“Oh no, not again!” That was my reaction on seeing a poem by a ninth grader from Whatcom County, Washington as a Merit Award winner in the 2016 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest held in Bellingham, Washington. I first saw the poem on J. I. Kleinberg’s poetry blog for 24 July 2016. On the same date, the poem also appeared on the Sue Boynton Poetry Contest page on Facebook. Here’s the poem:
Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don’t make sense
Pancake on a stick
What made me shake my head in dismay is the fact that this poem, at least the first two lines (not to mention the effect of the third line), is actually by Rolf Nelson, of Dallas, Texas. At least I think so, and I believe he wrote it around 2006 or 2007. It has become an Internet meme:
Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don’t make sense
Like the computer error message haiku you may have seen (which also have an actual author), Rolf’s poem has frequently circulated on the Internet anonymously (sometimes with “hippopotamus” instead of “refrigerator”). Some years ago, this anonymous proliferation prompted someone on the Yahoo! Answers website to ask who wrote this poem (unfortunately, this page does not provide dates for any of its postings). A reply by “Mitchell” mentions that Rolf Nelson wrote the poem for a T-shirt he designed for Threadless. The Threadless website (where you can also see the T-shirt) attributes the shirt design to him.
I remember first seeing the poem on this T-shirt in an email message that Bob Seidensticker sent to me on 11 December 2006 (although I might have seen it earlier than this too). Around 2008 or 2009 I added a picture of the T-shirt to my haiku workshop PowerPoint presentation (using the poem to show that it’s essentially a comment about haiku and not really a haiku at all, but let’s leave that aside for now, along with the fact that the word “haiku” is both singular and plural, so there’s no need to say “haikus”). Meanwhile, at Anti-Joke.com, Rolf Nelson confirms that he submitted the poem to Threadless as a shirt slogan. However, at least one person posting on the Anti-Joke site questions Rolf’s originality, saying, colourfully, “Dude you can bet your arse this joke haiku or some pre-refrigerator variants have been around since way before you wrote it. You may not have noticed because other authors aren’t so hungry for the credit as you.” I don’t take this comment seriously, because there’s no evidence I’ve found that this poem existed before Rolf posted his T-shirt design to the Threadless website with this poem. Furthermore, no other authors would be hungry to take credit for the poem if none of them wrote it! On the Anti-Joke site, Rolf says, “I wrote this over 6 years ago for my highschool english class and submitted it to Threadless while I was in college.”
However, did Rolf really write it? Things may not be entirely simple. The Threadless website for the “Haikus are easy” T-shirt includes a link to Rolf Nelson’s Design by Proxy website. Even that website name might give pause for concern. Was the poem by proxy too, and not really his, even though the design was? Rolf begins his website’s About page by saying “Design by proxy is Rolf Nelson, an experiential art director with authority to represent someone else with creativity.” We might therefore conclude that the “Haikus are easy” poem isn’t his, but someone else’s, and that he just created a design for it. Since he seems to focus most of his creative energies on design rather than writing, did Rolf therefore “borrow” the poem, wishing mainly to present his design of it? That would be an easy criticism to make, but until there’s proof that he didn’t write the poem, or that this poem (or significant “pre-refrigerator” variants) existed before he posted his T-shirt design, I have every reason to believe Rolf’s claim to be true, that he did indeed write the poem. For reference, a portfolio page on Rolf’s website featuring his Threadless T-shirt designs says the following, under the heading “My only published poem”:
A haiku is one of the most simple forms of poetry. It is a Japanese style poem comprised of 3 lines consisting of 5 syllables, then 7, then 5 again and is oft about nature. At the end of a 6 week study on the forms of poetry back in high school english class, I got a little tired of following all of the conventions and took a little creative license. Little did I know that it would work so well on a t-shirt. I have since seen this copy translated to Japanese written even on bathroom stalls.
