Saturday, November 21, 2009

Plagiarism: what Ihimaera could learn from Eliot

The unattributed borrowings from other authors in Witi Ihimaera's new novel The Trowenna Sea have become the literary news story of the decade in New Zealand, inviting a pompous editorial from the Herald as well as protracted arguments in the blogopshere. So far, though, the debate about Ihimaera's novel has been framed in a very unhelpful way.

It seems to me that Ihimaera and his defenders - many of whom, like the unctuous Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland, Stuart McCutcheon, seem to be motivated by professional interest rather than private conviction - risk doing considerable damage to the public understanding of literature with the arguments they are using. Ihimaera and his supporters keep telling us that his unacknowledged borrowings make up only a tiny fraction of the text of The Trowena Sea - the figure 0.4% has been bandied about, though I understand that this is an underestimation - and that if only the borrowings had been noted at the back of the book then there would be no need for complaint.

Most of Ihimaera's critics have not questioned the premises of this argument, but have instead insisted that his failure to cite all of his borrowings is an unforgivable sin, rather than a minor oversight. Stealing is still stealing, one of them said, even if the thief only takes a relatively small amount.

The implications of the terms within which the debate over The Trowenna Sea has been waged are clear. It is always wrong to borrow writing without attributing it, but if an author puts a note at the back of his or her book, then that author is free to take whatever he or she wants.

The consensus between Ihimaera's defenders and most of his critics obscures the most basic question we need to ask, in any case of literary plagiarism, namely what is the writer doing with the words he or she has borrowed? What damns Ihimaera is not the fact that he has taken the words of others without attributing them, but rather the uses he has found for those words.

For the past hundred years, at least, plagiarism has been a respected literary tool. The history of modernist and postmodernist literature is filled with examples of masterpieces created using the words of others. Long before Ihimaera was even born, novels like Ulysses and Under the Volcano and poems like Pound's Cantos and William Carlos Williams' Paterson were being hailed as classics, not despite but because of the uses which they made of pre-existing texts.

Perhaps the finest example of creative plagiarism is TS Eliot's long poem The Waste Land, which was greeted with widespread praise when it was first published in 1922. Eliot's poem is a multi-perspectival portrait of a Western civilisation thrown into crisis by the First World War and the political turmoil that followed the war: moving brusquely from one scene and character to another, it shows us the disappointment of the hopes of the men who went to war in 1914, the drab vulgarity of life in big European cities like London and Vienna, and the widespread loss of faith in Christianity.

Like a surprising number of the great modernists, Eliot was politically conservative, and he was fond of contrasting what he saw as the chaos and nihilism of the twentieth century world with the glory and harmony of the past. By taking fragments from the literature of the past and juxtaposing them with modern imagery and modes of speech, The Waste Land was able to suggest something of the cultural decline which Eliot saw everywhere in postwar Europe. Here is a passage from the fourth of the poem's five sections:

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal

In these lines Eliot juxtaposes a quotation from the sixteenth century poet Edmund Spencer with an evocation of a polluted industrial waterway that is so precisely vivid that it simultaneously disgusts and excites us. Just as the harmonious sixteenth century world has degenerated into the chaos of the twentieth century, so the 'sweet Thames' which Spencer had saluted in his 'Prothalamion' has become, in Eliot's imagination at least, a rat-infested canal. Eliot's sadistic talent for juxtaposition and his hypnotic yet fractured rhythms mean that even those of us who do not share his bleak view of modern life and his romanticised picture of the past usually find The Waste Land a harrowingly powerful poem. Although Eliot acknowledged a few of his sources in the archly playful footnotes to The Waste Land, he left many other borrowings unattributed. (Many of Eliot's peers were even less concerned with admitting their borrowings: his friend Ezra Pound, for instance, didn’t bother to write a single footnote to The Cantos, which includes thousands of excerpts from texts as different as The Book of Tao and the articles of the American statesman John Adams.)

If we followed the logic common to Witi Ihimaera and to most of his critics, then we would we have to fault TS Eliot for his unattributed borrowings, and ask Faber and Faber to remove The Waste Land from bookstores until the author's supposed blunders could be corrected.

The difference between the plagiarisms in The Waste Land and the plagiarisms in The Trowenna Sea is closely related to the different intentions of the two plagiarists. Eliot has appropriated the refrain of Spencer's 'Prothalamion' because he wants to make the author of The Faerie Queen into one of the voices in the large, discordant chorus that is The Waste Land; he does not want to assimilate Spencer's verbal felicities, but rather to present them to the reader alongside his own.

