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.