Alyson Miller teaches Writing and Literature at Deakin University, Melbourne.

Ramshackle Girls and Sleuthing Gatekeepers

Poetry, plagiarism, and the critical art of theft

By examining contemporary scandals in poetry, including those involving Ailey O’Toole, Andrew Slattery, Pierre DesRuisseaux, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Sheree Mack, this paper explores how plagiarism reveals a series of conceptual and practical fissures, not only about form, but also privilege, trauma, and truth. In doing so, it will make two key arguments: firstly, that contemporary poetry plagiarism is deeply problematic due to its imbrication with notions of identity, as evidenced by a spate of controversies concerning the theft of traumatic narratives, especially those relating to race. Secondly, plagiarism scandals are nonetheless efficacious, able to expose the power structures of literary culture, and highlight the contradictory nature of poetic practices which utilise a Romantic vision of ‘authorised appropriation’ which, as Michael Wiley notes, is often plagiarism in disguise, a form of codified stealing (2008: 220). Moreover, via its framing as ‘a threat, a fear, a panic, a plague’, plagiarism is a subversive force, able to unravel and challenge ‘cultural laws of authenticity and composition’ (Groom 2002: 27, 25). Indeed, instances of plagiarism prove most provocative not in the detecting and denunciation of a literary thief, but in the revelation of the complex and often paradoxical politics which surface from the effects of fraudulence.

Keywords: plagiarism; poetry; authorised theft; trauma; gatekeepers