How Attribution Becomes Plagiarism

UncertainIn July of 2018, Gary Hotham emailed me to ask if I knew who wrote the following poem, presented anonymously, which he had encountered in The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here, by David Friend and the Editors of LIFE (New York: Little Brown & Company, 1991):

Quite apart from our religion
there are plum blossoms
there are cherry blossoms

He wondered if I knew the author, as it seemed like it might be a Japanese haiku. I did not know, but suggested he ask Charles Trumbull to check for similar poems in his expansive haiku database, which documents hundreds of thousands of published haiku in English, including haiku in translation. Charlie found that H. F. (Tom) Noyes had published a similar poem in Persimmon 2:2, Spring 1999, page 32:

Religion aside
there are plum blossoms
and pussy willows

You might suspect plagiarism here, but that’s fortunately not the case, as we’ll see by digging into the poem’s history. Charlie also noted that Tom’s poem had been reprinted in the following journals and anthologies (I’ve added some of the publication details here), with a lowercase “religion” in The Heron’s Nest, South by Southeast, and Seed Packets, but initial-capped elsewhere:

  • The Heron’s Nest 4:4, April 2002 (see online)
  • South by Southeast 16:1, 2009, page 18
  • Stanford M. Forrester, ed., Seed Packets, Windsor, Connecticut: Bottle Rockets Press, 2009, page 101
  • H. F. Noyes, Raking Aside Leaves, Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2011, page 2
  • Jim Kacian, Allan Burns, and Philip Rowland, eds., Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, New York: Norton, 2013, page 117

What’s significant with Tom’s poem is that its first publication, in Persimmon, included the following attribution: “After Nanpoku—R. H. Blyth, Zen and Zen Classics.” Tom clearly meant to acknowledge his source. His poem is therefore homage rather than plagiarism, but nor is it allusion, as the “after” construction acknowledges that the poem is surely too obscure for readers to receive the poem as an allusion, or at least that Tom chooses to be overt in acknowledging a direct derivation, regardless of how obscure or well known the original poem might be. The poem does indeed appear in Blyth’s Zen and Zen Classics collection, which I have in the one-volume compilation edited by Frederick Franck (New York: Vintage, 1978). I found it on page 41, where it differs slightly from the unattributed version Gary found in the Meaning of Life book, and should have the middle line indented (not shown here):

Quite apart from our religion,
There are plum blossoms,
There are cherry blossoms.

Tom’s acknowledgment therefore helped us determine the original author, but if that acknowledgment had not been present, I and others might have wondered if Tom had plagiarized. My point here, however, is not to focus on the Nanpoku poem but how the Tom Noyes poem lost its attribution and especially how that loss nudges the poem—or shoves it—from attribution to plagiarism. Or at least so it would seem, if one did not know the history that I present here. Years from now someone might encounter Tom’s poem and feel indignation, or falsely accuse Tom of plagiarism when that is not the case. This is because instances where the acknowledgment is missing suggest that Tom wrote it himself, when he clearly intended it as an homage to Nanpoku, as demonstrated by his original acknowledgment.

I’m not sure why Tom would have submitted a previously published poem for republication in The Heron’s Nest and then South by Southeast, since both journals have typically sought only unpublished poems. Gary Hotham has told me that The Heron’s Nest did allow previously published poems at the time (later ending the practice), but I don’t believe South by Southeast ever allowed prior publication. Whatever the case, no prior publication acknowledgment appeared with the poem in either journal. Moreover, perhaps Tom became less detail-oriented in his old age, and it may have slipped his mind to include the prior publication credit when he submitted this poem, or he may not have remembered that the poem was already published. Tom died at age 91 in 2010, so he would have been about 83 when the poem was republished in The Heron’s Nest in 2002, and about 90 when it appeared in South by Southeast in 2009. This apparent inattentiveness is relevant because it could explain why the “After Nanpoku” attribution was also omitted, when surely Tom would have conscientiously included it if it had been brought to his attention. The same issue of Persimmon included another poem by Tom with a note that says “After Rabindranath Tagore,” demonstrating a pattern of intent to acknowledge his sources. So if there’s any accident here, it was Tom’s for not including the “After Nanpoku” acknowledgment in later publications, and anthology editors for not knowing that the poem was really an homage to Nanpoku that should have been acknowledged rather than being offered as an original poem or allusion.

And so readers would not know. With its publication in The Heron’s Nest and South by Southeast, and then in the Seed Packets anthology, this poem lost its assertion of homage and became an apparent plagiarism—for anyone who knows the Nanpoku poem and would spot the extensive similarity. Even if one does not know the original poem, Tom’s piece still remains a silent plagiarism when it lacks the original acknowledgment. The matter becomes particularly problematic with the poem’s publication in Norton’s Haiku in English anthology, which is much more widely available, will have many more readers than prior publications, and will be read for years to come. In this collection, any reader encountering the poem would naturally assume that Noyes wrote it himself rather than deriving it from Nanpoku. So Tom’s poem has unwittingly moved from homage, with attribution, to a seeming plagiarism, moving away from the author’s conscientious intent. How easily this happened, suggesting that any of us who write haiku with “after so-and-so” attributions should be careful to maintain those attributions. I hope that a correction can be made in Haiku in English to make sure that future readers are not misled.

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