Monday, 9 November 2009

Andrew Motion and the 'P Word'

To mark Remembrance Day, Andrew Motion has published 'An Equal Voice' --- a 'found poem' about shellshock --- in The Guardian. Today he stands accused of improper behaviour by military historian Ben Shephard:

What Motion actually stitched together were 17 passages from my book A War of Nerves: the ‘voices from a variety of sources’ were not ‘found’ by Motion, but by myself. Of the poem’s eight stanzas, five consist entirely of material from A War of Nerves, very slightly rejigged; in the remaining three stanzas, extracts from the book sit alongside reworked passages from Siegfried Sassoon — the only other source used. Of the 152 lines in 'An Equal Voice', all but 16 are taken directly from A War of Nerves. There is a word for this. It begins with ‘p’ and it isn’t poetry.

Shephard wants Motion condemned for two related issues: breach of copyright, and plagiarism.

There seems to be no dispute that Motion lifted long passages from Shephard's book, that he did not acknowledge the extent of that use, and that he did not request permission. Shephard hits out at double standards: 'Every time I quote a line of poetry in a book, I have to pay.' That isn't quite accurate: one line would fall within 'fair use', although the amount taken by Motion clearly exceeds it. But having acted as both poacher and gamekeeper, I know that it is a painstaking and extremely expensive process to get permission to quote from copyrighted work. Copyright law applies to ex-Poet Laureates as much as to hoi polloi. Even so, I can't see this as an especially egregious fault. Historians and literary scholars (and especially bloggers...) who work with modern materials know how treacherous the terrain of copyright, permissions and fair use is. There is a reason why very little case law exists: no one can afford to go to court over a few lines of poetry.

Potentially much more serious is Shephard's accusation of plagiarism. Motion should not be allowed to get very far with a defence based on whataboutery: what about Shakespeare, etc. And what about the tradition of 'found poetry'? The argument that adding line breaks gives the poet an exemption from copyright laws and academic standards is, I'm afraid, risible. Anyway, as Shephard points out, all the finding was done by him, not by Motion.

Nevertheless, on first publication of 'An Equal Voice' The Guardian made clear (obviously at Motion's prompting) that it is a found poem. Coupled with the epigraph from Shephard, that highlights not only the second-hand nature of Motion's words but also his likely source. The poem's acknowledgements are not at all satisfactory, and they should have been handled much more adroitly in order to avoid just this kind of controversy. There is, though, enough evidence to suggest that the omission was careless, high-handed, but not intentionally deceitful.

The matter ought to have been sensibly resolved with a private apology to Ben Shephard (who has been clearly wronged), a retrospective payment of permissions fees, and an undertaking that proper acknowledgement will be made in any subsequent reprinting of the poem. Instead, we have an unseemly public row leading up to Remembrance Day.

Read George Simmers's criticism of 'Sir Andrew' [Aguecheek?]'s poem here.


  1. There is the further question/complication that Motion's quotations are not from Shephard himself but from previously unpublished writings by other people quoted by Shephard, so is Shephard morally entitled- even if he is legally- to demand permission fees? Hugh Macdiarmid- the subject of another controversy here- also used "found poems" including extracts from the T.L.S. and maintained that he transformed them by using them.

  2. There's a bit of Shephard's complaint which you don't quote, but which for me goes to the heart of what is objectionable about Motion's poem:
    In 'War of Nerves' I warned that it would be all too easy, given the nature of the subject matter, to take material out of context and "pull together a collage of horror and pathos". Andrew Motion has now done exactly that.
    Shephard's book is a distinguished work of scholarship with a complex thesis (while being extremely readable). He must feel that Motion has cheapened and sentimentalised his research.
    I think there should be ethical standards for 'found poems'. It's OK if you do a Waste Land, and incorporate bits and pieces from here and there so that they strike sparks off each other - but not if you just rip off someone else's work and make it sound poncey by adding line breaks.

  3. You may well be right, George. This is yet another dispute between military historians and poets/novelists/literary scholars, with the former accusing the latter of distorting the record for their own sentimental ends.

    Roger, I agree about the complication, but I think the answer is still yes: Shephard is entitled. If I quote swathes of (say) The Waste Land, it doesn't matter that every line is an allusion. I'm still breaching copyright, because Eliot's act of bringing together those separate parts into a whole creates a new work.

    Having said all of that, The Waste Land is a good example of why copyright laws in the age of Google and Amazon are increasingly untenable. The poem is out of copyright in the States, but copyright in the EU won't expire until 2036 (a mere 114 years after its first publication).

