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The case for plagiarism, from a celebrated poet who has made a career out of it

Reuters/Brendan McDermid
A little creative plagiarism can go a long, powerful way.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Imagine Melania Trump getting up on stage at the Republican National Convention and robotically performing Michelle Obama’s speech word-for-word and action-for-action, in its entirety, without breaking character. Picture her rehearsing for weeks for the performance of her life, getting every hand gesture, facial tick, and vocal intonation just right. It would’ve been the most original move she could have made—far more original than trying to pass off someone else’s words as her own.

Could there have been any greater compliment than to perform Michelle’s 2008 speech, start to finish, like a Led Zeppelin tribute band faithfully replicating “Stairway to Heaven?” If she had done this, the responses would have been more varied than the predictable ones she got. Just think of the rich conversations that could have started.

Some might have thought it the perfect critique of the hypocrisy of the Obama White House, a long-standing theme of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Others would argue whether it was, in fact, a glorious paean to the current first lady; after all, Melania has expressed great admiration for her.

What would that gesture have said about race? Right now, some feel that by swiping Michelle’s words without attribution, Melania committed an unsavory act of cultural appropriation. But had this been Melania’s clear plan from the outset, might it have been looked at as an homage rather than theft?

And what of gender? Could Melania’s performance have been a woman-to-woman bipartisan bridge, acknowledging what they share, rather than what divides them? Might she have been whispering a secret critique about the powerful yet constricted role of the American first lady, whose best chance of impact is traditionally the adoption of “causes?”

In the cutthroat world of politics, the type of admiration that Melania would’ve shown for Michelle by copying her whole speech verbatim would have been rare. Had she done the “full Michelle” instead of a mere 7%, I would have called her tribute downright refreshing. But because she didn’t cop to her plagiarism, we can’t indulge these fantasies. Instead, we’re once again back in the swampy waters of authenticity and originality.

Every time someone is caught plagiarizing, there’s the same dance of denial, cover-up, finger-pointing, shame, and apologies. In our cut-and-paste world, words, ideas, and artifacts are shared, remixed, spammed, swiped, attributed, misattributed, contextualized, recontextualized, and miscontextualized with the push of button.

In a sense, our words, our stories, and our images are no longer ours, nor can we expect them to be. As part of the great sea of shared culture, they are phished, scooped, reblogged, retweed, regrammed, and reposted ad infinitum.

Over the past two decades, I’ve been well rewarded for my plagiarism. I’ve written scores of books that I didn’t write. I’ve retyped newspapers and transcribed sports broadcasts verbatim that are still under copyright. I’ve even appropriated traffic reports, some of which I was invited to read to president Barack Obama at the White House.

Depending on what I choose to appropriate, by using other people’s words, I’m able to deconstruct everything from authorship to media. And I’ve never even come close to being sued. Instead, these gestures foreground appropriation as a critical strategy—but I always admit this strategy from the outset. When you admit plagiarism, you unleash a series of complex questions that render simple binaries of right versus wrong, or good versus bad, inadequate.

Then again, I am a poet, and this is the freedom and beauty of poetry. Politics, however, is another matter. The poet W.H. Auden famously claimed that poetry makes nothing happen, which is the exact opposite of politics, where real lives and real consequences are at stake.

(A quick aside to illustrate this point: During my visit to the White House, I wore a loud and outrageous paisley suit. The president said, “I would love to wear a suit like that, but my advisors would never let me,” to which I replied, “Well, Mr. President, with all due respect, that is just one of the many reasons why being an artist is better than being the president of the United States.”)

At this professional level, authorial confusion is par for the course. Obama regularly copies his speechwriter’s work out in longhand on legal pads in pencil. “It helps organize my thoughts,” he says. In a way, by copying out someone else’s words and then performing them, they authentically become his.

So was Michelle speaking her “own words” back in 2008? No, she was performing someone else’s words; a speech crafted by a professional speechwriter—perhaps with some of her own input—but not dissimilar to the way Melania performed hers. The greatest speeches are nearly always ghostwritten, but on the record they are attributed to the speaker, not to the writer, which skews traditional notions of authorship.

It’s not that we lack the capacity to understand this: From file-sharing to gaming to trolling to fictitious online personas, our everyday lives are saturated with creative, playful artifice. But we’re schizophrenic, embracing this and all the complexity it entails on one hand, yet quick to call out what we perceive to be a breach of authenticity on the other.

We’ve ended up in precisely the situation predicted by French philosopher Roland Barthes a half-century ago. He claimed that an artifact’s primary characteristic is “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.” And isn’t that the very nature of “the web?”

The moment we enter into the digital arena, all bets are off. The internet is one big copying machine—trying to discern the true origin of anything in it is nearly impossible. We spend all day long immersed in this replicative environment, yet we still somehow demand our leaders to express untrammeled authenticity when we ourselves are amalgams of preexisting ideas and materials.

Barthes and other French critical theorists expounded on the instability and fluidity of language, informing us that the meaning of words can change in a moment’s notice, depending on their context. What unsurprisingly ensued between Melania Trump and her speechwriter Meredith McIver was a textbook example of those slippages resulting in an old-fashioned game of telephone, which was literally played out on an old medium: the telephone.

It appears that while on a phone call about the upcoming convention, Melania read from Michelle’s speech while McIver furiously transcribed what she heard, forgetting to note where the sources came from. When it came time to cobble the speech together from her mélange of notes, they got thrown into the mix without attribution.

McIver’s speechwriting is an example of “patchwriting,” which is a way of weaving together various shards of other people’s words into a tonally cohesive whole. It’s a trick students unknowingly use all the time when they rephrase a Wikipedia entry into their own words to fool professors into thinking that they wrote a paper themselves.

For the past decade, I’ve taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania called “Uncreative Writing.” In it, students are encouraged to adopt strategies of plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing—constraints that are taboo in their normal academic study.

At first they chafe, adding small “creative” flourishes that make their works more “original.” But in the end, to their surprise, they learn is that choice is authorship; that the careful repurposing of words that are not your own can be a satisfying creative act, full of self-expression and emotion. Each time they chose a text to appropriate, there was a reason—for behind every responsible act of appropriation is a story. It’s a shame that we’ve criminalized this mode of writing instead of admitting it into our writing toolbox alongside more conventional strategies.

So until we culturally decriminalize plagiarism, we’ll just repeat these same tired dramas. If we continue to finger-wag and name-call without progression, we’ll replay the same scandal without ever changing the conversation.

In a culture where most pop songs are constructed of samples and the clothes we wear are fast-fashion knockoffs, when will we finally be able to admit that a copy might be as good as—or even better than—the original?

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