Category Archives: plagiarism

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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A Pattern of Plagiarism

BadThis essay was originally written in response to Sandra Simpson’s essay, “How Close Is Too Close?” (, posted to the New Zealand Poetry Society website in June of 2014), but greatly expanded since then as more and more new evidence came to light. Please read Sandra’s essay before reading this one. I dig deep here, but do so to explore complex issues thoroughly and fairly.


Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt.
“Perish those who said our good things before we did.”

It would be easy to start these comments by saying “Ernest J. Berry is a plagiarist.” Or, in a softer vein, perhaps “Ernest J. Berry has plagiarized.” But I won’t do so. Instead, I’d like to start by letting two poems speak for themselves—and bear in mind that this is just the tip of the iceberg. What does the following look like to you?

extended rain
the heron’s legs
get shorter 

            —Ernest J. Berry, in Pinesong, 2014, page 53, published in this anthology as the third prize winner of the 2014 Griffin-Farlow Haiku Award sponsored by the North Carolina Poetry Society

The crane’s legs
have gotten shorter
in the spring rain.

            —Matsuo Bashō, translated by Robert Hass in The Essential Haiku, Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1994, page 13


Allusion versus Plagiarism

Let me clarify the issues at stake here. In haiku terms, the central issue is the difference between allusion and outright copying (whether intentional or unintentional). I’d like to be generous and assume that this is not a case of intentional and conscious plagiarism, but of accidentally repeating someone else’s words, in this instance Robert Hass’s prominent translation of Bashō’s prominent poem. And while cases like this may not involve deliberate plagiarism, they are still plagiarism even if they’re cryptomnesia, which is the phenomenon whereby one remembers someone else’s words but forgets the source of those words. Cryptomnesia can be insidious because an actual experience often triggers the memory of someone else’s words because those words fit the experience so well. But when you don’t realize that you’re remembering rather than creating the words that fit that experience, you succumb to an unwitting act of plagiarism. Worse yet, it can be next to impossible to tell the difference between true creation and merely remembering someone else’s already fitting words for a particular experience (the fact that it can be difficult to feel that difference does not excuse plagiarism in the slightest, please note).

Seeing a bird’s legs getting shorter in water after a rainy period is a case in point. Bashō has already written about that (for the sake of poetic effect, it does not make much difference that he wrote about a crane rather than a heron). What Bashō wrote is a memorable and widely quoted poem. And so, forever after, anyone seeing that experience, when publishing his or her haiku, must surely defer to Bashō as having already written definitively about that experience. One has to write in a sufficiently fresh way about that experience, or write about a different experience to avoid this problem. Ernie Berry has not done either with his heron poem. What’s more, he entered the poem into a contest as if it were his own. What would you call that?

In contrast to plagiarism, allusion is where you refer to an existing poem, place, or event to enlarge the context of what your poem says. Allusion is not to be confused with parody, where one uses an existing poem, but changes it in significant ways, typically to have fun with the poem, or to poke fun at some other target (although parody, of course, still “alludes” to something else). For example, when Alan Pizzarelli changes Nick Virgilio’s famous lily poem to say “her suit” instead of “itself,” he radically transforms the poem from referring to a flower to one that refers to a buck-naked bathing beauty named Lily: “Lily: / out of the water . . . / out of her suit.” While this is similar to allusion, in that it brings to mind the other poem, parody is a form of deliberate revision where the full effect of “getting” the poem requires that the reader know the original poem—and to know that someone else has written that other poem. Everyone is in on the trick, in on the joke. Again, that wasn’t what Ernie was doing in his use of the Bashō poem, where he seems to have no intent at all to add to Bashō’s poem, and no intent for readers to think of Bashō’s poem when reading his. It’s not a conversation between poems at all, but a restatement of Bashō’s words and experience with Ernie’s name after them. Quite simply, it isn’t his poem. But by putting his name after the poem, Ernie clearly intended to pass the poem off as if he wrote it.

In his gem of a book, The Little Book of Plagiarism (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007, in which I was reminded of the Donatus quotation that starts this essay, although I’ve seen it use both dixerent and dixerunt in the Latin original), judge Richard A. Posner of the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals writes that “Concealment is at the heart of plagiarism” (17). Ernie’s poem conceals Bashō as the original author. Parody is not concealment because, as Posner adds, “the parodist will plant clues so numerous and unmistakable that the reader will recognize the copying, for otherwise the parody will not be recognized as a parody” (18). But there are no clues here that Ernie intends a parody, such as changing the original in some humourous way. Likewise, Posner tells us, “Allusion is not plagiarism, because the reader is expected to recognize the allusion” (18). Astute readers will recognize the source here, to be sure, but it’s not an allusion because the poem is, again, essentially a restatement of Bashō’s original poem, with only incidental differences (and I would suggest that even if one wishes to argue that the differences are more than incidental, enough of the rest of the poem is still excessively similar). Ernie Berry may have had the experience that he describes, but he has not used original words to describe that experience. He has stolen Bashō’s words for that experience (in Hass’s translation). Quite simply, Ernie Berry has plagiarized. And the plagiarism does not end here. Rather, this is one of many examples that show a most unfortunate pattern of plagiarism.


No One Owns Experience

Yet no one owns experience, so what are we to do? That is the endless challenge with haiku and experience. The solution is to write from the heart, to write as freshly as possible, and, before publishing, to know the literature as best as one can to prevent oneself from submitting poems that are too similar to existing poems (and to accept the help of editors and contest administrators in pointing out excessive similarities—as was offered here by the North Carolina Poetry Society, yet objected to defensively by Ernie in response). It’s also vital to keep good records of one’s drafts, submissions, and publications, to help prevent sloppy repetitions or the submission of previously published work.

From his experience, would Ernie have come up with the words on his own for the heron’s legs getting shorter, or did the presence of the words in his subconscious mind make him aware of the experience when it happened? I have little doubt that Ernie saw a tall bird that seemed to be shorter in the water after rain. But Bashō has already written a poem about that, and not just any old poem, but a definitive and memorable one. And even if it were an obscure poem, it would likely still be cryptomnesia if Ernie had read that poem, as I believe is the case here with Hass’s book. Furthermore, even if he had not read an obscure poem on this subject, the problem would still remain that his version is excessively similar, and thus a copyright infringement of Hass’s translation (if not others). The case for plagiarism is even stronger when the poem is not obscure, as in this case, and stronger yet when the translation in question is from one of the most prominent and widely selling books of haiku translation yet published in the English language—one that Ernie surely has read.

So from all angles, there’s no defense here. One should simply apologize, withdraw the poem, and move on—as is done even by prominent haiku masters in Japan, as well as by those who are less prominent. Haiku is short enough that we are bound to repeat each other with independently created haiku, and these are withdrawn in Japan if they are found to be excessively similar to existing poems. But of course such acts are relevant to truly independent creation, which isn’t the case here. Ernie readily admits the similarity to Bashō and—in his words—the “lack of originality” in his version. Yet, by defending himself despite the similarity, Ernie has not demonstrated any sort of graciousness.

From a decade of being a judge and organizer with the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival’s annual Haiku Invitational contest—for haiku on the theme of cherry blossoms—I know from reading thousands of cherry blossom haiku how easy it is to repeat what others have already thought and written. So many of the entries fail to see freshly, and repeat the common tropes of equating falling cherry blossoms to confetti or snow. It’s been done to death. Some of these poems can be okay, but the best haiku on the theme of cherry blossoms see far more freshly than that. This is a case of sharing the same topic in haiku (as with other kigo, or season words), but this by itself is not plagiarism, parody, or allusion. Again, Ernie’s poem is not merely on the same topic as Bashō’s poem. Rather, the central experience and the expression of that experience are both too similar to an existing poem, in this case the translation by Robert Hass. For comparison, here’s Tom Lowenstein’s translation, from Classic Haiku (London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2007; 66):

Rainy season
and the crane’s legs
have grown shorter

And here is Hart Larrabee’s translation from Haiku: Classic Japanese Short Poems (New York: Chartwell Books, 2016; 9):

The crane’s legs
Grow shorter in the
Early summer rain

Ernie’s criticism of Hass’s translation misses one point, which is that Bashō wrote in Japanese about the heron’s legs getting shorter, and it’s the Japanese that matters first—and the experience behind it. Ernie’s poem is too similar to the concepts in the Japanese original, and could be compared to many different translations, such as the Lowenstein one. Hass’s is just one of them, albeit the most similar or prominent one. So one could argue that Ernie’s poem fails by not seeing freshly in terms of experience and in not respecting the literature about that experience. I care about these matters. A second and separate point is the direct similarity not just to the experience that Bashō rendered in Japanese, but the similarity of a particular translator’s translation of the original poem, which is significantly similar. Let’s please call a spade a spade, and consider that plagiarism.

Posner writes that “The reader has to care about being deceived about authorial identity in order for the deceit to cross the line to fraud and thus constitute plagiarism” (20). Certainly, in Ernie’s case of ripping off Bashō, we care. And if anyone does not care, they should.


Robert Hass’s Translation

I find it telling that Ernie criticizes the translation that his poem is the most similar to, as if to suggest that his “version” is acceptable because it’s “better.” But that’s fundamentally irrelevant. For all of the “failings” that Ernie believes to exist in Hass’s version, it was Hass’s translation that came to mind for Ernie, in what seems like an obvious case of cryptomnesia. So Hass’s version clearly succeeded by being memorable to Ernie. I doubt that this was a deliberate plagiarism, so it has to be accidental plagiarism—but it’s still plagiarism. It doesn’t matter how deeply and how long one might live and breathe haiku, either; plagiarism is still plagiarism.

Later in this essay I’ll look a little closer at Hass’s version, and will explore the fact that the quality of one version versus the other is irrelevant to whether plagiarism has occurred. Perhaps Hass’s version is a little wordy. And yes, it does read as a single sentence, with no cut, but the original Japanese does not have a cut, so Ernie is wrong to criticize Hass’s version for reading as a single sentence. But all of this is utterly beside the point—Ernie has copied it, even if by an act of faulty memory. Even if he has improved on it, he has presented it as his own haiku, which of course it isn’t. That offends me, and it should offend other readers too, if they are to take the act of creative expression and publication through haiku as professionally and as seriously as possible. Thank goodness the North Carolina Poetry Society took offense enough to rescind Ernie’s award for this poem.