Witi Ihimaera's plagiarisms are both far less ambitious and far less noble than those of Eliot. Ihimaera seems to have borrowed attractive passages from other authors simply because they make his own prose seem more attractive. Rather than making some sort of original use of the passages he has borrowed - by juxtaposing them with dissimilar passages, for instance, or adding commentary to them - he has sought to insert them as gently as possible into his text. Indeed, Ihimaera appears to have 'tweaked' many of the passages he has appropriated, so that they fit more comfortably into their new contexts.

If Eliot is like the modernist architect who wants his building to bear witness to the origins of its materials, then Ihimaera is like the tasteless but conceited renovator who insists on painting over brick and plastering over iron fills.

What is unfortunate about The Trowenna Sea affair is not Ihimaera's public embarrassment - despite his high media profile and commercial success, the man has never been ranked amongst this country's first-rate novelists - but the misunderstandings about literary technique which are being perpetuated by those rushing to defend and attack the book.

The truth is that the validity of a creative writer's borrowings can never be predetermined by some set of rules decided by philistines like Ihimaera's boss Stuart McCutcheon. Even if they were copiously footnoted, Ihimaera's borrowings would remain objectionable; even if The Waste Land did not contain a single footnote, it would remain a triumph.

I have to admit, at this point, to having a personal interest in this matter: if the controversy caused by Ihimaera's new novel leads to the widespread belief that a writer who uses unattributed borrowings is some sort of unpublishable reprobate, then I will be in trouble, because a number of the poems in my 2007 book To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps contain unacknowledged excerpts from other texts.

My book's title piece was written after I found a 1940s tome called The True Guide to Space Flight on the bookcase of the run-down Remuera mansion where I lived for a time when I was a Masters student. When I encountered this fancifully illustrated 'textbook' I was earnestly trying to study philosophy, and I was struck by the parrallel between the hopeless speculations of metaphysicians and the hopeless dreams of the conceptual astronauts of the '40s. The result was a prose poem with paragraphs like these:

Nor shall we get to the moon by giant aeroplane. An aeroplane uses the sloping surfaces of its clever propellers to lever itself through the air. Around the moon, though, there is no air. Nor, let us be clear, can swans, whirlwinds, wings of eagle or vulture, or balloons lift us anywhere near that mysterious, silently moving light.

Perhaps the problems we face are perennial. Problems, problematic views recede from the centre of concern, only to dominate later on. Aeroplanes take off, circulate, then fall out of the sky. Moons wax and wane, pass from palm to palm. Why won't theories stay refuted? Why won't problems dissolve, in this upraised glass?

I'm not worried by the fact that I can't remember exactly which of the words in this passage come from The True Guide of Space Travel, which words come from the stodgy philosophical tomes I devoured as a Masters student, and which words I wrote myself. I think that the poem's borrowings are justified, because of the new contexts and connections it establishes for what it takes.

In another poem that was included in To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps, I juxtaposed sentences from a rather stuffy guide to typography with quite different registers of language:

Rules of Typography

The world is full of enchanting objects: Venus flytraps, lighthouses, candlewicks, diamond rings on severed fingers, a scrubcutter's hut in Pukemiro. Detail accumulates like capital. To be noticed, the text must draw attention to itself. (Strokes of the letters thicken, apertures shrink, serifs appear, fern tendrils wrap themselves around each capital.) To be read, the text must relinquish the attention it has drawn. (Fern rusts and crumbles, strokes and serifs fade; the reader nods and strokes his chin.)

It's easy for me to identify the borrowed words in this paragraph: the first part of the first sentence and the third and fifth sentences all have the absurdly serious tone which made me giggle when I opened the only study of typography I have ever attempted to read. The rest of the words were improvised by me, but they occupy at least two different registers. The second sentence in the paragraph is a parody of the dry dialect of Marxist political economy, while the parenthetical sentences succumb to the charms of surrealism.

Many of the poems in my book don't include quotes from other texts - not conscious ones, anyway - but I don't feel that these pieces are any way more 'original' or 'authentic' than the volume's title poem, or 'Rules of Typography'.

To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps attracted seven or eight reviews, including one in the hallowed of pages of Landfall: all of them were positive, and none of them fingered me as a plagiarist. Under the new rules which both Ihimaera and most of his critics seem to be proposing, though, I presumably ought to turn myself in to the nearest literary critic, apologise humbly to the authors of The True Guide to Space Travel, and beg my publisher Titus Books to remove my volume from circulation until I can fit it out with a set of footnotes nobody will bother to read.