  4. Of course there's Eliot's Waste Land encomium to Pound, il miglior fabbro, which used to be translated as "the better thief," but is likely more along the lines of "the better fabricator/rearranger/editor." Was it also Eliot who uttered the famous lines (which I can't remember correctly at the moment): "good poets borrow, great poets steal"? Doris Kearns Goodwin and other major scholars over here in the States have had their burrowing, "borrowing" hands slapped in recent years. That big P-word hurts a lot of decent people, whether Motion qualifies or not.

  5. I agree with everything you say, Tim, but we need to maintain that "fair use" bridgehead if literary criticism/literary biography etc are continue to be viable. Stealing people's words is one thing (and I am a Motion victim in a trivial way too – see below) but quoting words that are in the public domain (or in public MS collections) is vital for free discussion and excessive fees are not fair game. Publishing an anthology without permissions or using other people's words to create a new work is another matter but using quotations in bona fide literary analysis MUST remain free and open. I feel quite passionately about this.

    From my blog of 4 December 2008: "In September 1999 I made the following observation in my book on Andrew Marvell: "Marvell saw the function of the artist at a time of revolutionary change as being...a witness to the true inner nature of the conflict...Two centuries later another English poet, Matthew Arnold, would argue that a society in the process of rapid change needed at least a few voices prepared to step back from the immediate call to "lend a hand at uprooting certain definite evils". Nicholas Murray: World Enough and Time: The Life of Andrew Marvell (September, 1999), p38

    A few months later in The Guardian Andrew Motion made the following observation:

    "Living through a time of revolutionary change, Marvell does not respond as a propagandist for one side or the other, but as someone bearing witness to interior realities...Matthew Arnold...also reminds us of Marvellian virtues when he tells us that during periods of turbulence and rapid change, artists should avoid the temptation to "lend a hand at uprooting certain definite evils". Andrew Motion, The Guardian, 11 March 2000.

    Now I know there will be crude, unsophisticated minds who will call this plagiarism but I prefer to see it as a tribute and I am honoured."

  6. Regarding copyright, there definitelt seem to be double standards at work here.
    I found an Andrew Motion poem online. Underneath it were the words: 'To reproduce part or whole of the poem, permissions must be cleared through Carol Macarthur at United Agents, 020 3214 0880;'
    How small is part of a poem? I think I may print the word 'An' which begins the poem, on my blog, and see if he sues me. On second thoughts, I've just printed it here, Tim, so he may sue you.

  7. United Agents dropped in to look at this blog yesterday. Maybe they'll visit today, too, and leave a comment.

    I suggest, George, that you try reprinting that poem with different line breaks, or as 'found prose'.

    Nick, that coincidence which you quote is highly enjoyable.

  8. A couple of other points about the Andrew Motion row. Motion said that he used so much of the Shephard material unchanged because he wanted 'to keep it as much with the soldiers as possible, rather than interposing my body.' Odd way of putting it. Perhaps he was unconsciously remembering the famous story of the pacifist Lytton Strachey being asked what he would do if he found a Boche soldier attempting to rape his sister. Strachey replied gravely - 'I would endeavour to interpose myself.' Motion's own bodily interposition includes changing one soldier's words, 'wife and kiddies' to 'wife and children', saying that the original was too 'sentimental'. Which rather begs the question as to whether a soldier, facing the prospect of having his head blown off, might not be entitled to feel a little sentimental towards his family?
    Why didn't the Guardian simply run the original un-Motioned soldiers' testimonies?

  9. There is, however, a long and honourable tradition of 'found poetry', as Motion says. I'm not so sure that the fuss was really about copyright or permissions, so much as the idea of found poetry at all. The public seemed to balk at the idea of using 'readymades', as it were, as they balk at Emin's unmade bed and Duchamp's fountain. The blog scorns it:

    "What about the tradition of 'found poetry'? The argument that adding line breaks gives the poet an exemption from... academic standards is, I'm afraid, risible. Anyway, as Shephard points out, all the finding was done by him, not by Motion."

    You can hear the sneer: "Found poetry is cheating". A a professor of modern poetry, I am surprised at the summary dismissal, but would like to hear more. Do you think the form is altogether invalid?

  10. I have nothing at all against found poetry, as my blogpost makes clear. I did not say "found poetry is cheating", and I did not imply it.

    Perhaps Andrew Motion's unacknowledged redeploment of Nick Murray's prose qualifies as "found prose"...