If there’s one thing that keeps me awake at night, it’s subconscious plagiarism. It was reported this week that Ed Sheeran is being sued by two songwriters as he allegedly copied their work, and it’s always in the back of my mind that however original I think I am, there’s a chance I’ve accidentally remembered words from elsewhere.
At its most extreme, it can leave a person’s reputation damaged. In 2015, poet Sheree Mack was accused by some of ‘wholesale plagiarism’ of other poets’ work, although she denied it was deliberate.
But if you like another poet’s work, there are legitimate ways to reference them.
Writing After, then naming the poet
It’s a convention in poetry that you can credit someone else using this format. Let’s say I wanted to credit a certain political poet from the 1980s, I might write:
Nigel at B&Q
After Attila the Stockbroker
Nigel wants to go to B&Q,
but there’s Isis fighters all round the bathroom department.
Nigel doesn’t like Isis fighters.
Bear in mind this is not a licence to copy that poet word for word; you should be responding to their work, updating it, making your own interpretation, &c.
Using a title
In the majority of cases, it’s all right to use a title, particularly if the word can be found in a dictionary. A quick look at Wikipedia offers a whole list of instances of the title Life.
However, be wary if the title is very distinctive, as it can seem as though you’re capitalising on the other person’s success. If you used the title Evidently Chickentown but your work was completely different, a lot of John Cooper Clarke fans would be unhappy.
Imitating a structure
Unless a structure is so closely associated with one particular poet, it’s fair game to emulate a structure as long as you’re saying your own thing. When I wrote Purple, I was going through a Luke Wright phase, so I borrowed the structure of Bloody Hell, It’s Barbara for the last section:
Excerpt from Purple
You’re always dressed in gingham checks
and Oakley specs, and round your neck
those headphones: Oh, I do love Beck.
Large as life, it’s you.
Here, the words are totally different from Wright’s, but would fit a similar metrical pattern.
General themes and ideas
Many people are familiar with the Allen Ginsberg poem Howl and the Gil Scott Heron track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The two works touch upon the same themes: disaffected youth, race relations, rebellion, &c. Both also make heavy use of repetition.
It is possible that Scott Heron was influenced by Ginsberg, as his work was written 15 years later, but despite the described similarities, there is no way that one could be accused of copying the other.