David R Morgan admits to passing numerous works by other people as his own and says he is 'truly sorry'
The poetry community is searching its soul after another case of multiple plagiarism emerged over the weekend.
Publishers and magazines have been working to take down poems and suspend sales of collections by David R Morgan after the American poet Charles O Hartman realised Morgan's poem "Dead Wife Singing" was almost identical to his own, three-decades-old "A Little Song".
Assiduous digging by the online poetry community, led by the poet and academic Ira Lightman, then discovered that Morgan, a British poet and teacher, had lifted lines and phrases from a host of different writers. One of Morgan's poems, "Monkey Stops Whistling", won him an award. Opening: "Stand to attention all the empty bottles, yes … // the long-necked beer bottles from the antique stores, / the wine bottles and pop bottles left on beaches; / steam off the labels and line the bottles up, the green ones / with the brown, black, yellow and clear ones," it was found to be virtually identical to a 1981 poem by Colin Morton, "Empty Bottles".
"When an American poet spotted his own poem under David R Morgan's name on a website that blogs new work, he contacted its editor, and its editor contacted me. Within around one hour, I'd found a dozen more. Everything online by David R Morgan that I could find since Jan 2011 I could trace 90% of to another person's poem," said Lightman, who also discovered an alleged plagiarism of Roger McGough by Morgan dating back to 1982.
The case follows that of Christian Ward, another prize-winning poet found to have lifted work from other writers earlier this year.
Morgan has admitted fully to the plagiarism, and told the Guardian he was "so very ashamed and regret hurting people by my stupidity". He said he was "truly sorry to everyone whose thoughts and work I have taken", and vowed to never do it again.
Kate Birch, publisher at poetry webzine Ink Sweat & Tears, was contacted by Hartman over the plagiarism and said she was "mortified" by the situation. "Throughout Friday evening and the weekend, it became obvious that this was not a one-off situation … To his credit, he confessed as much on a post on his friend's Facebook wall. We received the same apology when I emailed him to confront him on the issue," she said. She then took the decision to remove all other Morgan poems from her site, because "he had submitted them all in the last few years when he was 'lifting' poems with impunity and there could be no guarantee that they were not plagiarisms as well".
Susan Sims at Morgan's publisher Poetry Space said she had suspended sales of both of his collections, Beneath the Dreaming Tree and Once Bitten.
But – with the Ward case still fresh in people's minds – the poetry community is now asking itself just how widespread plagiarism is. "Some plagiarists are unlucky that a lot of books not online have been put into Google Books. One can't read more than a few pages online, so it doesn't render the real book worthless. But all its text can now be checked in Google, if you put in a phrase from a poem you suspect of plagiarism," said Lightman. However, "the difficulty is that Google is all very well, but nobody has an encyclopedic photographic memory of every poem not online or out-of-print (but still in copyright)".
Birch agrees. "It is almost impossible to confirm, without an eidetic memory, a huge poetry library and infinite internet searches, that something has not been plagiarised," she said.
Helen Ivory, a poet and editor at Ink Sweat and Tears, was concerned that "one of the potential repercussions of plagiarising of this nature might be that any new writers without a history of publication and evidence that they really are who they say they are, might be treated with suspicion".
"It's hard enough for 'unknown' writers to find publication, and IS&T prides itself on publishing good work, irrespective of whether the writer is already a 'name'," said Ivory. "As a writer who has spent years finding her voice and honing her craft, it is anathema that anybody should choose to replace this search for truth and meaning by stealing from the products of other peoples' searching. Poetry is not just words on a page, it is an outward manifestation of, and search for, self and how we feel about the world and everything in it."
Bobby Parker, a poet, was hopeful that the growing presence of the poetry community online would help defend against – and discover – other instances of plagiarism. "Now it is so much easier for all of us to know what's going on at the same time. People talk about plagiarism a lot more – it's widespread within a day of somebody posting something and lots of people start looking into it," he said. "It's always been going on, it's just the online community is just starting to become aware, and it's so much easier to find it. You couldn't go to a library and go through the books, but now you can google a line and within seconds if an original poem comes up that's it – they've been had."
"I suspect plagiarism will go on emerging. There are rumours of some bigger fish who plagiarise, and one reason I'm happy to come forward now is that I hope people will feel confident to shop them in," said Lightman. "This kind of plagiarism needs to be blown wide open."