Posner observes that “there seem always to be people willing to leap to the defense of the detected plagiarist” (92), as there may well be for Ernie Berry—and they may do so by comparing Ernie’s version with Hass’s, perhaps dwelling on what’s different rather than on what’s the same. Such defense may speak more to how much we may appreciate Ernie as a person, and appreciate the quality of his nonplagiarized work. But that needs no defense. The plagiarism remains, and is still plagiarism.


The North Carolina Poetry Society’s Response

Perhaps the case could be made that Ernie’s poem is not even a sufficiently original translation, still being too similar to an existing translation. However, if Ernie had offered his heron poem as a translation of Bashō, I would have said bravo, because it does an excellent job of rendering the original experience (but lacking the seasonal reference in the original, so a notch weaker on that point, not to mention changing the bird species). But he offered the heron poem as his own original haiku, which strikes me as fraud, especially when trying to win contest money in such an effort.

Posner says that “A judgment of plagiarism requires that the copying, besides being deceitful in the sense of misleading the intended readers, induce reliance by them” (19), something that he refers to as “detrimental reliance.” Readers rely on Ernie’s poem to be his own original creation. To violate that reliance by appropriating a significant amount of text from another writer (or translator), and passing it off as his own, is simply fraudulent.

The North Carolina Poetry Society’s website removed its reference to Ernie as the third prize winner of the 2014 Griffin-Farlow Haiku Award (see, but the poem does still appear (on page 53) in Pinesong, the printed anthology of various 2014 NCPS contest winners. Richard Krawiec, a well-established haiku poet who is also a board member of the society, discovered the infraction and immediately brought it to the society’s attention, although this did not occur until after the book was printed. The society made the right choice by rescinding the award and not awarding the prize money. But it could go farther by putting a sticker over the poem in the printed anthology, or by inserting an errata sheet. If it explained the reason for the disqualification of the poem, doing so would send a clear and necessary message to others who might enter the same contest or other contests. The society could also find a new third-place winner to replace the one that would have been there were it not for Ernie’s deception—a poet who has been directly harmed by Ernie’s action.

On behalf of poets everywhere, the North Carolina Poetry Society has a duty to act professionally and to demonstrate zero tolerance for plagiarism. It has not (yet?) gone far enough in correcting the problem, and could also employ more experienced haiku judges who would more likely spot problems of appropriation. The resolution on the matter quoted by NCPS board member Richard Krawiec (see is as follows:

The majority decision is that most haiku poets would want to be told if they submitted as original work a poem that so closely parallels the published work of another poet. We also agree that such a close resemblance would disqualify the later poem from being published as original work under existing Copyright law. Since (Berry’s) poem so closely parallels the Haas [sic; they should have said Hass] translation of Basho in The Essential Haiku (published by Ecco Press, Penguin Books Canada, and Bloodaxe Books, Ireland) we unfortunately must withdraw the award to minimize any potential conflict with those publishers.

This shall be the NCPS sole response, ie. no public notice via Emuse or web posting. If people should later remark on the poems’ similarity we simply provide them with this response to Mr. Berry and the two web links. [Richard clarifies that “The reference to ‘web links’ refers to columns written on plagiarism in haiku by Sandra Simpson [see], and another by Michael Dylan Welch [see].”]

Despite this being voted as their “sole response” on the issue (and voted on unanimously, Richard indicates), I would suggest that the organization needs to go farther in decrying the fraud of submitting plagiarized poems for its contests. They might also ban Ernie Berry from submitting ever again, a ban that other contests and journals might also consider.


Translations versus Rip-offs

It also misses the point, perhaps more deeply than anything Ernie has written about this issue, to hold up Hiroaki Sato’s One Hundred Frogs to cite all the different variations of Bashō’s famous frog poem there. Those are nearly all translations of one single poem, and everyone knows that it’s Bashō’s poem—except for the obvious parodies or take-offs also included in the book, which are instead obvious allusions, not even counting the context of being included in Sato’s book. Translations of one single poem have nothing at all to do with another poet trying to pass off another poet’s poem as his or her own, which is what Ernie has done. Nor do they have anything to do with a new poem alluding to an older poem. To misunderstand this distinction seems like a massive failure of logic, sorry to say. More on this misunderstanding later.

When Sandra Simpson wrote earlier about issues of plagiarism and what I’ve dubbed “déjà-ku” (haiku that bring to mind other poems in both good and bad ways), she referred to a well-known poet who advocated the reuse of other people’s work. Here is what Sandra wrote (see

A number of years ago when I was a still a fresh-faced newcomer to haiku I was at a workshop listening to a senior poet who said words to the effect that “if you see a line or phrase you like, write it down and reuse it” and “if you change one word in a haiku, it’s yours”. I can still remember the frisson of shock that went round the room, generated by the more experienced members of the audience. No one said anything but the disapproval was palpable.

She adds that “It seems to me now that it was an opportunity missed. Disagreement should have been voiced—it may not have deterred the speaker, but it would have set things straight for the less-experienced writers.” In my response to Sandra’s essay, I speculated that that well-known poet might have been Cid Corman. But the other shoe has now dropped. It is obvious that Sandra was referring to Ernie Berry, and she has confirmed with me that this is the case. That fact seems even more obvious when her essay also quotes the following poems under the heading of “Cryptomnesia”:

autumn breeze
a pine cone waddles
toward the shore

            Allan Burns, The Heron’s Nest IX.1, 2007

hot wind
a pine cone waddles
to the pond

Ernest J. Berry, Third Prize, Kaji Aso Competition 2012 (see; also in Inside Out: Home and Garden Sequences (no place or publisher, no date (2016?). p. 25, from a PDF ebook available at

If I were Allan, I would feel ripped off. As a reader, I feel deceived. But wait, there’s more. Take a look at this pair of poems (Sandra shared them with me via email on 8 July 2014):

in the cat’s mouth
the cicada
keeps on singing

Vanessa Proctor, A to Zazen: Haiku Anthology by the Zazen Group, Vanessa Proctor, ed. Tauranga, New Zealand: Kiwiana Publishing, 2004, p. 56 (Ernie is a member of this group and his poems appeared in the same volume)

neighbour’s cat
the cicada in its teeth
keeps singing

Ernest J. Berry, Honorable Mention, Kaji Aso Studio Contest, 2006 (see; and despite clear evidence of plagiarism, the poem continues to appear on the New Zealand Poetry Society’s showcase page for Ernie at

Has your jaw dropped yet? It should. There’s clearly a precedent here, and to me the plagiarism is egregious. In addition to this evidence of a pattern of plagiarism (even if truly “accidental,” via cryptomnesia, although still plagiarism), let me add the following examples, to show an even deeper pattern:

after the quake
the weathervane
pointing to earth

Michael Dylan Welch, Frogpond XIII:1, February 1990, p. 23 (and widely published in numerous other books and journals before the following poem).

granddad’s estate
a frozen weathervane
points to his grave

                Ernest J. Berry, Haiku Headlines #136, 12:4, July 1999, p. 1.

old folks’ home—
the square of light
crosses the room

                Michael Dylan Welch, Harvest (Haiku North America anthology), 1991, p. 15. Also in Haiku World, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1996, p. 315.

convalesing [sic]
the window takes 2 1/4 hours
to cross the carpet

                Ernest J. Berry, Haiku Wine (written with an’ya). Prineville, Oregon: The Natal*Light Press, 2003. p. 52; also second place winner in the 2000 Jack Stamm Award. The poem also appears in Haiku, Green Tea & Sushi (Blenheim, New Zealand: Prisma Print, 2016), p. 141, but all flush left, with “convalescing” spelled correctly and followed by an ellipsis, and with the length of time reduced to just “2 hours.” [Note: The intended indents of some poems are not appearing correctly in parts of this essay.]

convalescence ~
the window takes 12 minutes
to cross the carpet

                Ernest J. Berry, Inside Out: Home and Garden Sequences. No place or publisher, no date (2016?), p. 11 (from a PDF ebook available at; also in Getting On. Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2016, p. 24 (without the tilde); note that to fully cross the carpet of a room, twelve minutes would surely not be possible, which indicates sloppiness (or invention rather than experience), so that would explain the more accurate variation in the 2003 version, but does not explain the retained “12 minutes” in the two 2016 versions.

long service
stained glass saints cross
the altar cloth

                Ernest J. Berry, Haiku Wine (written with an’ya). Prineville, Oregon: The Natal*Light Press, 2003. p. 72 (note that this is in the same book as the previous example, indicating a ready willingness to repeat even himself).

I know of the preceding examples because they are similar to my own prior poems. And I have to wonder: What other poems by Ernie are too similar to poems by other poets? A one-off accident may be forgivable, especially if the offender makes amends. Or maybe even two accidents are forgivable. But a repeated pattern of such “accidents” points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues and responsibilities involved, especially when coupled with comments such as Ernie saying “I frequently confuse what I’ve read or heard with what I originated” (see, and even more so when he says “if you see a line or phrase you like, write it down and reuse it” and “if you change one word in a haiku, it’s yours” (quoted above). I’m appalled that anyone would be teaching this irresponsible thinking to anyone. This is grossly misguided thinking, and even suggests that Ernie knew he was appropriating others, and was attempting to set up a defense for it. But there’s no defense for plagiarism such as this.