Yet he also says this of his T-shirt designs: “Most of the ideas came from everyday conversations with my friends.” So who really wrote it? We can continue to wonder, but it seems that Rolf did, and I’m happy (for now) to believe that he did.
Even if Rolf Nelson did not write the poem (although he did definitely submit it to Threadless), it was surely written long before the Boynton contest winner “wrote” it. I’m withholding that author’s name and gender because he/she is a ninth grader, and need not have this indiscretion hanging over his/her neck for the rest of his/her life. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but there’s a point where it goes too far and becomes plagiarism. If two thirds of a student’s term paper were to be “borrowed” like this (or even much less than two-thirds), the student would surely get an F and might even face disciplinary action or expulsion. We can be more forgiving here, but the issues are still serious. In haiku, of course, especially in Japan, there’s a common tradition of alluding to other verses. However, in those cases, the audience was fully expected to know the original source, and the original source is typically only hinted at rather than copied wholesale (as in the first two lines here). Could we consider this poem to be a parody or allusion, and thus not plagiarism? Given that the audience is unlikely to know the original, and because essentially nothing is added to enlarge, change, or mock the original source, or the overall effect of the poem, I don’t think so. Saying “pancake on a stick” is just a variation of something unexpected like “refrigerator”—and nothing more—designed to underscore the idea that sometimes these poems “don’t make sense.” If the poem is intended as an allusion, the audience simply wouldn’t understand that any game is afoot—not the way we would get the allusion, say, if a poet were to write “to haiku / or not to haiku / that is the question.”
What I suspect happened here is a case of what’s been called cryptomnesia, or remembering something (such as this poem’s first two lines) but not remembering the source. So when this student decided to enter the Boynton contest, and thought to enter a haiku, it was easy to remember the “Haikus are easy” poem—although that memory obviously neglected the “refrigerator” line. If we also take the student’s age into consideration (I would assume around 14 to 15), it’s possible, though unlikely, to imagine that this student hasn’t yet encountered the practice of citing one’s sources for school papers, or had the virtue of originality drilled into them. Even if they have, this could easily be a case of cryptomnesia, although that’s still sloppy and still a form of plagiarism, even if “accidental.” The instructions for the Boynton contest (see here also) say that “The poet must be the exclusive author of the submitted original poem.” So even if this poem isn’t considered plagiarism, it would seem to violate the expectation that the poet be the poem’s exclusive author.
You may wonder why I said “Oh no, not again” in reaction to the latest surfacing of this poem. That’s because the Boynton contest winner wasn’t the first time Rolf Nelson’s poem has seemingly been plagiarized. On 10 November 2014, I was sitting in the audience of Moore Theatre in Seattle, listening to a reading of selected winners from the 2014–2015 Poetry on Buses program (I had had one of my poems selected too). My jaw dropped to the floor when a participant named Shannon Juengling read a poem under the title “Dear Mammie” to more than a thousand people in attendance:
Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don’t make sense
It got a great laugh, as anyone would expect. But not from me. The poem was plagiarized word-for-word, and thus an even more egregious case than the Boynton contest winner. Immediately after the performance I spoke about this issue with Roberto Ascalon, the event’s organizer (who I knew personally beforehand), followed by email in mid November 2014 providing evidence of the fact that the poem was not by Shannon Juengling. The poem was slated to be featured on the Poetry on Buses website on 29 August 2015 (where all the program’s 365 winning poems were listed by title and poet, with each poem assigned to a different day in the year ahead). The poem was removed from the website on 10 December 2014 and replaced by a piece created by “Community Poetry Workshop Participants” instead. (The entire series of 365 poems is by individual poets, but I note that the 2 October 2015 entry is also by “Community Poetry Workshop Participants,” and the exact same poem from 29 August is repeated there, so I wonder if there was a plagiarism issue with the poem originally slated for 2 October too.) The poem had apparently also been made into a bus placard to be featured on King County metro buses in 2014–15, but I understand that the placard was removed, or was never added to any bus.