If I'm to be banished to the literary wilderness for my unattributed borrowings, at least I'll be in good company: some of the most original and important contemporary New Zealand writers appear to be guilty of the same crime as me. Ted Jenner, for instance, is no stranger to the unattributed quote. Jenner's recently-published collection Writers in Residence and Other Captive Fauna includes a series of poetic journals which record the decade he spent teaching Greek and Latin in Malawi. Ted's journals consist of observations of his adopted homeland, reflections on its problems and his own problems, and quotations - not all of them acknowledged - from writers who seem to shed some light on his situation. For all their borrowings, the journals are the original expression of an original mind.

Richard Taylor is another writer who would suffer unjustly if unattributed borrowing were proscribed. For over a decade now, Taylor has been working with varying levels of enthusiasm on a cento - that is, a poem composed of passages taken from other authors - called The Infinite Poem. Inspired by the modernist composer Charles Ives, who dreamed of creating an 'Infinite Symphony' that would absorb the work of others and go on after his death, Taylor has found passages for his poem in newspapers, chess manuals, novels, the books of other poets, and almost anything else that crosses his cluttered desk. Taylor's 2007 book Conversation with a Stone featured an excerpt from The Infinite Poem, but it did not bother to identify the sources of the material in the excerpt.

Instead of trying misdirect the debate The Trowenna Sea has prompted, Witi Ihimaera and his supporters should acknowledge that the real test of whether the book's borrowings are justified is aesthetic, not legal. And, if he wants to learn how to use other people's words creatively, Witi could do worse than pick up a copy of The Waste Land.

Footnote: long-suffering readers of this blog may remember a post back in 2006 about the controversy that the crude plagiarist Helen Demidenko's anti-semitic novel The Hand that Signed the Paper created in Australia in the nineties.


Blogger maps said...

I haven't actually cited any specific instances of Ihimaera's plagiarism in this post, partly because I get the feeling that most readers will have seen examples for themselves in the media over the past couple of weeks.

I thought Jolisa Gracewood, who discovered the borrowings after being given The Trowenna Sea to review for The Listener, does quite a good job of discussing them in this post:,

Gracewood seems to me to demonstrate that Ihimaera lifted passages out of a range of books and inserted them into his novel simply to add a little lustre to his prose. He attempted to assimilate the material he lifted, rather than deploy it as part of any sort (post)modernist textual medley.

Gracewood's discussions of Ihimaera's borrowing from Peter Godwin's memoir Mukiwa is particularly telling. She notes that:

'If we read these passages [lifted from Mukiwa] not knowing their source, they are very striking and atmospheric pieces of writing. But knowing their origin changes things. What's at stake when you put words describing a traumatic childhood in Rhodesia in the 1960s into the mouth of an elderly man at the end of his life in 1917? And what's up when a writer who is presumably well-versed in the vagaries of representations of the Other casually borrows a scene of such tempting exoticism, without seeking to contextualise it further?'

9:21 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I couldn't get very (excited? disturbed? concerned?) on this topic of plagiarism per se (I saw it in the Listener a week ago ad I was interested and rather amused) - except that - as you say it seems Ihimaera (and many of his critics, and supporters) doesn't really seem to understand modernist or postmodernist methods.

I think - from his earlier word I read years ago he is very good writer, maybe "major" I don't know. But as he is a University Lecturer he has to kowtow which is rather pathetic.

I read a sad book by US poet who had been plagiarised. Some young man had taken his poems, rewritten them a bit, and submitted many of them to journals, thus he managed to gain a small income. He had given up serious writing himself to be a professional plagariser!! The plagaree in question hired ad private detective to track the plagariser down!

My The Infinite Poem isn't quite a Cento BTW - I juxtapose my own writing -in that excert you metoned my own writing is in italics but elswhere I have masses of stuff wherein in many cases I have forgotten where I got them (the quotes or fragments of language from...others I do recall -sometimes I acknowledge - sometimes I don't - I feel no obligation to - I feel the complete right to steal and or rework (any other writer or writing) as Eliot did and others. People can use my work similarly. I prefer that they would say - 'This was influenced of stolen from Richard Taylor' but I don't really care.

I know of one instance where a poet stole at least one line of mine! Rather flattering! Or perhaps he / she had read something by me and thought it was (his/hers) - I may have done that also.

The issue though has philosophic and other aspects as well as aesthetics. In Eliot's case many of the "borrowings" and transforms by him are pretty obvious - or they become apparent the more one reads!!