Earlier “Reuse”

There’s even further evidence that Ernie’s “reuse” of poems by others is willful, even when not outright plagiarism. In Forgotten War: Bulldozers Remove the Memorial (Post Pressed), 2000 (a second edition of the original book, under a new title, featuring haiku about the Korean War), Ernie provides the following statement: “Haiku nos 25, 70, 86, 116, & 131 were influenced to some degree by the book Haiku Iz Rata 1995 by the Croatian Haiku Association” (3). Such an acknowledgment indicates that Ernie knows better (or at least knew better at one time) than to steal willfully. This reference to intentional borrowing is evidence, therefore, that at least some of Ernie’s later acts of plagiarism are unintentional, even if they resulted from sloppy record-keeping or advancing age (one of his latest haiku books, published by Red Moon Press in 2016, is tilted Getting On, which we might easily take to mean “getting on in age”—Ernie was born in 1929). Nevertheless, it is worth looking a little more closely at the war poems that Ernie says “influenced” him. Here are the five poems from Forgotten War on the left paired with poems from Haiku Iz Rata: War Haiku (Marijan Čekolj, editor, Samobor, Croatia: Croatian Haiku Society, 1995) on the right that I believe were the influencing poems (bear in mind that these translations are sometimes a little awkward):

refugees                                                           wearing their homes
he wears a hat                                               only in their eyes—
she the home                                                  the refugees

                                                                                    Robert Bebek (22)

ancient temple                                               the destroyed roof
without a roof                                                of a church—look at
the night sky                                                   the sky the same

                                                                                    Alojz Buljan (27)

pronounced dead                                          A fallen soldier.
the continuing tick                                       How loud the ticking
of his watch                                                     of the watch.

                                                                                    Enes Kišević (44)

waif                                                                   Out of the crowd—
the eyes                                                            the big eyes of a girl
ask why                                                            asking just: why?

                                                                                    Emilija Kovać (45)

lilies on his cross early frost                            On the chrysanthemum
.                                                                       at the grave of a warrior
.                                                                       too early frost

                                                                            Tomislav Maretić (49)

It may be a bit of an understatement to say that the earlier poems “influenced” the later ones in Forgotten War. Rather, each of Ernie’s poems might be considered as “rewrites” of the other poems. Some observers might equate this, if they wish to be generous, to an art student taking an easel into a gallery to copy a great master’s painting, for the sake of learning. But I don’t think that’s the situation here. Rather, in writing his own often powerful poems about his Korean war experience, Ernie found inspiration in the haiku poems from another war and wrote his own versions of some of them, with no intent of learning as a painter might do when trying to repaint a master painting. Trying to rewrite another poet’s poems may well prove instructive, but I would not seek to publish such poems, unless the new poet cites his or her sources or explains the process. Ernie did exactly that here, which is better than nothing, although some readers might still find the poems to be too similar, regardless of the acknowledgment. But this might have been acceptable if it had stopped here, or if future poems also acknowledged sources where an allusion isn’t obvious. But that has not been the case.

It has been said that poetry is a conversation, with each new poem contributing to the dialog. Responding to another poem, or even riffing off it by going in a new direction, has a long and respected history among poets. In that sense, Ernie’s war poems, with a citation of their influences, might be considered acceptable. They also connect his often powerful and moving Korean war haiku with the more recent war in Croatia—itself a sad statement about human nature and the persistence of war. If Ernie had cited sources for all of his other poems at issue in later contests and journals, the issues under discussion here would at least be minimized (provided that he did not submit these “rewrites” or “riffs” to contests, where one does not expect to cite influences), but this repeated practice, even if sources are cited, still raises red flags.

In any case, the war poems are not an isolated instance of “borrowing.” If it were, I would not bat an eyelid at Ernie’s appropriate acknowledgment of his sources. However, when seen in the larger picture of other borrowings, especially where no source or influence is cited, my sense is that the poems in Forgotten War are an early marker of an emerging pattern. I appreciate Ernie’s acknowledgment of his sources at least in this case. Nevertheless, with at least some of his poems, he later exhibits a clear habit of crossing the line beyond mere inspiration and allusion to excessive copying of work by other poets, and presenting them as wholly his own. Even when a rare acknowledgment of sources occurs, as in Forgotten War, it contributes to a pattern of blurring the lines between what may be acceptable and what is not.

Furthermore, such patterns of deception warrant correction, and if the poet won’t correct himself, then it’s up to the community to offer its corrections—just as the North Carolina Poetry Society did by rescinding its award. The Kaji Aso haiku contest might also want to rescind the awards it gave Ernie in 2006 and 2012 for his poems that are remarkably and significantly similar to the 2004 poem by Vanessa Proctor and the 2007 poem by Allan Burns. We may now wonder about similarities in other publications, and in other contests (Ernie enters haiku contests more than anyone I know, so there’s a financial issue at stake here, not just legal and moral concerns). While surely most of Ernie’s poems are not plagiarized, the shadow of a question mark has now descended upon them, and the haiku community can no longer rely on their originality.

I recall a line of Nola Borrell’s poem, “Classic Haiku: A New Zealand Perspective” (see, in which she says “look at Ernie who can write / forty haiku without leaving his desk / and wins all the competitions.” She deliberately invokes the term “desk haiku” as a pejorative in referring to Ernie’s prolific writing and “contest-whoring”—and the “Ernie” reference is clearly New Zealander Ernie Berry. I have no objection to writing from various influences and with well-crafted allusion (see my essay “How Do You Write Haiku” at, but plagiarism is not among them.

On the similarity between Ernie’s 2012 Kaji Aso contest poem and the prior poem by Allan Burns, Ernie wrote (see, “Was I aware of the first haiku? There are degrees of awareness. I read so many haiku that I don’t always know if what I’ve written is mine or if I’ve read it somewhere. It’s a hazard and it’s always worrying me. The last thing any artist wants is to be accused of plagiarism or even suspected of it.” Well, apparently Ernie hasn’t been worrying enough. And I think, by necessity, we’ve moved beyond suspicion and accusation to conclusion: Ernie Berry has plagiarized. Repeatedly.


Negligence versus Accident

It’s also interesting to note the timing of the preceding comment about the hazard of plagiarism that is “always worrying him.” It was published on the New Zealand Poetry Society site in October of 2013, thus it was obviously written and on his mind before then. Yet the deadline for the North Carolina Poetry Society’s haiku contest was not until 10 January 2014, so Ernie was not even following his own advice to be vigilant. Since I have no reason to believe in intentional plagiarism here, the timing of this particular misstep underscores the likelihood that his copying was not deliberate but accidental—or rather, negligent.

There’s a pattern to this negligence, though, and it smacks of sloppiness, if not greed. On 24 September 2016, on Facebook, Alenka Zorman publically posted results from the 18th Apokalipsa Association haiku contest in Slovenia. First prize (tied) was given to Ernest J. Berry for this poem:

family bible
a wisp of baby hair
in Genesis

Yet compare this to another of Ernie’s poems, which won first place in the 2008 James W. Hackett haiku competition sponsored by the British Haiku Society, and was also reprinted in the 2008 Red Moon Anthology, White Lies (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2009, 16):

     family bible
a wisp of baby hair
in Revelation

It’s a wonderful poem, in either version, but it’s really the same poem, and thus violated the later contest’s requirement that entries be unpublished. Accordingly, on learning about this violation (not from me), the Apokalipsa Association immediately rescinded the award, and notified Ernie, but who knows if the message is getting through to him. See Sandra Simpson’s 28 September 2016 discussion of this poem on her blog at Such recycling, even with a variation, seems vastly inappropriate for contests—and very poor judgment. Or maybe it’s sloppiness. Or greed.

As already mentioned, Ernest Berry was born in 1929, so we may wonder if mental health is an issue here. Since I have never met him in person, I am hesitant to speculate, but I would suggest that such possibilities, even if true now, do not explain the length of this repeated pattern, which seems to have begun fifteen or twenty years ago. Nor is senility or Alzheimer’s an excuse for plagiarism. Furthermore, even as he nears 90 years of age, he remains perfectly capable of submitting poems to numerous contests and journals, and has recently published several books, which surely would be difficult, if not impossible, with any mental challenges. Ernie shows tremendous enthusiasm for the haiku art, as so many of its addicts do, but this enthusiasm needs to be tempered with responsibility, which includes keeping careful records of submissions (at, where a set of Ernie’s poems are showcased, a note at the end says “Ernie was unable to supply publication details for these haiku but believes they have all been published somewhere”), and to think more rigorously about the influences upon one’s poems and whether one should seek to publish poems that are clearly influenced by other sources in ways that are not allusion.

Here’s yet another example of reuse, and again it’s a sloppy and unethical reuse of the same poem (or nearly so) in two different contests. In the 2016 British Haiku Society’s haiku contest, the judges gave a “special mention” to the following poem by Ernie:

breast scan
one liquidambar leaf

Yet almost exactly the same poem, also by Ernie, placed in the 2014 Yamadera Bashō Memorial Museum English Haiku Contest (on page 40 of their PDF results booklet, available at

breast scan
one liquidambar’s last leaf

One cannot help but roll one’s eyes. Because of Ernie’s violation of the contest rules, his poem has been removed from the BHS contest results (available at

And yet there’s more, returning to what many readers would consider plagiarism of others. Ernie’s latest book, Haiku, Green Tea & Sushi (Blenheim, New Zealand: Prisma Print, 2016), offers this poem (7):

autumn leaves
the names of the dead
sink deeper

For my tastes this is excessively similar to Eric Amann’s classic poem:

The names of the dead
sinking deeper and deeper
into the red leaves

Amann’s poem is famous. It won grand prize in the 1978 Yukuharu Haiku Contest, the first haiku contest sponsored by what is now the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society in California, judged by the preeminent Japanese haiku master, Shugyō Takaha. It also appeared in the society’s Haiku Journal, and was published in Amann’s book Cicada Voices: Selected Haiku of Eric Amann, 1966–1979 (Battle Ground, Indiana: High/Coo Press, 1983, 38). It further appears in several anthologies, notably in the second and third editions of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology. Ernie has surely seen the poem in at least one of these incarnations. Yet he seems to feel no hesitation in “borrowing” as freely as he likes.

This next example may be independent creation, but it still illustrates a pattern. The following poem is also from Haiku, Green Tea & Sushi (159):

ground fog
the top of a kangaroo

For me this is too similar to Carlos Colón’s “ground fog / a pair of headlines / leaving the cemetery” (Brocade of Leaves, Foster City, California: Press Here, 2003, 12). Even if one does not consider the similarity excessive (perhaps it could be considered an amusing parody), the preponderance of examples like this suggests repeated influences that Ernie is sloppy with. It could well be that this is a case of independent creation, but numerous other examples are clearly not independent.

