In Geppo XLI:4 (August–October 2016, page 2), the following poem immediately grabbed my attention, not the least because of its subject:
the weight of a pen
for the DNR
A “DNR,” of course, is a “do not resuscitate” order. Signing such a directive is a difficult—weighty—decision, and such a somber moment echoes poignantly with the setting of winter twilight. This poem was presented anonymously in that issue of Geppo, as its submissions mostly are (so that favourites can be voted on anonymously), but I’ve since learned who the author was. But here’s the twist. It wasn’t just the poem itself that grabbed my attention, but its similarity to another poem, by Yu Chang, first published in The Heron’s Nest XI:2 (June 2009), where it was an editor’s choice selection, and republished in numerous other places, including in Jim Kacian’s widely available anthology Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (Norton, 2013). This is a famous haiku:
on a borrowed pen
do not resuscitate
I initially wondered if the first poem might have been influenced by Yu Chang’s, where the person in the poem feels so helpless than even the pen must be borrowed. Might the more recent poem have been a case of cryptomnesia, or remembering someone else’s work but forgetting the source (and thinking it to be one’s own)? I doubted that it might have been deliberate plagiarism, but the possibility did cross my mind (since at first I did not know who the author was or anything about the poem’s circumstances). Or was it independently created? But even if so, was the similarity excessive? I raised the issue with Geppo editor Betty Arnold, and she let me know that the poem’s author was Bruce H. Feingold. He has since explained how this poem arose out of his direct personal experience as a clinical psychologist. “I remember writing this haiku very vividly,” Bruce said in an email to me on 8 December 2016. “I wrote it several years ago on the spot when a patient told me about signing his wife’s DNR and relating how the pen, which is so light, felt so heavy in his hands.” Bruce also said that he was unaware of Yu’s poem when he wrote his, although he did say it was possible he might have seen it, though unlikely. Nevertheless, the poems do seem to have been written entirely independently. This is what I would expect with Bruce’s work, since I have the utmost respect for his integrity.
Yet still the similarity remains. Is it too much? Even though two poems may be written independently, at what point is similarity excessive? Can anyone be “first to the patent office” with haiku? This is a subjective question, and your feelings may differ if you wrote one or the other of the two poems in question (as a “victim” or “perpetrator”), or if you’re a third-party reader of both poems (an “innocent bystander”). Ultimately, what may seem excessive to one reader may not feel excessive to another, especially when these two poems aren’t alone. Indeed, other poems have been written along this vein. Betty asked Charles Trumbull to check his haiku database, and she sent me Charlie’s results, including two directly similar poems (with publication credits for the first one):
by the light of the pine do not resuscitate
John Stevenson, Roadrunner VIII:3, August 2008; this poem also appeared in Haiku 21, Lee Gurga and Scott Metz, eds., Modern Haiku Press, 2011, 165
“do not resuscitate”
a left-over cloud
Mark Hollingsworth (previously unpublished)
John Stevenson and Yu Chang are both members of the Upstate Dim Sum haiku group, and we may wonder if Yu had seen John’s poem (published about a year before Yu’s, which Yu told me was written about his stepmother), and speculate on whether it was any influence on the later poem, but apparently not. John told me in an email of 5 January 2017 that “when I first read [Yu’s poem] (at one of our monthly Dim Sum sessions), I thought of two poems immediately. One was mine, and the other was an earlier poem of Yu’s: ‘lichened pine / my poet friend asks / for a pencil.’” It’s invigorating how poems resonate and echo like this, in personal ways, but they do seem to have been written independently. John also said, “I remember writing mine—vividly. And yet I would find it hard, and perhaps perverse, to attempt to explain it. I was staying at Jim Kacian’s house, in one of the guest rooms downstairs. Had turned the lights out and was about to go to sleep when the words came to me. I got up and wrote them down and then went back to bed. There was a pine tree outside the window and the window was open. Perhaps ‘do not resuscitate’ related to ‘stop thinking about everything and get some sleep.’ It came in one of those twilight moments of consciousness, which is not quite wakeful and not quite dreaming.” For his part, Mark Hollingsworth said in an email of 6 January 2017 that he wrote his poem on 27 January 2005. “I can’t recall if the incident was personal or professional (I am a pastor),” he said, “but I do recall the feeling after making the decision in the hospital, walking outside and seeing a lone small cloud in front of the moon, the front had passed and all the other clouds were far to the east.” He also said he wrote the following poem on 12 October 2005, almost a year later (also previously unpublished):
do not resuscitate
blot at the end
of her signature
And now, of course, the subject extends to Bruce’s poem, and beyond, and all of them seem to have been written independently. We can dwell in the serendipitous mystery of how they each came to be, and celebrate their shared subject, even if sad and traumatic.
