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Poem pulled from Forward prize shortlist after plagiarism row


Poet Matthew Welton discovered CJ Allen's previous work lifted themes and phrases from his own poems

Plagiarism is considered the worst of sins among writers, but the latest scandal – in which poet CJ Allen has pulled out of this year's Forward prize for poetry competition admitting that some of his earlier works were plagiarised – confirms that passing off is a real problem in the poetry community.

Allen's exit from the prize, in which he was shortlisted for best single poem for Explaining the Plot of Blade Runner to My Mother Who Has Alzheimer's, is the third case of poetry plagiarism to come to light this year.

The latest case of copying was revealed in a blog by poet Matthew Welton on the website of poetry publisher Carcanet, after he noticed similarities between his own work and Allen's while at a poetry reading in Nottingham in May 2012. Welton decided to go public after hearing of Allen's Forward prize shortlisting.

He wrote: "It was as I paged through Allen's At the Oblivion Tea-Rooms, which had recently come out with the small Birmingham poetry publisher Nine Arches, that I noticed that a number of the poems were in fact versions of my own poems with a few changes made."

To illustrate the point, Welton compared passages from his own poem, London Sundays, from his collection, The Book of Matthew, with Allen's The Memory of Rain.

"His approach is methodical, if not very imaginative," writes Welton. "Often he takes the words or phrases in my poem and simply swaps them for something closely related: 'snatches of summer' becomes 'rain'; 'gin' becomes 'alcohol'; 'rumour' becomes 'banter'. And, of course, he keeps the entire structure and the rhyme sounds, and usually the actual rhyming words too," Welton wrote.

Allen emailed the Forward Arts Foundation and withdrew from the competition following the revelation. He wrote: "I accept that I did plagiarise certain poems (although it was genuinely not my intention to deceive), and I am withdrawing from the competition because of the intolerable strain of the recent, negative publicity surrounding this. However, I continue to maintain that the poem submitted to the Forward prize is original."

Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation, told the Bookseller the judges had been divided over Allen's withdrawal, with Jeanette Winterson in favour of keeping him on the shortlist but others feeling differently. Herbert said: "The situation is not ideal, but I'm keen that the conversation about poetry becomes more intelligent and more diverse. To have a really good talk about what plagiarism is and what it means strikes me as not a bad thing."

Winterson, chair of the 2013 Forward prizes judging panel, said: "We thought the poem had depth, wit, truth and elegance. Maybe CJ Allen is a shyster, maybe not. Our job wasn't to pass judgment on people or process, but to find good poems."

In January, poet Christian Ward said he had had "no intention of deliberately plagiarising" the work of another writer after it was discovered that his poem The Deer at Exmoor, which won the Exmoor Society's Hope Bourne poetry prize, was lifted "almost word-for-word" from a poem by Helen Mort.

And poet David R Morgan admitted in May that he felt "very ashamed and regret hurting people by my stupidity", after he was skewered for multiple instances of lifting lines and phrases from other people's work. The extent of his plagiarism was uncovered after US poet Charles O Hartmann noticed that Morgan's Dead Wife Singing was almost identical to his own, three-decades-old work, A Little Song.

The Forward prize for best single poem is worth £1,000 to the winner and, if Allen had won, it would have significantly enhanced his reputation. Instead, the revelations have led Allen's publisher Nine Arches to withdraw his book from sale, while John McAuliffe, editor of the Manchester Review, removed one of his poems from its website. Havant literary festival is to strip Allen of the prize he won last October for his poem Exordium, after it was alleged that it plagiarised Exordium and Terminus, a 2002 poem by US poet Gerald Stern, and has asked him to return his £250 prize money.

However, the first printing of the anthology The Forward Book of Poetry, which includes Allen's shortlisted poem, is to stay on sale while stocks last.

On his blog, Welton wrote: "After [Allen's] book was withdrawn, he contacted me at the university and tried to justify his plagiarism. He claimed to hold my work 'in high regard' and said his use of my poems had been 'as a framework against which to build my own poem'."

The Forward prizes, which are awarded on 1 October, also recognise best collection, with a prize of £10,000, and best first collection, worth £5,000. The remaining shortlisted authors for best single poem are Patience Agbabi, Nick MacKinnon, Rosie Sheppard and Hugo Williams.

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