What does Ernie gain from these infractions, especially when they result from plagiarizing others if not the recycling of his own poems? What does he gain by plagiarizing Bashō? Perhaps there is a better question to ask. Posner writes that “harm results not from the plagiarism but from its discovery” (44). Thus, it would seem better to ask, who has Ernie harmed? At the very least, he has harmed another poet who could have had his or her poem selected for each contest, as already mentioned—a moral, ethical, and financial harm. But the harm does not stop there. He also harms the contest organizers who have to deal with a thorny and unsavory situation. Ernie also harms the haiku community in general by disrespecting another poet’s original expression (the fact that it’s a Bashō poem simply made the infraction more easily discoverable, not more important). He also harms himself by diminishing the reliability readers may place on his haiku. Finally, Ernie harms haiku as a genre, if his behavior is considered tolerable in the haiku community when it would be grounds for disciplinary action in other settings, such as expulsion from college or job termination.

We may also wonder about Ernie’s motives, but it’s probably more relevant to wonder about the causes of this situation. I’ve already said that I do not think the plagiarism is willful, but I do not understand why he would resubmit old poems in direct violation of contest rules. Perhaps the problem here can be explained by what is known as Hanlon’s Razor, a philosophical way of eliminating unlikely explanations for a phenomenon. As Robert J. Hanlon once said, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Instead of stupidity, we might say sloppiness or incompetence, and they have produced most unfortunate consequences.

Ernie had four other poems selected for the 18th Apokalipsa contest, and now they can’t be trusted. Ernie’s rip-off of Bashō seems (one hopes) to be a clear case of accidental copying, via cryptomnesia, but, as Posner notes, “Plagiarism can be deliberate or negligent, but . . . it is never unavoidable” and emphasizes that “Negligent copying can do the same harm as deliberate” (78). Indeed, “negligent copying” is a more accurate and better term than “accidental copying” because “negligence” emphasizes the unfortunate consequences that result from such appropriation, and underscores the responsibilities that the usurper has neglected. The copyist still has the burden to prevent the consequences of his or her negligence. Where the term “accidental” would seem to absolve the copyist of wrongdoing or responsibility, it’s more accurate to recognize cryptomnesia as negligent rather than accidental. The negligence lies in the poet failing to recognize the prior expression, and the harm caused to others by the negligent version, whereas the term “accidental” suggests that the copyist could not help it, even to the point of seemingly having no duty to be responsible for recognizing prior expression or unintentional harm, or to make amends. As Posner points out, even negligent plagiarism is “never unavoidable.”

Nevertheless, I would agree that negligent copying is not quite as serious a problem as intentional copying—although it’s still very serious. And perhaps Ernie forgetfully copied himself with his “family bible” poem, rather than doing so willfully. As Posner puts it, “Unconscious plagiarism is a sin of neglect rather than of intention and, therefore, less blameworthy” (97), but he hastens to point out that “when plagiarists are caught they invariably argue that their plagiarism was unconscious” (97), as if attempting to lessen their crime, so to speak (and when it really wasn’t unconscious, such rationalizations diminish the relevance of actual cryptomnesia). In Ernie’s recycling of Bashō, Ernie himself does not have to argue that point, at least not with me, because I myself already believe the plagiarism was unconscious, or at least I hope it is. Nevertheless, we may still wonder if it was conscious and deliberate. I’m inclined to think it was not, because poetry as short as haiku readily lends itself to unconscious copying—an occupational hazard of this sort of poetry. However, it is still plagiarism, no matter how unconscious.


Ernie’s Attempt to Defend Himself

Let’s take a closer look at Ernie’s defensive response, from 2014. I’ll quote it here in its entirety (from, interspersed with my comments and corrections. I’m no doubt saying what most readers could conclude for themselves, but I’ll spell this all out anyway, leaving no stone unturned. Please note that words appearing in square brackets are also by Ernie, and that Sandra notes that she has made “minor modifications to change his distinctive email style into more readable English.”

A shocking, painful but not totally surprising experience which I can only explain as follows:

Should we presume it’s “not surprising” because he’s been aware of doing the same thing previously? I would wish no further pain on Ernie, but as I said in my previous essay on the matter (see, we should call a spade a spade, and not shoot the messenger who delivers the uncomfortable but responsible and necessary news. I do want to sympathize with Ernie that this experience is shocking and painful to him, but he has brought it upon himself—and he doesn’t make things easier on himself with the rest of his defense. To wit:

After 2 decades of total immersion in haiku I tend to fantasise it, dream it, think it, talk it, read and write it to the exclusion of nearly all other creative activity to the point where I frequently confuse what I’ve read or heard with what I originated.

So what? Ernie is hardly alone in immersing himself in haiku like this, although others seem to do a much better job (most often perfect) of not confusing the memory of someone else’s work with their own original creation—even those who have been at it far longer, and just as prolifically. However, it does not matter whether one has been living the haiku life for two minutes or twenty years—or two hundred, for that matter. The fact remains that confusing what you’ve read with what you’ve originated is no defense. It’s still plagiarism. Indeed, the longer a person has been at the haiku game, the less tolerant we should be of this sort of error. A poet who takes his or her art seriously will learn how to behave professionally and responsibly. We may be inclined to be more tolerant of this issue among those who are new to haiku, but those who have been at it longer should be held to a higher standard. Here Ernie is really saying that he’s sloppy at keeping things straight, and I personally feel that such sloppiness violates the trust I believe poets have in each other to present work that’s as original as possible while also making effective allusions as part of poetic conversation. We can no longer rely on Ernie’s poetry as being original, even if the great majority is. At least Ernie admits that he “frequently” confuses what he’s read with what he’s originated. I wish his comments had stopped there, that he had graciously withdrawn his poem, admitted to other similar cases, withdrew those poems too (and returned prize money where relevant), and humbly apologized. That could easily put the matter to rest, along with future diligence—and I’d suggest the same course of action to anyone else (even myself) if they happened to do the same thing. But, alas, he goes on:

This is similar to my [and countless others’] experience with Shakespeare . . . almost everybody unwittingly uses the bard’s words and phrases (which constitute about 85% of our language) without acknowledgement.

This is a massive and wanton misunderstanding of the issue of plagiarism. For starters, it’s not unwittingly. And quoting Shakespeare is exactly that—quoting him. Ernie was not intending to “quote” Bashō. He was fraudulently offering Bashō’s words as his own, even if an actual experience of herons rather than cranes changed one of the poem’s essentially arbitrary details. Quoting is not plagiarism in the slightest. And when people quote Shakespeare in everyday speech, they employ bits and pieces, not whole soliloquies, and never claim them to be their own writing. Nor do they claim contest winnings with such arrogance. And in printed text, they put these bits in quotation marks or, when quotation marks are omitted, they use material that is now so common as to be known as Shakespeare’s words (as with any effective allusion) or that has so thoroughly entered the language as to no longer need attribution. To make a claim of plagiarism against those who quote Shakespeare is naïve and laughable, which is why no one seriously does that. Many phrases from Shakespeare have entered the language, but it’s absurd to consider it plagiarism whenever one says “a fool’s paradise” (where Ernie seems to be living) or any of a hundred similar phrases (you can see a list of these at Furthermore, to alter or quote certain Shakespeare phrases where people do recognize the source is actually parody or allusion, and again not plagiarism, such as when I say “To pee or not to pee” or “to write plagiarized haiku or not to write plagiarized haiku.” If I were to think that merely quoting Shakespeare was plagiarism, I would be mortally embarrassed by such a misunderstanding. But I’d also be very grateful to learn of my error so that I might correct it.

Ernie’s percentage is way off, too. At, the Folger Shakespeare Library indicates that Shakespeare’s vocabulary, while large, was similar to rather than greater than the vocabularies of his contemporary writers. What’s more, the number of words in the English language is vastly greater than all the words Shakespeare used—about ten to twenty times greater. Nevertheless, let’s leave Ernie’s careless percentage alone, except to note that it’s a symptom of faulty logic, a faultiness that rears its ugly head in other statements.

Thus I had not the faintest idea that I was quoting anybody – let alone the recognisable Basho when I wrote the verse in question – to do so would have [as it turned out to be] been poetic suicide.

It’s high time Ernie started having some of those faintest ideas that he has plagiarized other poets, and not just the Japanese masters. Note, too, that Ernie admits that the Bashō poem is recognizable. He refers to the act of “quoting” Bashō (let’s presume he means doing so deliberately) as poetic suicide. I’m not sure about that, although Ernie himself thinks so with his parenthetical comment (again, the comments in square brackets are Ernie’s), but he does at least recognize the dire consequences of passing off the poem as his own. Yet the direness of those consequences has apparently not deterred him in his pattern of appropriation, not to mention what I now know to be his stated advice to deliberately “reuse” phrases by others if you like them, and that changing one word somehow makes the poem yours—a problem also evident in the haiku of fellow Down Under poets Graham Nunn and Vuong Pham (see, among other sources), who we may now wonder if Ernie had influenced.

As a quick aside here, I should point out that Jane Reichhold has shared similarly misguided advice. In her book Writing and Enjoying Haiku (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2002), she says that someone else “Changing one word or inverting the line order makes the poem new, and no longer yours” (90). In his review of Reichhold’s book, from Modern Haiku 34:2 (Summer 2003), William J. Higginson wrote of this statement that “While some participants in grammar school haiku contests may try this, such deliberate plagiarisms soon come to light if published, and are universally despised throughout the literary world, not just the narrow niche of haiku” (see Indeed, Reichhold’s stance is deeply misguided, and fails to understand the context of honkadori, or allusive variation, where readers would know the source poem and know that such changes employ allusion—and usually amount to much more than merely changing one word.

In any case, for Ernie to call what he did “quoting” is not accurate. When I quote a source, I routinely cite the source or I expect the audience to be informed enough to know the source or allusion (that distinction, in fact, is the art of allusion versus quotation). Again, I wish Ernie had stopped here, if not earlier, admitted his mistake, among other mistakes, and withdrew the poem. But again, he goes on:

Since you have been to my Picton home, you may recall our ‘resident’ herons – the blue, white-faced and white [kotuku] which it was my privilege to contemplate and haiku-ise in all seasons year after year in the course of which I employed every available phrase to idolise our avian icon.