11:33 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Marriane Moore is full of quotes placed inside question marks in her texts, but she acknowledges virtually all of them.

But I was influenced by Eliot, Pound, many of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers or their ideas, as well as reading about 20th Cent experimental and other (earlier) music - including Bach - who reworked not only his own music but the music of others. Also art of all kinds. As you do I "mix" my own writing with those of others. There is also the example of Zukofsky and John Ashbery (and Berrigan who took lines from Ashbery!) who for example used an old novel cut up as almost the whole of one of his poems in his "Tennis Court Oath". Then there is the writing of Roland Barthes and others. And many of the stories of Borges deal with this issue of "influence" and originality etc
We don't own ideas or language.
The deep purpose (or one idea) of The Infinite Poem was to be a work all people of any level or kind of talent could collaborate in, in any way (this was also Charles Ives's idea, interestingly he was a billionaire, but from his Insurance Co, not his music ) - I was also somewhat influenced in that idea by reading about Beuys (real or fabricated) story that he wanted all applicants to his art course to participate in that course. [There are practical limits to this of course.] So as Lyn Heijinian said of the Language Poetry movement (deriving from the Russian formalists originally - hence from ideas in the early days of the Russian Revolution); it was Utopian. Maybe it didn't get anywhere near a "true revolutionary result but the ideas therein generated a lot of other ideas - just as The Black Mountain School generated many fascinating off shoots in art, literature and music etc

So I see this "theft of language" as as essential - writers MUST steal. Property is theft (not from Marx that - but, still)...

My thinking is that, at a deep level, Ihimaera feels (even knows) this also. Hence he stole. But not as boldly as Eliot unfortunately. (Eliot said (to the effect) that great writers steal lesser writers borrow!)

Amazing he would not be familiar with Eliot and other modernist/postmodernist writers.
Another is Kenneth Goldsmith of Ubu Web.

The plagiarism rule at AU etc is about essays by undergraduates - not for mature creative writers!!

11:36 pm  
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11:38 pm  
Blogger maps said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:59 am  
Blogger maps said...

[Sorry, I'll try that again without the late night typos]

Hi Richard,

I agree that the apparent lack of any understanding of modernist and postmodernist procedures amongst so many people commenting on the Ihimaera saga is odd.

I don't think I'd be alone in disagreeing with your estimation of Ihimaera's work (which book or books impressed you, btw?). It wouldn't be fair to try to compare him with a more experimental writer like Frame or Graham Billing, because he's ploughing a different field, but I don't think his novels or his short stories stand up to scrutiny alongside those of fellow realists like, say, Maurice Gee or Owen Marshall.

I think Ihimaera is a second-rate writer who has had a great deal of success because he has brought the stories and experiences of his Ngati Porou iwi into mainstream literature, and because he has considerable talent as a literary entrepeneur.

Even if they are clumsy and sentimental, Ihimaera's early short stories have considerable value, because they bring new places and characters into New Zealand literature. His novels, though, show up his limitations. The Matriach embarrassed many readers who wanted him to be a better writer than he was. Nights in the Gardens of Spain was full of worthy intentions and purple prose.

Nicholas Reid has a review of The Trowenna Sea which sounds like a rehash of the more brutally honest responses to The Matriach:

Ihimaera's entrepeneurial skills and knowledge of the publishing industry have probably helped some of his creative writing students, but his commercial mindset has frustrated other students (including one of our Titus comrades-in-arms) who wanted to pursue a more experimental path.

I think that something good will come out of this sorry mess if Ihimaera's reputation is deflated.
With his early training in diplomacy and his contacts, he could probably put down his pen and pursue a career in politics or the civil service with success.

1:09 am  
Anonymous Jolisa said...

Scott, those are fantastic poems, and I have no debate whatsoever with your use of found material in them. The poems work, and that's what matters.

As does your general argument -- I've linked to it from the discussion thread over at Public Address and will be following up myself, as soon I get a chance. Thank you for weighing in so thoughtfully.

[Word verification: biles, the substances with which one digests things. How appropriate.]

4:12 am  
Blogger Edward said...

stI'm one of those who doesn't really know anything about modernist or post-modernist procedures in creative writing - in my part of academia I was just told to reference everything - but I enjoyed reading this post. I had not even thought of how it may be acceptable / part of the process in modern literature. And i'm not one of Ihimaera's defenders (truth be told i've never read one of his books - so illiterate of modern literature am I), but it did seem to me the whole thing has been a storm in a tea cup. While I think your take on it and also that of Gracewood's is good, the rhetoric I gathered from the public was that of a good-ol bit of academic bashing more than any considered critique. But then what can we expect from the NZ Heralds readership I suppose.
Anyway, again a great post. Interesting to learn new things.

