Tag Archives: allusion

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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“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 Anti-Joke.com, Rolf Nelson confirms that he submitted the poem to Threadless as a shirt slogan. However, at least one person posting on the Anti-Joke site questions Rolf’s originality, saying, colourfully, “Dude you can bet your arse this joke haiku or some pre-refrigerator variants have been around since way before you wrote it. You may not have noticed because other authors aren’t so hungry for the credit as you.” I don’t take this comment seriously, because there’s no evidence I’ve found that this poem existed before Rolf posted his T-shirt design to the Threadless website with this poem. Furthermore, no other authors would be hungry to take credit for the poem if none of them wrote it! On the Anti-Joke site, Rolf says, “I wrote this over 6 years ago for my highschool english class and submitted it to Threadless while I was in college.”

However, did Rolf really write it? Things may not be entirely simple. The Threadless website for the “Haikus are easy” T-shirt includes a link to Rolf Nelson’s Design by Proxy website. Even that website name might give pause for concern. Was the poem by proxy too, and not really his, even though the design was? Rolf begins his website’s About page by saying “Design by proxy is Rolf Nelson, an experiential art director with authority to represent someone else with creativity.” We might therefore conclude that the “Haikus are easy” poem isn’t his, but someone else’s, and that he just created a design for it. Since he seems to focus most of his creative energies on design rather than writing, did Rolf therefore “borrow” the poem, wishing mainly to present his design of it? That would be an easy criticism to make, but until there’s proof that he didn’t write the poem, or that this poem (or significant “pre-refrigerator” variants) existed before he posted his T-shirt design, I have every reason to believe Rolf’s claim to be true, that he did indeed write the poem. For reference, a portfolio page on Rolf’s website featuring his Threadless T-shirt designs says the following, under the heading “My only published poem”:

A haiku is one of the most simple forms of poetry. It is a Japanese style poem comprised of 3 lines consisting of 5 syllables, then 7, then 5 again and is oft about nature. At the end of a 6 week study on the forms of poetry back in high school english class, I got a little tired of following all of the conventions and took a little creative license. Little did I know that it would work so well on a t-shirt. I have since seen this copy translated to Japanese written even on bathroom stalls.

Yet he also says this of his T-shirt designs: “Most of the ideas came from everyday conversations with my friends.” So who really wrote it? We can continue to wonder, but it seems that Rolf did, and I’m happy (for now) to believe that he did.

Even if Rolf Nelson did not write the poem (although he did definitely submit it to Threadless), it was surely written long before the Boynton contest winner “wrote” it. I’m withholding that author’s name and gender because 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 betterthanpants.com

And, for what it’s worth, a new T-shirt has emerged (not sure when) sporting the “refrigerator” poem (shown above). See https://www.betterthanpants.com/haikus-are-easy-but-sometimes-they-don-t-make-sense-refrigerator-t-shirt. 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 https://www.teepublic.com/t-shirt/2111138-haikus-are-easy-but-sometimes-they-dont-make-sense, and Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0773CBM6M, where the lineation, italic, and I believe the font matches the original. See also https://www.amazon.com/CafePress-Haikus-Easy-White-T-Shirt/dp/B00XH2EKOA/. Also available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076SB7JP2, 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 https://leslistes.net/top-40-funny-haiku-poems/ (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 https://oppositelock.kinja.com/haikus-confuse-me-too-often-they-make-no-sense-hand-m-1654461997, 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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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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