Ernie now turns defensive, first by appealing to camaraderie, as if to elicit sympathy (“you wouldn’t turn on a chum, would you?”), or so it feels—if one wants to be cynical. Let’s try to avoid such cynicism and consider Ernie’s reference to Sandra having visited his home as being purely a fact. However, what follows is then an attempt to defend his use of words to describe the heron. Actually, this is natural, and I’ve seen exactly the same step taken by others in defense of their plagiarism (usually cryptomnesia). As mentioned before, Posner says that plagiarists invariably point to unconscious plagiarism (cryptomnesia) because it’s “less blameworthy” (97). Any extended experience with herons or cranes is sooner or later bound to come to that experience, the one that Bashō wrote about. And there are obvious words one would have to use to describe elements of that experience. But Ernie’s description of his experience with herons is clutching at straws. The main problem remains that Ernie’s version of expression is excessively similar to Hass’s version, and that he’s passed it off as his own writing rather than Bashō’s, a moral problem that is much aside from the legal problem of seemingly infringing on Robert Hass’s copyright. Too much is similar, and even partly identical. If nothing else, it’s an ethical violation. But, as Posner notes, “Plagiarism that infringes copyright adds a clear legal violation to an ethical violation” (48). Note that Ernie refers to employing “every available phrase to idolise” the heron. Apparently, employing every available phrase includes stealing someone else’s words, and too many of them—in a manner that, unflinchingly, we should call plagiarism.

Again, Ernie would have done himself a favour if he had stopped there, but he digs an even deeper hole for himself, which Richard Krawiec rightly refers to as petty (Richard could have said other things, too, and I’ll go ahead and say them for him in a moment):

Even had I been aware of maiku’s lack of originality,

Let’s stop here for a moment. The idiosyncratic term “maiku” is presumably Ernie’s term for his haiku (his emails are often far more idiosyncratic and cryptic than this). I’m guessing here, because I do not know what he means by the term, or what he’s trying to differentiate it from. Does he write his versions of other people’s haiku as a routine habit? (Thank goodness Sandra has already made modifications to change Ernie’s “distinctive email style” into more comprehensible English, but she hasn’t changed anything here.) I did a search online, hoping to find some widespread or even obscure precedent for the term “maiku” in relation to haiku that I was somehow unaware of. Instead, at the Urban Dictionary site (, I found this definition of the term: “A short, often nonsensical remark, used as a defense mechanism to sustain the self-absorbed notion that one’s own perception of reality—misguided and uninformed as it may be—is consistently superior to the collective intelligence of the global Internet community.” I’m not making this up. And I’m trying not to laugh. Yet this seems to be exactly what Ernie is doing—self-absorbed defense mechanism and all—even though he surely intends a different meaning for the term, perhaps merely meaning “my haiku” by using the idiosyncratic portmanteau of “maiku.” But let’s move on:

there are countless precedents where famous haiku or haiku by the famous are paraphrased/borrowed/pruned/improved/ or otherwise monkeyed with without comment or censure . . .

Apparently, Ernie is feeling the pressure of “censure.” And well he should. More significantly, he is confusing allusion, including the Japanese practice of honkadori, with plagiarism—plain and simple. He seems not to know the difference, or how they are different in practice. Note his defensiveness here in claiming that the appropriate use of allusion (which is not what he did) is not censured, clearly indicating that he feels that he does not deserve censure. I believe that he does. He had just admitted the “lack of originality” in his poem, and yet he says with his next breath (see below) that there are “zillions” of poems that apparently “lack originality” because they are “paraphrased/borrowed/pruned/improved” and are thus defensible. Not only is the number overinflated, but why would there be so many zillions of them if they truly lacked originality? Rather, the entire point of allusion and parody is to create originality while also connecting the new poem to something old. Indeed, all those “borrowed” poems are allusions, where each author knows that the reader will know what he or she is referring to—such as if I were to start out a haiku with the phrase “new pond”—it’s an obvious take-off on Bashō’s old pond. Where Ernie refers to “zillions” of examples, his overstatement is actually referring to allusion, not plagiarism, so his logic is off, but then his logic goes even further off the rails in what follows (an aside is that I’d like to know which poems Ernie has in mind by his parenthetical comment):

one of a zillion examples [including some of mine, one of which came to light just today] is Hiroaki Sato’s One Hundred Frogs – which has versions of Basho’s ‘old pond’ by a hundred luminaries including the likes of Blyth, Henderson, Higginson, Ginsberg, Suzuki, Yasuda, Shiki et al. There are few well-known haiku which have not been thus been treated as public property.

Here is what may be Ernie’s most telling lack of understanding. As mentioned already, Sato’s book is a collection of translations (with a few parodies thrown in). Sato makes this abundantly clear, although it’s self-evident from the poems themselves. Every reader knows that these are variations of Bashō’s poem in translation, not Blyth or Henderson et al passing off someone else’s poem as their own. To miss this massive distinction would seem to explain everything in Ernie’s behavior, and his prior comments on this matter (especially when he said, far too cavalierly, that “if you see a line or phrase you like, write it down and reuse it” and “if you change one word in a haiku, it’s yours”). Ernie quite simply does not understand the difference between translation and allusion, as well as the difference between allusion and plagiarism. But anyway, things are about to get a notch worse.

My poem: extended rain/ the heron’s legs/ get shorter . . . is a haiku! Whereas the Hass translation is but a fully punctuated sentence, ie, The crane’s legs/ have gotten shorter,/ in the spring rain. – the sort of thing a beginner would write before learning any of the basics!

Like every haiku master, Bashō has written his stronger and weaker poems, but this heron poem is widely appreciated as one of his better poems, and is widely quoted online, in translation by Hass and others. When Ernie says his poem (note that he still seems to think it’s his, not Bashō’s) is “a haiku” (with an exclamation mark), it would appear that his point is to imply that Hass’s version is not a haiku, or fails as such. One can quibble with Hass’s translation (every translation has to make compromises, and fixing a problem with one translation choice will inevitably create another compromise), but the real point here is that Ernie is denigrating Hass’s translation (a petty, desperate move, as Richard Krawiec noted), as if to say his version is better. No “if” about it—Ernie clearly does feel that his version is better, referring to Hass’s version as an abject “beginner” failure (never mind that Hass served two terms as poet laureate of the United States, and that his book The Essential Haiku has been one of the best-selling and most prominent books of haiku translation in the English language since it was published in 1994—and even if less known down under than it is in North America, it’s such a prominent and influential book that not to know it and the appearances of its many translations online would seem to be a serious dereliction of duty for any prominent or conscientious English-language haiku poet). If we were talking about original poems here, I might actually agree with Ernie, not that Hass’s version is a failure in the slightest, but that Ernie’s version is possibly better. However, as Posner emphasizes, “a verdict of plagiarism is pronounced without regard to the quality of the plagiarized original or, for that matter, of the plagiarizing copy” (109). If Ernie’s poem were offered as a translation, meanwhile, it would need to say crane rather than heron, “summer rain” instead of “extended rain,” and “has gotten” instead of “gets” (to match the nuances of the Japanese, which I’m about to explore), in addition to losing the juxtapositional structure, and possibly reverting to Bashō’s original image order. At the risk of repeating myself again, offering a translation is not what Ernie did; rather, regardless of whether the act was unconscious or conscious, he claimed the Bashō poem to be his own, with a tweak or two to “improve” it—although tweaking would suggest conscious knowledge of the original, whereas I suspect the tweaking was done without any conscious intent. And again, despite Ernie’s denigration of Hass’s translations, the quality of one version relative to the other is irrelevant to the charge of plagiarism.

In any event, let’s look a little more closely at the original Japanese poem to consider the reasons Hass translated it as he did, and thereby debunk Ernie’s hasty criticism of it (a nod of thanks to Emiko Miyashita for help with a question I had about the original Japanese, and confirming whether this poem has a cutting word):

samidare ni tsuru no ashi mijikaku nareri

Bashō wrote this poem in 1681 when he was 38. Any student of Japanese haiku will recognize that the poem contains no cutting word, so the poem should typically read as a single sentence in translation, thus Ernie has unwittingly and incorrectly criticized Bashō with his comments, not Hass, when he complains that it’s a “fully punctuated sentence.” In Traces of Dreams (100), Haruo Shirane lists numerous kireji, or cutting words (Henderson also lists many of the same kireji and other particles in his appendix to An Introduction to Haiku): kana, mogana, zo, ka, yo, ya, keri, ran, tsu, nu, zu (su), ji, se, re, he, ke, ikani, and shi, none of which are present in the Bashō poem (the word 足, ashi, sounds similar to the cutting word し, shi, but ashi means leg or foot, and is not itself a cutting word). To clarify, consider the following breakdown of the Japanese:

五月雨に        May rain (五月 is “fifth month,” actually summer in Japan by the old lunar calendar used by Bashō, which had New Year’s Day in February; David Landis Barnhill and Jane Reichhold more accurately translate “fifth month” by saying “summer rain” rather than Hass’s “spring rain”; indeed, the rainy season in Japan is early summer—Bashō may have even been alluding to this so-called “plum rain” of the rainy season because it is referred to as tsuyu, a term that sounds similar to tsuru, the word for crane)

鶴                    crane

の                    of (possessive)

足                    foot/leg

短く                short

なれり            has become (meaning that the action has already taken place, thus a translation of this poem should not use the word “gets” that Ernie uses)

For Hass to say “spring rain” is a misstep (which Ernie doesn’t mention—and is probably not even aware of); Hass seems to have overlooked Bashō’s use of the lunar calendar rather than our current solar calendar. Hass’s version also reverses the image order, putting the rain at the end, but this is done commonly when translating from the Japanese (not just in poetry) because of how the Japanese syntax and grammar work. Here’s a possible translation I might offer: “in plum rain / the crane’s legs / have gotten shorter” (note, by the way, that Reichhold says “leg” in the singular, but Barnhill uses the plural). However, in recognizing that the poem lacks a cutting word, Hass is right to avoid the two-part construction Ernie used (and which I avoid with my version), and so Hass’s uncut phrasings seem perfectly defensible to me in representing the way the original poem was written.