Charlie’s haiku database results also included the following poems about a pen’s weight:
of a pen in my hand
Carolyn Hall, Frogpond 34:3, Fall 2011
His hand trembles
On the will’s last page
Heavy gold pen
Herb Batt, Brussels Sprout 11:1, January 1994
And surely there are more, and they reverberate with us because the point of haiku is to commemorate shared experience. These are simply shared subjects, much like sharing the same season word. Such similarities are usually of no concern, except to note that they may well enrich a poem if they help to bring to mind other poems that share the same season word or subject. This cross-pollinating resonance, in fact, is one of the virtues of the season-word tradition in Japanese haiku. Similarity or a common sharedness (provided that it does not go too far) adds possible reverberations to each poem and shows each haiku to be a part of a larger poetic conversation. DNR topics are clearly fraught with emotion, so it’s no wonder that the subject, difficult though it may be, would draw the attention of a number of haiku poets, especially those who may have to deal with these issues in a professional capacity, such as Mark as a pastor or Bruce as a psychologist.
What else are we to make of this similarity? One observation is that similarities between haiku are certainly not isolated, which I’ve written about extensively. A further example involves another of Bruce’s poems—although in this case his poem came first. The Autumn 2016 issue of Frogpond (39:3) carried this note: “Bruce H. Feingold’s poem, ‘Egotesticle,’ was a 2012 Haiku Now finalist in the Innovative Haiku Category, which should have precluded Cynthia Cechota’s submission, ‘egotesticle,’ from being published in Frogpond 39:2” (127). This is a polite way of saying that the similarity was excessive, and leaves aside the issue of whether the later poem was possibly plagiarized or (as I would hope) written independently. In this case, though, even if written independently, the second poem is excessively similar to the previous poem (only the capitalization differs), and thus it was rightly “withdrawn.”
I could cite many other examples, but here’s just one more, also very recent, starting with the following poem by Irish poet Anatoly Kudryavitsky, from his book Horizon (Red Moon Press, 2016, page 39), and probably published in a journal before that:
a scarecrow welcomes us
with open arms
Compare this with the results of the 18th annual Haiku International Association haiku contest, which included the following honorable mention by Kwaku Feni Adow of Ghana:
arriving on the farm—
the open arms
of the scarecrow
It’s remarkably similar to the following poem by Arvinder Kaur, from India, from the September 2014 issue of Cattails, later published in her book, Dandelion Seeds, in 2015 (page 108):
a scarecrow’s open arms
in the fields
And in October of 2015, Shrikaanth K. Murthy (new editor of the British Haiku Society journal Blithe Spirit) won second place in the kigo category of the Shiki online kukai with the following poem, later appearing in Sailing into the Moon, the 2016 Haiku Canada members’ anthology, published in May 2016 (page 26):
only the scarecrow
with open arms
Shrikaanth told me he submitted his poem to the kukai a month before Arvinder sent him a copy of her book, and that he believes he created his poem independently (he said he hadn’t seen the poem in Cattails, even though he’s now a proofreader for Cattails). So perhaps Shrikaanth’s and Arvinder’s poems are independently created, despite obvious similarities, but what about the poems by Anatoly Kudryavitsky and Kwaku Feni Adow? It’s impossible to know from the poems themselves, and I doubt that much would be gained by asking either poet. Kwaku seems to be rather new to haiku, and I’ve seen others who are new to haiku who have “borrowed” haiku and passed them off as their own when they’re first learning to write, but I have no idea if that’s the situation here—I would rather assume independent creation. I do not see Kwaku’s poem as any kind of allusion to the earlier poems, but is it excessively similar? Indeed, is the similarity of all of these poems excessive? Or should we just note the shared subject—and perhaps even celebrate it—and move on? Ultimately, it’s our emotional responses to these situations that may matter most, especially when we may never know the facts of whether similar poems were created independently or not, and may interpret those facts differently even if we did know them for certain.
This is an issue I’ve been tracking for two decades. The Essays page on my Graceguts website has several essays on what I call “deja-ku,” as does my “Deja-ku Diary” blog. For many years, too, I’ve been maintaining a Deja-ku Database, and have classified many hundreds of examples in two broad categories. The bad kind include plagiarism, cryptomnesia (a sort of “accidental” plagiarism), and excessive similarity (which is the most subjective and hardest to define). The good kind include shared subjects or season words, allusion (or honkadori, as it’s called in Japan, which can include judicious borrowing of widely known content), parody, homage, and a couple of other less common varieties. A note about honkadori is that it’s also called allusive variation. A key point with this technique in Japanese haiku is that the variation of an earlier haiku is deliberate, and readers are expected to know the earlier poem—and thus all be in on the game, the way we all know the Shakespeare reference whenever we make creative variations of “to be or not to be.”
