thing any artist wants is to be accused of plagiarism or even suspected of it”

How squeaky clean are you? 

Any discussion of plagiarism is a good opportunity to examine our own writing practices and to remind ourselves that there are, indeed, limits:

  • Is there anything wrong with reworking a haiku by another author and putting my name to it? (If you answer yes, stop writing haiku immediately!)
  • What do I consider to be a rip-off? (Think about how you would feel if someone recycled your own work.)
  • Where do I draw the line between “being inspired by” and rewriting?
  • When do I feel comfortable calling a rewritten haiku my own? After I’ve changed one word, two? Or never?
  • If I am alluding to a haiku by another poet, do I always make that clear (say, by way of a dedication or choosing a well-known poem)?

Online forums are an evolving point of haiku etiquette, but consider:

  • If, for instance, a haiku is workshopped but not published by the author (or at least not for a while) is it okay for someone on the same forum to pillage that work and publish immediately?
  • If, for instance, a candidate ku is not accepted for a renku and remains on view, is it okay for another poet to submit that verse under their own name to a later renku? With or without changes?

Mr Welch makes the point that “we should be aware of limits, of course, but not paralysed by them”. This comment indicates a belief that everyone will play with a straight bat, a nice thought. Unfortunately, we are left to police ourselves and with thousands of haiku being published annually it may be chance that uncovers misdeeds, while others may never come to light.

In a discussion thread on The Haiku Foundation on the topic of plagiarism, Don Baird commented: “… as I see it, … if one word in a poem makes a significant difference [my emphasis], it might never be adjudicated as plagiarism. Secondly, proving who wrote the poem first could become a crucial aspect of the argument which, therefore, should encourage all of us to document when we wrote the poem (as I do). These poems are so short that copyright protection becomes a major point of contention; and, most likely, unresolvable in many cases.”

I think the “unresolvable” comment is the key element there – even if one does document the date of composition, it still comes down to a he said-she said situation in any dispute. Notebooks and computer files can be easily altered.

In a second article on deja-ku, Mr Welch offers this idea for consideration: “Rather than dismiss … poems merely for their similarity, if they have sufficient artistic merit … we can celebrate them”.

Despicable behaviour

There can be few cases of plagiarism in haiku that have been as blatant as the one involving eminent Canadian writer George Swede who found entire poems of his – unchanged, mind you – posted on the internet with someone else’s name underneath them. Click on this link to read the whole sorry story and what George (and friends) did to get the so-called poet to cease and desist.

Conclusion

There are a lot of muddy waters in this particular river and I don’t know that much clarity can be achieved, or if it’s even possible. Humans are messy creatures at the best of times and the human mind largely a mystery – is it possible to say that a haiku very similar to our own is not simply a coincidence? Do those who snip and snap up the work of others rely on a fear of “making a scene” in what, after all, is a pretty small pond? Does haiku plagiarism happen very often? Does it happen at all?

More questions than answers (sorry about that) but what we can be sure of is that haiku is no more immune to plagiarism than any other form of writing.

As poets who choose to write in the specialised form that is haiku, I believe it is up to each of us to make sure we strive for that (often difficult) fresh viewpoint. Take inspiration from the work you admire, yes, but use it as a springboard into something new, something truly original and, most importantly, something unarguably yours.

**

Further reading:

Fair Use (under US law, it mentions haiku)

Thoughts on poetry and plagiarism by Katy Evans-Bush (and some good thoughts they are too).

John Stevenson contemplates one of his own haiku that is very similar to that of another author. See issue 34.2, chosen from the free pdf selection at the bottom of the page. The article is entitled Two by Two and begins on P93.

Editor’s note: Sandra Simpson is editor of Haiku NewZ, secretary of the Katikati Haiku Pathway Committee and South Pacific editor for the annual Red Moon anthology. Her work appears in Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years and A Vast Sky: An anthology of contemporary world haiku.

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