Moreover, the line-breaks are meaningless, there’s no rhythm, merit, resonance or aha moment . . . and as it stands it could never have won a contest or merited publication.

Gee, isn’t that arrogant? Shall I dare to disagree? These offhand statements are cavalier, discourteous, and absurdly speculative, not to mention unfounded. The line breaks are completely natural—they are no more “meaningless” or rhythmless than Ernie’s. Hass’s translation has an easy and natural cadence (one of the reasons his versions are so popular), and of course Hass’s version has merit and resonance, and of course an aha moment—the same resonance and moment that Ernie “borrowed.” Ernie seems to have blinders on, failing to recognize that Japanese haiku without cutting words, or with cutting words at the very end, are supposed to read as a single sentence, with no internal cut or juxtapositional structure. In fact, no-cut haiku are rather difficult to do well in English and thus less common, which could easily lead an inexperienced poet to believe that one always has to have a two-part juxtaposition even in English-language haiku, which is not the case. I would expect a poet with Ernie’s experience to know this.

To start wrapping up this discussion, I can’t help but cite another poem of Ernie’s, this one about plagiarism itself:

writer’s block
i plagiarise
my old haiku

This poem appeared in Inside Out: Home and Garden Sequences (no place or publisher, no date (2016?), p. 15, from a PDF ebook available at I would think that “plagiarizing” oneself is impossible—it’s called “revision.” The Japanese masters are known to have done several versions of particular poems over many years. That’s not plagiarism. If this poem might be a confession of larger sins (plagiarizing others), being open about it still does not absolve him. In addition to seeing this poem as an indication of guilt that goes beyond this poem, we can also take it as a joke. Making a joke out of this issue underscores Ernie’s apparent disrespect for the actual plagiarism in some of his verses, and demonstrates that Ernie does not really understand the issue—or, apparently, take it seriously.



A metaphor to conclude. Most of us who drive cars typically hold the opinion that we drive better than other drivers. But that cannot possibly be true. Rather, I believe we all have our idiot moments while driving. It’s just that we experience far more other drivers and their occasional idiot moments than we experience our own idiot moments. There’s no other way to explain why the majority of people believe that they are better drivers than others, which of course cannot be possible. I mention this because we all have our moments. And I’m not talking haiku moments here. We all goof up and make mistakes—me included. With his haiku, Ernie Berry has shown a significant pattern that indicates not just sloppiness but plagiarism, even though the great majority of his poetry may be fine. It’s just that he’s run through a few too many stoplights—and the rest of us should find that unacceptable. It’s a safety issue while driving, and an issue of ethics, integrity, and respect in poetry. While no small children will be dying as a result of his poetic stoplight-running, a significant minority of his actions show disrespect to his fellow authors and to the poetry to which he is deeply dedicated, even if that disrespect is unintentional. His words and actions also demonstrate a misunderstanding of allusion and translation versus plagiarism. I imagine that most of us don’t fancy ourselves to be the Haiku Police, but when the occasion warrants, I hope we would fire up our sirens and pull over any stoplight runner—the way George Swede did when he was systematically plagiarized by Adrian Saich (see “Plagiarism—The Haiku Community Delivers Swift Justice!” at; see also and Surely we would at least do what we can to stop a crime in progress. Even if we don’t have a siren to activate or a badge to wave, I hope we would all speak up against “traffic violations” (or worse) such as plagiarism. Bad things happen when good people do nothing. Or, as Edmund Burke put it, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Ernest Berry is far from evil, but plagiarism, no matter whose it is, still smacks of malevolence or irresponsibility. That’s why I think we should all speak up whenever we encounter it. Plagiarism should never be tolerated. I’ve surely let the siren run longer than is necessary here, but I have wanted to clarify all the issues as I see them—and would welcome other perspectives.

A word of caution here is that others, including me, may occasionally be in the same boat as Ernie Berry—accidentally or negligently. Posner observes that “old ideas are constantly being rediscovered by people unaware that the ideas had been discovered already” (100). The trending term for this longstanding phenomenon is “Columbusing” (see and—derived from the notion that Columbus “discovered” America, when of course there were already people living there. The point here is that there’s nothing new under the sun (see, there I go quoting something that has been written previously to make my point about many things having been written previously). Yet we do our best to express ourselves as freshly as we can. If we do find ourselves in that boat of Columbusing someone else’s haiku (whether via independent creation or cryptomnesia)—as will surely happen to many haiku poets at some time or another—the action to take is to immediately withdraw the poem, apologize, and make necessary amends, or never publish or share the poem in the first place. We can minimize the problem, too, if we take care to keep meticulous records of all poems we submit and publish. Such meticulousness needs to start when we write our poems, in fact, because it can be so easy to forget what led to a particular poem of ours when we encounter it in a notebook years later.

One wonders if Ernie Berry graciously accepted the NCPS decision to deny giving the heron poem any award, or if he appealed it and didn’t agree with the decision. Same with the Apokalipsa award, even though in this case he copied himself rather than Bashō. His response would seem to say a lot about his character, or at least whether he truly understood the gravity of what he had done in literary and moral terms. Denigrating Hass’s essentially accurate translation would seem to be a move of naïve desperation that indicates, despite contradictory prior statements, that Ernie does think his plagiarism is defensible and acceptable. But no, it isn’t. And the haiku community should stand up against such acts of plagiarism, as kindly and factually as possible, which is what I’m attempting to do here, no matter how beloved the offending poet might be otherwise. We should follow the lead of poets such as Ira Lightman, who has brought numerous cases of plagiarism to light in longer poetry, or has commented extensively about specific cases (including Andrew Slattery, and in haiku circles more recently, Graham Nunn and Vuong Pham). Neal Bowers has written an excellent book, Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist (New York: Norton, 1997) about how his poetry was systematically plagiarized (a problem first pointed out to him by haiku poet Carrie Etter, I might add). I have a bookshelf filled with similar books on copyright, infringement, cryptomnesia, and intellectual property, and could quote from them just as much as I have Posner’s book. As already mentioned, George Swede has written about how his haiku were plagiarized. Robert Spiess would not tolerate plagiarism in haiku, and said so—once even leaving a blank space in Modern Haiku with a note saying, as I recall, that the poem he had intended to print there was removed when he discovered it to be plagiarized [addendum: without finding the original issue to check, it may be that what happened here was that Spiess had discovered that the poem was previously published, rather than plagiarized, but he still took a stand against it, since his journal sought only unpublished material]. Sandra Simpson and Richard Krawiec have now joined their ranks. Whistleblowers like these should be applauded for taking a difficult step. Any complaints should be directed at the offender, not the whistleblower. If such whistleblowing makes any observer feel uncomfortable, well, it should, because the acts of fraud, plagiarism, or excessive similarity are uncomfortable to begin with. Even if you are not the direct victim of such plagiarism, it’s worth standing up against it because someday the victim might be you. Fraud, plagiarism, or excessive similarity are unacceptable and need to be called out judiciously—and their perpetrators should be held appropriately accountable. As the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox said, in her 1914 poem “Protest,” “To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.”

A new wrinkle that has come up recently is that Ernie’s latest book, Haiku, Green Tea & Sushi, includes two of the aforementioned poems, but now with attributions. The poem “extended rain / the heron’s legs / get shorter” now has “with a nod 2 basho” after it, and “hot wind / a pine cone waddles / to the pond” is now given “a nod to Allan Burns.” This is a step in the right direction, but far from enough. And the book introduces new problems, covered earlier in this essay.

Ernest J. Berry has plagiarized. This is evident not just in the heron poem that was rightfully stripped of its contest award and prize money by a unanimous vote, but also evident in additional examples—and there may well be more that aren’t accounted for here. It seems the best thing for him to do is to be extra vigilant with all future submissions to journals and contests. Better yet, he should graciously admit these errors, withdraw the relevant poems by notifying the publications or contests where they appeared, and return all relevant prize money. Nor should he publish these or any other plagiarized haiku in any of his books or other publications. For their part, editors and contest organizers would be well advised to give Ernie’s submissions extra scrutiny, if they don’t ban him from submitting altogether. However, perhaps an outright ban would not be necessary if Ernie makes appropriate public and private apologies and other amends for his plagiarism, his unethical resubmission of published and prize-winning poems, and other infractions. I certainly hope that he does, and that we can continue to read and enjoy Ernie’s many other fine haiku.



I had submitted this essay to be published on the website of the New Zealand Poetry Society, which had previously published other commentaries of mine on the subject of déjà-ku and plagiarism. Because of its sensitive nature, the essay was reviewed by the society’s entire leadership committee, which responded on 8 August 2016 with a “resounding no” to publishing this piece on their site. Ernest J. Berry is apparently a lifetime member of the society, an honour bestowed upon him at least in part for his financial contributions, so it is perhaps understandable that they would choose not to publish my evidence and observations, despite the society’s website having already published prior essays by me and Sandra Simpson that point out Ernie’s plagiarism, although with less detail. While I do understand their decision (because who wants to throw one of their own under the bus?), I know that they and others are not blind to the fact that Ernest Berry has still plagiarized, no matter how well loved he might be or whatever his age. It’s unfortunate that he has persisted with his pattern of plagiarism and sloppy record-keeping, even if it has affected just a small minority of his prodigious output. The truth is, I have every reason to like Ernest Berry and his poetry, including his two books that collect his prize-winning haiku, Getting On and Haiku, Green Tea & Sushi (both 2016), but this liking of him should never lead me or anyone else, including the New Zealand Poetry Society, to gloss over any act of plagiarism on his part. Plagiarism should never be taken lightly. Fortunately, that “resounding no” from the society has softened—I have learned that the New Zealand Poetry Society has sent Ernie a letter of censure and did not accept his submissions for its 2017 poetry contest, so one hopes that Ernie will heed their message. It’s a message, too, that all of us may learn from.

Another Postscript

Despite concerns presented in the preceding essay, let me make it clear that I admire and recommend a great majority of Ernest J. Berry’s haiku and senryu. For more information about him and his work, see the Top Writers and New Zealand Poetry Society websites. See also the Haiku Foundation profile and video interview (video recorded 22 June 2012) and the Terebess profile.

