Accidental Acquisition

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.

English: Attila the Stockbroker, taken in the ...
English: Attila the Stockbroker, taken in the Cabaret Tent at the 2010 Glastonbury Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.


I’m With You In Rockland.

WordPress informs me that I’ve been writing on this site for exactly a year now. Thank you very much for joining me over the last twelve months. I’d like to start today with a little more recent history.

Two weeks ago, I watched a TED lecture about the techniques anyone can use to improve their powers of recall. It seems that humans are kitted out with excellent spacial and visual memory, and it’s much easier to remember something when it’s associated with a journey or the layout of a building. TED lectures themselves are traditionally delivered without notes.

You might remember that I discussed plausible and implausible coincidences, but it so happens that I was walking home that evening when I decided to listen to Allen Ginsberg‘s iconic poem Howl for the first time. His recordings are available on Spotify.

I’ve read it several times but that is the first and only occasion I’ve heard the recording so far. Yet a fortnight on, I can recall the journey.

Allen Ginsberg cropped
Allen Ginsberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember where I was when
I heard the best minds of his
generation destroyed by madness.
I remember where I was when
the saintly motorcyclists appeared.
I remember where I was when
Moloch! appeared over and over.
I remember where I was when
I was with him in Rockland.

One piece of advice often given to writers is to keep a notepad by the bed for good ideas. I’ve done this for years and I can still count on one hand how many flashes of inspiration I’ve had at 2am. What works for me is being active, particularly going for a walk.

I think the spatial memory concept is part of the reason why walking works wonders for ideas. As you amble, the brain is observing everything around you, which makes associations and triggers off memories. Please do ask for a second opinion about that theory from someone who’s qualified in these matters.

One of the great elements of being a poet – or indeed a prose writer – is that you aren’t normally expected to memorise your work. A rock musician doesn’t look at the chords as he’s performing to Wembley Stadium, a dancer on the West End stage doesn’t refer to the steps in her hand, but a poet is permitted to read from the page.

I have seen poetry recalled successfully from memory many times, but the occasion that stands out most was Alan Bissett. He not only performed two or three pages of a play without prompting, but acted out both parts by just the tone of his voice. Last place goes to Labour Party leader Ed Milliband MP, who forgot to mention immigration or the deficit in a recent speech.

I know only one of my poems by heart, but it’s the manageable length of eight lines with eight syllables each. My longest poem is a 120-line free verse piece called Anatomy of a Party.

In the first draft of this post, the last sentence of that last paragraph was, I could, and probably should, learn it using the Memory Palace technique as described in the TED talk, but there seems little point as I’d usually have it in front of me. But then I took a second thought. There’s an event on Friday where I plan to read Anatomy of a Party and two much shorter pieces, time permitting. I wonder whether I could memorise one of the shorter pieces for that day.

I offer no guarantees, but I think I’ll make an attempt. I’ll report back next Monday.