9:25 am  
Anonymous mike said...

The point is well made that creative work involves all kinds of intertextuality and borrowing.

But surely the issue is partly about the inescapable warnings re. plagiarism given at universities nowadays.

Students are handed information about the consequences of plagiarism. There are detailed departmental policies on plagiarism. Various punishments and penalties are proscribed. It is surely incredible that anybody working or studying at a university to be unaware of these rules.

One suspects that an ordinary ol' creative writing student might receive rather stiffer treatment than Professor Ihimaera, if it was found they'd done they'd also assimilated texts in a non-obviously-postmodernised "quoting" kind of way.

Then again, maybe these uni departments define "plagiarism" differently from the rest.

10:22 am  
Blogger maps said...

Well, I might be making a monkey of myself, but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that I don't think we can compare an academic essay to a piece of creative writing, because they (usually) call on us to think in different ways.

When I argue that Ihimaera's novel can only be assessed aesthetically, I don't mean to suggest that art should be some sort of simple playground of the imagination, where ethical and political considerations are irrelevant.

I mean to argue that there is a difference between aesthetic judgement and the sort of calculative judgements that are made in, say, law or engineering.

The arts offer us a different way of thinking - a thinking that relies on individual judgement, that is always provisional and open to debate, and that cannot be reduced to any set of calculations or list of criteria.

I think Western capitalist societies, with their obsession with quantification and 'effiency', struggle to find a place for the type of thinking that takes place in the arts, and that this is reflected in the legalistic approach that many commentators have taken to the Ihimaera case.

There was an interesting discussion about whether or not aesthetic thinking is importantly difefrent from other types of thinking on this blog a few months ago: (see the comments under the post for some scathing attacks on yours truly for his bourgeois defence of aesthetics!)

4:53 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps - I read "Whanau" and "Pounamu Pounamu" about 1975 or so..not sure when exactly - it was one of the few "literary" books I read in those days. I haven't read anything by him since, so maybe my memory is fogged. I recall being rather moved by Whanau. I don't know if he is in the league of Keri Hulme or Maurice Gee or maybe even Patricia Grace - I read a book of hers at Uni in the 90s that was great. There is the problem of genre. Like Marshall he is a realist writer. Of that genre I do like and admire the novels of Albert Wendt that I have read.

I feel a bit sorry for Ihimaera as he (unlike me) does have to be concerned about plagiarism...I can be very theoretical (and take "liberties" as I don't rely on writing for a living, nor am I an academic) and so on - and in fact I don't plagiarize in the strict term (and to take someone's work and say it is one's own - in the wrong context is wrong (Often kudos or money are the motives - which are not those of myself or you or others who "collage" etc ... not sure I would want to put the boot into him though while he is under a cloud!

That said if what you say is true (I haven't read anything by him for about 36 years) and he opposes the more experimental writers then that is not good.

Jack Ross's EMO is I think, a major step away from this arena of "realist" writing. It pays a close study. Jack's work - taken together impresses me. He still has work to do though! (Sorry Jack - I mean I feel he is streets ahead* of Ihimarea (and even such as Maurice Gee who is great in his own way) in my book (albeit his "genre" or "modus operandi" is quite different - better here to compare Ihimaera with another writer such as Billing perhaps) ... but everyone has to progress...! That said...I feel that "Nights with Giodorno Bruno", "The Imaginary Museum", and "EMO" as well as Jack's other works - taken in totality of how they are produced, constitute a huge step forward in bringing NZ out of the dark age of simplistic realism and so on.

And I had considerable trouble getting "into" EMO...

Also Bill Direen has written some extraordinary books (and I was initially not enthusiastic about his work but that changed when I saw more of his books)

And Ted Jenner and those other writers in Morrissey's book we both read and found so interesting.

It is a pity these writers are given little publicity and lesser writers manage to get awards, University appointments, and so on.

*I am not able to evaluate Ihimaera's writing "level" as such as, as I say, I haven't read much of his work and what I have was so long ago. I must have had an emotive power however as I was quite moved by it.

5:50 pm  
Blogger Sensa said...