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Do Not Resuscitate: A Case of Haiku Similarity

In Geppo XLI:4 (August–October 2016, page 2), the following poem immediately grabbed my attention, not the least because of its subject:

winter twilight
the weight of a pen
for the DNR

UncertainA “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:

bearing down
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”
moonlight outlines
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:

another death—
the 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). Prior to this book appearance, the poem appeared in World Haiku Review in August of 2012, so this poem is the earliest of the poems I’m about to discuss here.

unscheduled stop
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):

returning home—
only the scarecrow
with open arms

Before commenting on Shrikaanth’s poem, let me share yet another scarecrow poem, by Duro Jaiye, published in Persimmon, the 2017 anthology from the Hailstone Haiku Circle based in Kyoto, Japan (edited by Stephen Henry Gill, page 24):

In the winter fields
beneath Mount Atago
a scarecrow with open arms

The number of these poems, about scarecrows with “open arms,” demonstrates that this expression (not just experience) is a common enough trope in haiku, but at what point do similar poems become excessively similar? And might earlier poems have inspired any of the later poems? Shrikaanth told me he submitted his poem to the Shiki 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 poem by Kwaku Feni Adow? It’s impossible to know from the poem itself, and I doubt that much would be gained by asking the 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:

Father’s Day—
he signs
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:

carolina wren
its morning song larger
than itself

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.

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Make It Yours

GoodHaiku poems are so short that they are particularly susceptible to the repetition of subjects and structures. In She Was Just Seventeen, a collection of haiku by former United States poet laureate Billy Collins (Lincoln, Illinois: Modern Haiku Press, 2006, page 9), the poet includes the following poem:

If I write spring moon
or mountain, is that
haiku plagiarism?

In a review of She Was Just Seventeen, William J. Higginson comments as follows on this poem (Modern Haiku 38.1, Autumn, 2007, page 82):

While I may not value this especially as a haiku, it certainly spoofs the repetition of favored phrases and images that plagues haiku to the point where even the great Shiki once doubted [more than a hundred years ago] if haiku could continue another decade or two without utterly repeating itself. (If Shiki had foreseen the explosion of interest in haiku in scores of languages around the world, perhaps he would have been less doubtful!)

Emiko Miyashita has shared the following two lines of a Japanese poem titled “Asa no Hikari” (“Morning’s Light”) by Shuntaro Tanigawa (from her 2009 Haiku North America conference paper, “Feel the Word”). His ninth line is as follows:


I wonder, why things that repeat themselves can stay fresh and timeless?

And the twelfth line is:


While a thing that happens only once becomes old so quickly.

One secret to avoiding the problems of deja-ku (especially writing on a tired subject) is to write about what is true to yourself and your perspective. In contrast to Ezra Pound who exhorted poets to “Make it new,” I side more with Jane Hirshfield, who has said “Make it yours.” Related to this is the advice to write about the timeless rather than about subjects that are faddish or trendy. Haiku values the ephemeral, but the ephemeral is not the same as fleeting trivialities. This is why there are so many thousands of good haiku about cherry blossoms (both ephemeral and endlessly repeating) but so few about Rubik’s Cubes or hula hoops (but, ahem, maybe that’s a challenge, isn’t it?). Whatever we write about, it’s a good practice to make each poem yours rather than feeling pressure to make it new. As the painter Robert Henri once wrote, “A tree growing out of the ground is as wonderful today as it ever was. It does not need to adopt new and startling methods.” Here’s to making haiku yours!

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“Haikus Are Easy” . . . to Plagiarize

NAME REMOVED - Haikus are easy - Merit Award 2016 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest

Bad“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. 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.

Haiku Refrigerator 2

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, 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 they are a ninth grader, and need not have this indiscretion hanging over their neck for the rest of their 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 their 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 they 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.

GoodPostscript: 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.” As time has passed, though, I have come to think more and more surely that the poem should have been taken down.

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.

Another Postscript (29 April 2018): At what point does allusion become plagiarism? Variations of the “refrigerator” poem seem to be increasingly common, as with the following poem, recently found in Haiku, Do You?, a children’s book by Sharon P. Stanley, illustrated by Eugene Ruble (St. Louis, Missouri: Guardian Angel Publishing, 2017), featured as the book’s first poem (page 2):

Haikus are silly
And sometimes they don’t make sense
Big blue bumble bee

Is this really an allusion to what the author might understand is a well-known poem? My hunch is that it isn’t, partly because the original poem is largely known as an Internet meme, not as a poem by a specific person, so she probably just riffed on it without realizing that Rolf Nelson is the author. Either that or it’s a plagiarism, whether accidental or deliberate. When reading the poem in the book, however, most readers would understandably presume this poem to be by Sharon P. Stanley. To me, that feels like plagiarism.

Refrigerator Haiku T-shirt from

And, for what it’s worth, a new T-shirt has emerged (not sure when) sporting the “refrigerator” poem (shown above). See Is this an infringement on the original poem by Rolf Nelson? I suspect this new shirt was not posted by Rolf, because he probably wouldn’t have moved “But” up to the first line or “Sense” down to the third line as this T-shirt does—the latter choice somewhat killing or at least muting the humour of the “refrigerator” line. See also, and Amazon at, where the lineation, italic, and I believe the font matches the original. See also Also available at, but without the italic, and (sloppily) without “But” in the second line, which keeps the poem from having its intended 5-7-5 syllable pattern. The availability of these T-shirts, apparently without any infringement claims from Rolf Nelson, might suggest that Rolf did not actually write the original poem after all, but just posted the original T-shirt design to Threadless. Or perhaps he’s okay with letting the poem go into the wild, the way the original photographers of meme photos have seemingly let them go—or perhaps quickly gave up on trying to retain their rights.

And here’s another variation of the poem, invoking a hippo in yet another T-shirt design, one that at least has enough sense to avoid butchering the syllable pattern, unlike the previous design:

Hippopotamus T-shirt

One More Postscript (6 May 2018): Yet another sighting of this poem, and in a prominent literary publication, no less, is in the new book, The Penguin Book of Haiku, translated and edited by Adam L. Kern (London: Penguin, 2018). In this book’s introduction, Kern says that the haiku poem’s “reluctance to convey emotions or cerebrations point blank [on purpose, because the feelings and ideas behind good haiku are meant to be implied] is part of a quintessential restraint, suggestiveness and subtlety that have earned for the haiku, as well as for its people, a reputation of inscrutability” (page xxiii). He then says, “Hence the following T-shirt quip:”

Sometimes it doesn’t make sense.

This is a variation I’d not seen before. It fails to recognize Rolf Nelson as the apparently original author, but the point of quoting it is to underscore how the poem conveys a common public perception—that haiku poems seem inscrutable. Kern counters this perception by saying that “much of the appeal of haiku derives from the irresistibly paradoxical combination of simplicity of form with the exquisite sophistication of Japanese aesthetics” (page xxiv). But of course, the general public has never gotten to the point of apprehending those sophistications, even the easiest of them, so all they are left with is a sense of haiku’s inscrutability. No wonder the general public retreats from literary haiku, turning the vast majority of “haiku” that parade through social media and other online enclaves into jokes and other trivializations.

It is clear that the “refrigerator” poem points to one of haiku’s most recognizable traits, which is surely why the poem, in its many variations, has become relatively well known. This does not explain, however, why so many people would pass the poem off as their own, or pass it off as being by Anonymous, thus feeling free to revise it in their own (plagiaristic) versions. In a way, the poem has followed the path of the word “escalator,” once a trademark, now a generic term for a mechanized staircase. So, who really wrote the “refrigerator” poem? I still have no evidence that it is by anyone other than Rolf Nelson, but nor am I absolutely sure either. If the “trademark” is Nelson’s, the fact that he isn’t defending it suggests that he does not care, or that it was never his in the first place after all.

Wait, One More Postscript (23 August 2019): I’ve recently been seeing yet another anonymous variation of Rolf Nelson’s poem, circulating online and also as a bumper sticker, but noticed in particular on the Facebook page for singer-songwriter Janis Ian (who regularly posts “haiku”):

Haikus confuse me
Too often they make no sense
Hand me the pliers

Haikus confuse me - cropped

You can order the bumper sticker at the Northern Sun website, and the poem also appears at (dated 7 November 2018) where it mingles with Rolf’s original poem, although all poems at this location are presented anonymously. I’ve also seen it at, where the posting is dated 4 November 2014. Surely this little beast is elsewhere too, wildly roaming the Internet plains.

This poem has become a meme, obviously, and long ago left the confines of its original authorship. Variations might be seen as homages or allusions to the original, but some versions, if not sufficiently different from the original, might still be considered as plagiarisms—even if the original were anonymous. The poem will surely continue to spawn no end of variations, such as the following one, available as a bumper sticker on Zazzle:

Haikus confuse me
Too often they don’t make sense
I want a cookie

All fun, I suppose, but for the sake of literary haiku I would love it to stop.

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Essays on Deja-ku

GoodFor those interested in the topic of deja-ku, let me draw your attention to several essays I’ve written on the subject. They’re available on my Graceguts website, most with numerous example poems to fit each of the various categories. The following is a summary of what you’ll find.