A side note here is that I was more concerned about Bruce’s DNR poem before I learned who the author was. As soon as I found out it was Bruce’s, his reputation, integrity, and profession as a psychiatrist all came into play—ruling out, for me, any possibility of plagiarism. This change of feeling as a result of learning the author’s name goes to show how the name under most haiku acts as a “fourth line,” providing information outside the poem that can inform and enlarge the poem, such as gender, nationality, and other details that readers may know about the author, including biography, geographical location, the type of haiku he or she usually writes (his or her “brand,” as it were), and more. The anonymous judging process used in Geppo and most haiku contests is completely defensible, of course, but I also like finding out who the author is, because that usually expands most poems for me, as was certainly the case for Bruce’s DNR poem.
There’s one more wrinkle to the DNR story. After Bruce H. Feingold’s haiku appeared in Geppo XLI:4 (August–October 2016), it was voted on as one of the top ten poems and was reprinted in the following issue, Geppo XLII:1 (November 2016–January 2017), page 9. And then another DNR haiku appeared in the next issue, in Geppo XLII:2 (February–April 2017), page 2, by Ruth Holzer:
the DNR form
The timing may have been a pure coincidence, but the poem might also have been reactionary, written in response to Feingold’s poem. Reaction poems are perfectly defensible, because poetry is, after all, a conversation, and the addition of “Father’s Day” adds a sad twist to the experience, whether real or imagined. A useful ambiguity also arises in the word “he”—does it mean a father signing the form on behalf of a child who is gravely ill? Or is a child signing the form on behalf of an aging or sick father? Either way, the “he” is surely signing the form as a father or for his father, making the date of this event especially poignant. On the deja-ku continuum, I would consider this poem to be a shared subject rather than excessive similarity or plagiarism.
As mentioned, we might easily assume that this new poem was written in direct reaction to the previous poem. However, in an email of 23 June 2017, Ruth told me that she wrote the poem “about seven years ago, directly from the experience,” and added that “when I read Bruce’s haiku [in Geppo], I thought hmm . . . that sounds something like mine—how we are all subject to the same misfortunes. Of course, I voted for it.” As sad as this experience is, there’s something celebratory in sharing such an experience—we are not alone.
Twenty years ago, I never spoke up about another case of deja-ku in the pages of Geppo, and I wish I had. It happened in Geppo XIX:4 (July–August 1996), page 2. Yvonne Hardenbrook offered the following poem:
its morning song larger
It ended up getting the top number of votes from readers of that issue (by far), and was reprinted in Geppo XIX:5 (September–October 1996), page 6, as the best poem of the issue. It bothered me that most readers were apparently unaware of its antecedent, by John Wills, which is one of his most famous poems:
than the wren himself
the wren joy
The Wills poem appeared in the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (New York, Fireside, 1986, page 298). It also appeared in Wills’ book Reed Shadows (Burnt Lake Press/Black Moss Press, 1987, page 42), and was probably published prior to this in a journal. What’s more, I also featured the poem in my journal Woodnotes as the tribute poem to Wills when he died in 1993. Yvonne would have definitely seen at least two of these publications, if not all three (she was an avid Woodnotes subscriber and reader, and had also read Cor’s anthology). There is no way she couldn’t have read Wills’ poem before writing hers, and she told me that she obviously must have, even while defending her poem—she wrote me a two-page single-spaced letter explaining the circumstances of its composition, believing it to have been written independently. But I don’t believe it was, even if it was accidental. This, in my opinion, is a case of cryptomnesia, and it can be insidious because you think you’re writing something original when you’re not. The very real experience she had brought the Wills poem to mind, but as I see it she forgot that she was essentially remembering someone else’s work rather than writing something original—the way most of us, upon seeing a frog in a pond, might think of Bashō’s “old pond” poem (and typically also remember that it’s Bashō’s poem, not our own). I could imagine a case where Yvonne’s poem could have been written independently, but not when there is irrefutable evidence (that she herself acknowledged) that she had read the original Wills poem in at least two prominent places.
Yvonne’s poem may be an accidental sort of plagiarism, but cryptomnesia is still plagiarism, and we should be watchful for it—in the haiku we read and in the haiku we write. Similarity to previous poems is an occupational hazard for the haiku poet, and it will happen to all of us at one time or another, whether we’re “victims,” “perpetrators,” or “innocent bystanders.” The “accidental plagiarism” of cryptomnesia is especially likely to happen with poems as short as haiku, and thus we should be forgiving towards such situations (up to a point). Aside from the deliberate similarity of allusion or parody, it is even likely that we will unintentionally write in a similar way about shared subjects—there are only so many ways to crack an egg. As the poet Dobby Gibson says in his book Polar, “It may be true that everything / has already been said, / but it’s just as true that not everyone / has had a chance to say it.” The trick is to take your turn at saying something but to do it in as fresh a way as possible. We can’t always know what’s fresh, of course, but we can do our best.
The good news is that most cases of deja-ku are positive, such as sharing the same subject or season word, or in alluding to or parodying another poem. In the case of Bruce Feingold’s striking “DNR” poem, like Yu Chang’s and the other poignant examples, the moment resonates so deeply it’s no wonder that more than one person has written about it.