Obviously, or so it would seem to me, there’s something about this poem that sticks in the mind. It’s funny, for one thing, and surprising, thanks to the word “refrigerator” (the one thing this poem gets right about haiku is this juxtapositional structure). These traits are surely part of why the poem has become an Internet meme. Even though the poem seems to have lost some degree of association with its author, and even if it were truly by “anonymous,” that still does not justify plagiarism. Although the poet may sometimes be forgotten, the poem itself remains memorable. I think this poem’s memorability is important to recognize, because it would be particularly bold for Shannon Juengling to pass the poem off as her own if she knew that it wasn’t, claiming it as her original composition by submitting it and reading it from the stage at a well-attended launch event. When one can so easily be exposed as a plagiarist at an event like that, and even more easily at a website visited by thousands of people, we can conclude that it was surely not an intentional act of plagiarism on her part.
So again, I would suspect this to be a case of cryptomnesia. How it came about I cannot begin to guess (except that maybe Shannon Juengling once saw the T-shirt?), but cryptomnesia is insidious in that you can truly believe you’re writing something new when in actuality you’re just remembering it—but forgetting the source. I’ve studied many hundreds of instances of this sort of plagiarism in fiction, poetry, and especially music (as but one example, George Harrison was famously sued for ripping off the Chiffons’ 1963 song “He’s So Fine” in his 1970 hit song “My Sweet Lord”). I have been particularly interested in cases of cryptomnesia in haiku poetry myself, and have been collecting examples for more than twenty years in my private Deja-ku Database (please note, though, that “deja-ku” is not pejorative term, and also applies to haiku that are parodies, allusions, or homages, or that share the same topic or seasonal reference, all perfectly wonderful examples of “similarity” to be celebrated). So while Shannon Juengling’s case is still plagiarism, it is most likely accidental rather than intentional. In my experience, this problem seems to happen more readily with poems as short as haiku, and more readily with catchy original sources that are “remembered” by people who aren’t normally poets, or who might be new to poetry, as seems to be the case with both Shannon Juengling and the Boynton contest ninth grader.
But wait, there’s more, and it involves another poetry newbie. On 21 December 2015, the Louisville, Kentucky newspaper, The Courier-Journal, posted the following correction to an earlier story:
A haiku published in Sunday’s Forum section [20 December 2015] attributed to a fifth-grader should have sounded familiar. In fact, you can buy T-shirts with it on them. Our apology:
sounded too good to be true
We should have spotted
Yes, a fifth-grader had passed off the same “Haikus are easy” poem as his/her own. I think we can forgive fifth-graders (and ninth-graders) for such mistakes, and even adults. Well, maybe once. This is not the end of the world here, although these indiscretions should still be recognized as plagiarism. I’m not sure what’s to be done with the Boynton contest (it’s an awkward position to be in), and perhaps there’s even an explanation that I haven’t anticipated here, but it would seem that the best course of action for the Boynton poetry committee is to follow the actions of the Louisville newspaper and simply remove the poem from the record—and withdraw the award. I would hope that the poet involved would never plagiarize again—or that he/she would be extra vigilant against doing so accidentally. I hope, in any event, that this experience doesn’t scare this young person away from poetry entirely. We need everyone’s voice. However, we also still hope these voices to be original.
Postscript: On 26 July 2016, I received an email from the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Committee Chair, Rachel Mehl, saying that the committee had decided not to pull the poem from their list of winners, but would discuss the situation with the student. I replied to say “These are difficult situations, especially when they involve a student. If it had been an adult, I would have recommended pulling the poem, but because this is a young person, your decision is a kind and compassionate compromise.”
Note: I should mention that I myself have taught haiku at the high school attended by the Whatcom County ninth-grader. I did that as a poetry-in-the-schools teacher sponsored by the Skagit River Poetry Festival, at which I was a featured poet. I did my teaching at several area schools in April and May of 2010, so this was long before the student in question would have been in attendance, and it was for a class with a different teacher than the one this student would later have.