  1. An Introduction to Deja-ku
    An overview of the various types of deja-ku. Deja-ku are haiku that bring to mind other poems. As this essay says, these relationships “are good in some cases, such as parody, homage, allusion, and sharing the same topic or season word, and not good in other cases, such as plagiarism, cryptomnesia (remembering someone else’s poem without realizing that one is remembering rather than creating it), and simply being too similar or insufficiently fresh or original.” Also explored are the various emotional reactions we can have when we encounter a case of deja-ku—whether it involves one of our own poems or the poems of others.
  2. Selected Examples of Deja-ku
    Here I present dozens of example poems, usually in pairs, showing similarity between the poems. For the sake of discussion, I’ve deliberately left off publication credits so you wouldn’t necessarily know which poem was published first. Also, it’s up to you to decide (if you wish) which category of deja-ku each pairing of poems might fit. Some are clearly parodies or allusions, and most people who have studied the literature will know which is the original and which is the parody or allusion. Others are likely cases of plagiarism (most often cryptomnesia, it seems to me), while other parings simply share the same subject or season word. And in some cases the similarities may be excessive, even if not consciously or unconsciously plagiarized. You can decide for yourself.
  3. Some Thoughts on Deja-ku
    This link presents the text of a handout on the subject of deja-ku that I’ve used in workshop presentations. It provides an overview of the issues involved, discusses a few examples, and presents a number of quotations relevant to the subject. It ends with an extended set of poems for discussion, this time with earliest publication credits for each poem. It is not easy for some people to sort out their emotional or psychological reactions to these similarities—especially if one of their own poems is involved. Other people may think it’s all fine (except for plagiarism). Others may draw the line much more stringently than others about what constitutes excessive similarity. The point to remember here is that this range of opinions is worth being aware of, helping us to give others latitude to think differently than we might.
  4. A Spade’s a Spade: Plagiarism and Deja-ku
    Here I respond to an essay by Sandra Simpson on the subject of deja-ku, in which she provides a number of intriguing examples. In particular, I respond to the anecdote she relates about a “senior poet” who said, shockingly, “if you see a line or phrase you like, write it down and reuse it” and “if you change one word in a haiku, it’s yours.” This is very bad advice, as Sandra suggests, and I go into detail as to reasons why. The name of this poet is identified in a postscript at the end.

I have hundreds of example poems in my deja-ku database that will provide fodder for future essays and future blog posts. In addition to that, I also have two other essays on deja-ku still in the works. One was delivered at the 2001 Haiku North America conference in Boston. It’s somewhat long, and I keep revising it with additional examples. I hope to shorten it and get it out the door eventually. It’s a much more definitive essay on the subject than any of the preceding. The other essay is a detailed response to another essay by Sandra Simpson, “How Close Is Too Close?” Hopefully this more recent essay will be coming out soon.

As some of these essays demonstrate, the issues surrounding deja-ku can sometimes get heated. I do say repeatedly that we should relax, but there are also cases, especially with plagiarism (including cryptomnesia), where it’s inappropriate to relax. We need not be indignant or sanctimonious, but we should follow the example of longtime Modern Haiku editor Robert Spiess, who was very clear and forthright in his insistence on integrity in these matters. Deja-ku are mostly good things in haiku, or we wouldn’t have homage and allusion and the very sharing of subjects that resonate with our own experiences. On the other end of the spectrum, overt plagiarism is clearly bad, but regarding the other kinds of deja-ku—cryptomnesia and excessive similarity—it helps to accept them as a sort of occupational hazard for the haiku writer, even while how we respond to these occupational hazards may vary greatly. The more we write haiku, the more likely it is that these problems will happen to us. Fortunately, it’s also more likely that we will encounter the good kinds of deja-ku too.

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Open Arms

UncertainA recent example of deja-ku has come to my attention, one that raises the issues of excess similarity and independent creation. In the September 2014 issue of Cattails, Arvinder Kaur published the following poem, later published in her book, Dandelion Seeds, in 2015:

a scarecrow’s open arms
in the fields

In October of 2015, Shrikaanth K. Murthy won second place in the kigo category of the Shiki online kukai with the following poem, later published in Sailing into the Moon, the 2016 Haiku Canada members’ anthology, published in May 2016 (page 26):

returning home—
only the scarecrow
with open arms

Because of the similarity between these poems, it’s natural to compare them. For me, Arvinder’s poem is slightly flawed by saying “fields” rather than just “field,” because there’s only one scarecrow and it cannot be in more than one field at any given time. It’s reasonable, however, for us to take “fields” to be more generic and idiomatic rather than a literal plural. However, the poem still ends on a weak beat, in that scarecrows being “in the field(s)” is obvious. Where else would a scarecrow be? For those two reasons, Shrikaanth’s poem seems stronger, in terms of rhythm, crafting, and content. On the other hand, the term “homecoming” is richer in Arvinder’s poem because it implies seeing many other people, rather than simply returning home, which does not necessarily imply seeing other people—or not as strongly. Yet Shrikaanth’s poem emphasizes sadness (it is “only” the scarecrow that has open arms, despite the fact that he is returning home—normally a happy event). The sad tone in Shrikaanth’s haiku seems more fitting for the autumn season. While the upbeat tone of Arvinder’s poem may well be appealing to some readers—it’s a homecoming and even the scarecrow has open arms to welcome the poet home—Shrikaanth’s poem feels more resonant for its development of sadness to better fit the autumn season, and in creating a more complex and contrasting emotion in pairing the scarecrow image with the coming-home context. Whether readers prefer one poem more than the other is largely a matter of personal taste, though, and not relevant to the issue of whether this case of deja-ku is problematic.

That brings us to the second issue, of course, which is to ask whether the poems are excessively similar, and whether one poem might have influenced the other. Shrikaanth has told me that he emailed his entry to the Shiki kukai on 7 October 2015. He also said that Arvinder approached him to review her book after that date and that he received her book on 1 November 2015. He had not seen Arvinder’s poem before that date and had written his poem independently. It seems completely reasonable to expect these poems to have been written independently, especially since so many of us are familiar with scarecrows and how they typically “welcome” us with open arms. It would be easy to pair this image with a homecoming event and easy to arrive at the upbeat image in Arvinder’s poem, or the sadder one is Shrikaanth’s.

So I think we can take this situation to be a case of independent creation, even if the images and image order are more or less the same. The tonal difference is enough, I think, to say that these poems are not excessively similar—if independently created. These images belong to everyone, and many more scarecrow haiku will be written in the future, just as many thousands have already been written. However, if it could be proven that Shrikaanth had seen Arvinder’s poem before writing his, then we might speculate that this could be a case of cryptomnesia, or forgetting the source of something one remembers—in this case it would be a haiku that one thinks one is writing when really one is remembering it (whether wholly or partially). Since we don’t know that the earlier poem definitely influenced the other, and because there is no reason to not take Shrikaanth’s word for it that he created his poem independently, there’s no cause for alarm here, as the similarity is neither excessive nor provable or probable as cryptomnesia.

Still, it would be natural for readers familiar with both poems to wonder about the relationship, perhaps even to feel that the resemblance is excessive (Arvinder herself might be particularly likely to feel this way). But it would be inappropriate for anyone to “accuse” the writer of the later poem of writing a deja-ku, as if the term is a black mark on his or her poetry. No, it isn’t. Deja-ku is a neutral term, and includes both positive and negative aspects. And in fact, most of them are positive. A deja-ku is simply a haiku that brings to mind another haiku (or another poem or work of art). If the similarity is excessive or clearly plagiarism (which includes cryptomnesia), then yes, those would be negative. But the great majority of deja-ku are positive and worth celebrating for their use of shared subjects (this happens with season words, or kigo, all the time), allusion, similar syntax, or other commonalities. The term “deja-ku” should not be used as a pejorative. Indeed, we should welcome most cases of deja-ku with open arms.

Postscript (13 December 2016, 17 January 2017)

Issues with the preceding two poems may not have stopped there. The results of the 18th annual Haiku International Association haiku contest were announced in Tokyo on 4 December 2016, and posted to the HIA website on 7 December 2016, including the following honourable mention by Kwaku Feni Adow of Ghana:

arriving on the farm—
the open arms
of the scarecrow

And this from Anatoly Kudryavitsky, from his book  Horizon (Red Moon Press, 2016, 39), and no doubt published in a journal before that:

unscheduled stop
a scarecrow welcomes us
with open arms

What are we to make of these new similarities? Are they independently written, or was any poem influenced by any of the other poems? Is there plagiarism afoot here, even if accidentally, or independent creation? I am happy to assume independent creation, as I have no reason to believe otherwise, but is the similarity still excessive? Perhaps it is to some readers.

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Deja-ku Diary

Welcome to Deja-ku Diary, my new blog focusing on haiku that bring to mind other poems in various ways. These ways can be both positive and negative, so please consider “deja-ku” to be a neutral term, not a pejorative. Deja-ku can include simply sharing the same season word or subject as another poem, such as with the moon, cherry blossoms, or yard sales. Deja-ku can also include allusion (called honkadori in Japan), as well as parody and homage. These are all worth celebrating. Haiku succeed when the reader shares the same experience as the poet, or can empathize with such an experience. No one owns experience, and the fact that we share similar experiences is worth honouring and enjoying through haiku poetry. Not worth celebrating, but decrying, is excess similarity to other poems—and yes, it’s highly subjective to say when the similarity becomes excessive, which makes this category of deja-ku probably the most contentious. Two other undesirable kinds of deja-ku are cryptomnesia (a sort of “accidental” plagiarism whereby you remember someone else’s work but forget that it’s not yours) and outright plagiarism. We’ll talk about them all.

I’m your host, Michael Dylan Welch, and you can read more about me at my Graceguts website (visit the bio page). “Deja-ku” is a term I coined around 1996 or so. With many posts I’ll include a graphic symbol to suggest whether the deja-ku in question is good, uncertain, or perhaps bad, as follows:

Good Bad Uncertain - cropped

I invite your discussion, pro or con. If you disagree with me, please make your case. If you agree, feel free to say so—or to send chocolate. The key issue with deja-ku is the emotions they can generate. If you find you’ve written a poem that’s inadvertently like someone else’s, you can feel mortified because it may look like you’ve plagiarized, even if you wrote your poem entirely independently. Or if you see someone else’s poem that feels like it’s too similar to yours, you can feel ripped off. And in some cases you may indeed have been violated—and even though haiku are small, the emotions can be big, and very real. Or you may see that someone else has apparently ripped off someone else. Or you may not even like this way of talking about these matters, and have an opinion about so-called haiku police wagging fingers here and there. However, I think it’s essential to stand up against plagiarism and excessive similarity, just as it’s essential to praise poems for their carefully crafted allusions or deft handling of common season words. This sea of emotions is challenging to negotiate. The majority of deja-ku lie between these extremes, though. The subjects are similar because our experiences in life are similar. And thank goodness for that! I look forward to your participation in this shared diary of deja-ku poetry.

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