Thanks to Richard Taylor for his kind words about my writing. The French have a saying "Qui vole un oeuf, vole un boeuf" (someone who'd pinch an egg, would steal a cow)... but (to digress, to my other life as café-musician) since many of the songs in my current set (occasionally performed at gallery openings and tiny venues) are about thieves on the street, pimps scraping for their next meal or murderers on the scaffold, I can't disguise a sympathy for the underdog that goes beyond a passing interest in social realism. Lapses may or may not be habitual or accidental, but their cause is not the evilness of the doer. Their cause in the case of plagiarism is surely the particular working situation of the writer as it lies in relation to the expectations of the publishing industry. This may inspire petty thieving among wannabees (who wanna be part of the whole business), or the kind of lapse Witi has been open and apologetic about. PS: I should add that the voices and feelings of my bread-thieves and outsiders are probably 99% original. The songs and poems were, after all, written by such illustrious poets as Villon, Bertolt Brecht, Aristide Bruant, Cohen, James K. Baxter, Brassens, Vian, Shelley, Dylan and W. H. Auden. And yet, even these big names sometimes resort to the occasional public domain proverb, and worse.

12:11 am  
Blogger Lyndon said...

I probably shouldn't be surprised that Eliot occured to me in much the same terms.

As a shameless graphic collagist myself I was never going to come down too hard and have weird half-opinions on the academic/creative standards thing. I think at least the University should has shown themselves to be taking it seriously.

I 'try' to use sources that I'm permitted copyright-wise. But from an authorial point of view I assume the extent to which the work is my own is usually clear.

11:27 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Mappy,

Off topic but can't find a contact detail for you. Any chance of a review of the new James Baxter bio? Calling from Oz so have not seen a review of it here (or even the book for that matter).
All the best

7:25 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Villon is interesting. I have a book of (all? ) I think of his work translated by Williams Carlos Williams. He was in jail (a lot) of course.

Some interesting issues arise from this rather bizarre incident of Ihamaera's transgression!

Of course one doesn't really steal...lines are taken and reworked or rescued or repeated and fragments and perhaps whole texts but even if whole books are rewritten as with Kenneth Goldsmith's complete verbatim rewrite of an issue of the NY Times and as with Borges famous story of the writing of Don Quixote word for word (but done in a time such hat the new version is in fact a new work.)

My rewrite of The Waste Land I called The Waste Land and signed it by my own name...but it should be clear to any one what is going on - Joyce borrows (or "transforms") as does Eliot - the Langpos and many others (Kathy Acker was used for this practice of hers but her "collaging" and so on is integral to what she did) is also as if the Official Literary Establishment are 200 or maybe 2000 years behind developments in art and literature etc It seems to be a kiwi disease this tedious formulaic linear realism...although it happens also with "official verse " in other climes.

Perhaps the writing of such as Ihimaera is worked out...

12:07 am  
Anonymous mike said...

Richard - I had also been reminded of that Borges story.

But do you think there's any traction to be gained from a word-for-word rewrite of Ihimaera's "The Trowenna Sea" (plagiarized passages and all)?

Such a rewrite would perhaps improve the novel - much as Menard's "Quixote" can be deemed far superior to Cervantes. It would certainly add the theme of literary borrowing, bringing Ihimaera full circle, as it were.

8:52 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From: Stuart McCutcheon Date: 20 November 2009 3:31:21 PM
To: "''" Subject: [All-staff] Message from the Vice-Chancellor

I am communicating directly with staff and students on the matter concerning Professor Witi Ihimaera which has received considerable media publicity. Much of the public comment has been ill-informed and made in ignorance of the facts. This is notwithstanding our explanations to the media of how this matter was handled and the procedures involved.

On 3 November, Professor Ihimaera alerted the University to claims of plagiarism against him which were being investigated by the Listener. In accordance with the University’s “Guidelines for the Conduct of Research (Part 2, Procedures for Dealing with Concerns of Misconduct in Research)” his Head of Department, Professor Tom Bishop, then conducted a preliminary assessment of the allegations. This found that a small amount of material in Professor Ihimaera's novel, The Trowenna Sea, had been published without attribution or acknowledgement. On the basis of his review of the material of concern and Professor Ihimaera’s response, Professor Bishop concluded that the material had been inadvertently included in the novel without proper acknowledgement and that the instances were not sufficient to constitute misconduct as defined in these Procedures.

Plagiarism in any form is unacceptable and Professor Ihimaera has publicly acknowledged that he erred in using unattributed passages as he did. He has repeatedly apologised in public and is taking appropriate steps to remedy his error. The book has been withdrawn from sale at considerable financial cost to Professor Ihimaera. This will enable him to undertake a review of the text and to check it against the sources upon which he drew. The review will determine the acknowledgements and referencing to be included in a future edition of the book.

There have been claims in the media that Professor Ihimaera has been treated leniently and that a severe sanction, including dismissal, should have been imposed. It is also being said that different standards would have applied to a student in the same position. These claims are patently untrue. Students and staff are subject to essentially the same policies and procedures in cases of alleged plagiarism. The University does not condone plagiarism, but recognises the need to take into account a range of factors such as intention, seriousness and extent. Were a small amount of unattributed material to be discovered in a doctoral thesis, for example, the student would be required to rewrite the thesis with appropriate attribution — precisely the action Professor Ihimaera will be taking of his own volition.

The University deplores plagiarism in any form and has robust processes for dealing with allegations of academic misconduct by either staff or students. The University’s approved process for addressing allegations of staff misconduct in research was followed scrupulously in this case. To do otherwise would be to breach Professor Ihimaera’s rights as an employee of the University.

Stuart N. McCutcheon

10:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey. Dark rumour from Public Address -

So I heard a "rumour" on the weekend -- and it's not the first time that I have heard it, and from sources as reputable as you would want -- that Witi Ihimaera "farms out" the grunt work of writing his novels to a collection of minions*. He supplies the plot/narrative framework, and they flesh it out with the words.,2220,

10:51 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stuart McCutcheon is a pompous tosspot.

8:54 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Anonymous mike said...

Richard - I had also been reminded of that Borges story.

But do you think there's any traction to be gained from a word-for-word rewrite of Ihimaera's "The Trowenna Sea" (plagiarized passages and all)?

Such a rewrite would perhaps improve the novel - much as Menard's "Quixote" can be deemed far superior to Cervantes. It would certainly add the theme of literary borrowing, bringing Ihimaera full circle, as it were."

It would probably be a huge advance (or as you say it could be deemed so) - not that I have read the original. And I don't know why Goldsmith rewrote The NY Times edition as he did (perhaps he cheated and got permission?!) - but that sort of thing interests me...not that I would ever read what he wrote...

I think it is the ideas generated that give life - one doesn't really do that and claim it as one's own - but hmmm - who knows!

But my The Infinite Poem is really conceptual it isn't really to be "read" per se (it might be or it could be though, but it doesn't matter) ... it stays beautifully as an eternal idea. Although EYELIGHT (my BLog reflects it to some degree)...

1:09 am  
Blogger Richard said...

A lot of these rules such as plagiarism are for pompous wankers

Ihimaera should have told them all to get fucked..but he is probably gutless.

1:15 am  
Anonymous mike said...

Richard - Thanks for your comment. No, there would be no point in the mere exercise of re-writing or reading the rewrite.

More effective to imagine an interesting scenario of "re-writing" and then issue of a short review of the new work, Borges-style. In the review one would point out that the new - though identical - version fully develops a theme of literary borrowing that Ihimaera's original barely hints at and thus seems a more complete work of art.

Some people may think this is all a load of twaddle, but then Ihimaera will himself be reissuing "The Trowenna Sea" in 2010. It will probably be a word-for-word identical text, but in a sense not the same author. Ihimaera 2010 will be masquerading as Ihimaera 2009. The mysterious original author will lurk behind the text, unknowable, perhaps laughing at us all.

BTW, you "Infinite Poem" sounds interesting - is it inspired by Borges' "Infinite Library"?

8:22 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course poets can do strange things like borrow other texts. Poets are renowned for doing strange things. Poets are a law unto themselves. For a novelist there are different rules. No serious novelist would take a chunk of another's text and plonk it down in their own. Your analogy to Eliot is inappropriate.

10:50 am  
Blogger Richard said...

"Anonymous mike said...

Richard - Thanks for your comment. No, there would be no point in the mere exercise of re-writing or reading the rewrite."

Yes, that in itself is now old hat, so to speak.

" More effective to imagine an interesting scenario of "re-writing" and then issue of a short review of the new work, Borges-style. In the review one would point out that the new - though identical - version fully develops a theme of literary borrowing that Ihimaera's original barely hints at and thus seems a more complete work of art. ..."

Yes, to encourage engagement and co interest by all who read the work per se so that it becomes theirs as well.

" Some people may think this is all a load of twaddle, but then Ihimaera will himself be reissuing "The Trowenna Sea" in 2010. It will probably be a word-for-word identical text, but in a sense not the same author. Ihimaera 2010 will be masquerading as Ihimaera 2009. The mysterious original author will lurk behind the text, unknowable, perhaps laughing at us all. ..."

Yes. This is maybe what we can learn from Borges and maybe Kenneth Goldsmith etc

" BTW, you "Infinite Poem" sounds interesting - is it inspired by Borges' "Infinite Library"? "

Not as such although I knew that story. I have written some poems that relate to Borges or are about him the IP was originally inspired by being in a class at the Auckland Uni studying American poetry... I got interested in the Language Poets and Zukofsky and Olson and Pound and also I did a long analysis of an essay by Charles Bernstein in a Journal I did then - Michelle Leggott, Wsytan Curnow and Roger Horrocks marked or commented on the journal..I said I wanted to write a long poem about everything and Michelle Leggott commented that such a long poem already existed - ('A' by Zukofsky) which lead me to him and so on. It then started writing quotes from all sorts of sources and combining them in many different ways.
I also began what I call my Endless Book which is a long thing which is just this - it is meant only to fill a note book with words or symbols that struggle for signification of some kind I have - a particular one with rounded edges, and there are no full stops or question marks in it..and it doesnt matter what I say in the field of writing and the book is unique (theoretically it will thus never be published) ... it is so illegible- it is hand written- that I cant read much of it especially as I have lost my glasses- and it exists only as I like having it and want to fill all the pages... there is no "message" or theme as such and I often write from say my last entry which might end "...and then I..."
Now I add to that which is probably hardly related to anything before although I do look back for some phrases etc Also it was damaged by water once and those parts of it erased (or enhanced) by that real process are to be left as they are...they are part of the text I don't know why I do it.

But that isn't the IP per se ... but some of the ideas relate.

11:59 pm  
Blogger Richard said...


Here is a link to EYELIGHT which is related or based in the IP - and if you go back in time so to speak you will see writing about what I am doing on a way EYELIGHT is the IP 'acted out' so to speak.*


*But everything I write or anyone writes is potentially a part of the IP...

12:06 am  
Anonymous mike said...

Thanks Richard, I'll check it out.

8:20 am  
Blogger Richard said...

" Anonymous said...

Of course poets can do strange things like borrow other texts. Poets are renowned for doing strange things. Poets are a law unto themselves. For a novelist there are different rules. No serious novelist would take a chunk of another's text and plonk it down in their own. Your analogy to Eliot is inappropriate.


Some good points here ... but I feel that
this applies also to novelists - but novelists of the "mainstream" tend to fit your theory but nowadays the division between poetry and prose and indeed all other disciplines is more complex. Also if one were to take text from another writer - and it is done but not in the shifty (and almost sad) way Ihimaera seems to have done - it would be done in a way that was clear to an intelligent reader what was really happening or it could be discover... James Joyce transformed things in his writing. Kathy Acker was a serious writer - but certainly not mainstream -and was even sued for her use of other writings - her method is related to Burroughs and his cut ups and so on...

I don't think anyone would sign their name to a book - who was a serious writer (whatever that is) - without it at least being signaled what was being done - so the example of Borges is good - that is his fictional story about the complete re-writing of Don Quixote.

Ihimaera's theft seems kind of naive and clumsy - and pathetic for someone supposedly a major writer and an academic. I don't know his writing well enough to say with Maps that it is bad writing but it seems he erred badly here - but we all do crazy things - I don't think it really matters - he admitted what he was doing...

I think the Eliot example is a good one, that we are referring to poetry is irrelevant I feel (as poets bicker about plagiarism also): there are many examples of writers of novelists "stealing" (for good reasons, or reasons that are "philosophic" or aesthetic).

If someone steals to boost one's writing on a regular basis and so on - that would be a worry...especially if the motivation was fame, hence vanity, or money or whatever...but if one is "appropriating" or satirising or fragmenting and so on - that seems quite different - the reason for "stealing" and or reworking is the test.

4:44 pm  
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11:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and does it need the quote?

The Controlled Descent

'Imagine the history of our species as a tragedy, a Fall from innocence, lasting a single day'

the descent began

with the discovery of fire









thousand feet


reserve fuel tank crackling




clips the wing-tip


'the more sophisticated a culture

the simpler

its grammar:








at this velocity


is a form of control




of focus clouds

or ice

floes down above





count to




agriculture began at

ten in the evening




writing began

around eleven o'clock





and die


to eject



hunter gatherer

to ploughman

to pilot

to priest



as the soul leaves the body


goes into the cold


buffalo to sunflower

berry to wheat




right wing


by a vapour trail

windows wrinkled by heat


the fall of Rome

twenty minutes

before midnight


wheat to grain

grain to pyramid





into heaven


until the chute opens


the cockpit splitting

like a seed

8:50 pm  
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