Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #3, Spring & Summer, 1999]




Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist
By Neal Bowers
W.W. Norton and Co., 1997

Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske
"Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;/'Twas mine,'tis his, and has been slave to thousands/ But he that filches from me my good name/ Robs me of that which not enriches him/ And makes me poor indeed." (Othello, III.iii.)

Though these lines are spoken by the villain Iago in Shakespeare's play, Neal Bowers must feel their meaning every time he uncovers yet another forgery of his poetry. Bowers, a well-published poet and professor of English at Iowa State University, has suffered through one of a writer's worst nightmares. He has endured the audacious theft of his poetry at the hands of a cunning and calculating plagiarist who "between 1992 and 1994...had two of [Bowers'] poems accepted as his own 20 times at 19 different literary magazines."

Words for the Taking recounts in chilling detail the real poet's agonizing, though initially reluctant, search for the chameleon-like David Jones, who has taken on pseudonyms ranging from David Sumner (his most common choice) to a female persona, Diana Compton. Along the way, Bowers discovers that while he was the favorite victim, poets as well-known as Sharon Olds and Mark Strand had also had their work subjected to the plagiarist's "chop shop" wherein he immediately sawed off the title and first lines (erasing the poetic "serial numbers" to make them harder to trace in a table of contents) and altered the lines of the stolen vehicle, such as adding and substituting adornments -- similes and metaphors -- he fancied were improvements. For example, in the lovely and crafted "Tenth-Year, " a poem Bowers calls "a bittersweet bloom I planted on my father's grave," the imposter inexplicably substitutes a simile for the hands of the real poet's dead father ("his hands like Vice Grips") for Bowers' original "his hands locked dead on the wheel." Besides being a common noun requiring no capitalization, "vice grips" is hyperbolic -- too much weaponry for a subtle poem. I'm not going to say that if I were editing the journals receiving this forgery I would have refused to publish it because of a single instance of overwriting, but I'm satisfied that anyone knowing the true author's credentials would have wondered about the eccentric capitalization had it gone under his true name.

As a poet, I'm sure that when I recovered my balance from the shock of seeing my poem published under another's name, I would have been sent into another fit of reeling when I saw such ham-handed tinkering with the language. In a good poem, the right metaphors seem as inevitable to the poem as the right ending to a novel. They are as inseparable from the poem's inspiration as is the personality from the poet. While various editors, working for journals from the well-known to the obscure, come in for deserved public "spanking" in Bowers' book, at least one, Ruth Young at Primavera , while accepting the plagiarized poem, expressed very gratifying "reservations" about exactly the parts of the poem which had been tampered with. The plagiarist was also so insensitive to the poems he stole that he once took everything but the last two stanzas of another poet's work, leading Bowers to theorize that the plagiarist "failed to turn the page" [of the journal he lifted from].

One might think that such a bumbling thief would be easy to snare, but Bowers writes the entire book to demonstrate that this is not so. For example, the author also suspects, toward the end of his travail with the poetry thief, that Jones is emerging in a new guise -- a fiction plagiarist posing as researcher Paul G. Schmidt. ( One of my few quibbles with Bowers' strategy in securing justice for himself is that he simply mentions the criminal's name too often -- giving him more undeserved "press." While I can understand how it would be difficult to discuss the search for him without using his name, I think everything in me as a poet would recoil at reproducing the plagiarist's slightly altered versions of the real work, with the crook's name attached, in a book like this. As I delved into the pages, I soon learned the name of the culprit, but had to glance back at the cover a few times to remember the name of the offended party. For this reason, in this review, I will endeavor not to mention the criminal's name again.)

Early in his explanation for the composition of Words for the Taking, Bowers writes:
Mine is the tale of how a relentless plagiarist affected the life of one poet and how his activities reverberated across the literary and academic terrain,revealing fault lines. Among the people populating this landscape are personal friends and relatives, an assortment of poets and editors...various members of the legal profession...a private investigator...and a sociopathic thief.

To the forgoing admirable, though curiously "detached" authorial summary I would add that the nonfiction account contains many enticing elements of good detective fiction. The characters emerge as generally good and generally bad but also nicely complex, with depth and personality. Bowers and his wife, both sensitive and professional teachers, want desparately to put the best possible face on the faceless perpetrator who has invaded the private fortress of the author's imagination, stolen the gold, and left careless muddy footprints everywhere, daring to be discovered. At first, they find comfort in imagining that he's not bright, not the perversely attractive flamboyant Jesse James type. They also cringe to think they may be pursuing someone who will turn out to be merely pathetic: "a down and out poet manqué with a bad haircut and a quart of soured milk in the refridgerator." But with the first chilling correspondance from the plagiarist, in which the inexplicable is explained (sort of) and the unforgiveable is forgiven, they can no longer keep these somewhat palatable images. The plagiarist is not only not an innocent, but is guilty of much worse crime than Bowers and his wife are ready for. (Following Bowers' lead, I will leave some suspense for the reader about the "end" of the chase.)

At once a case study of the discovery and attempted rectification of the crime and a meditation on the implications of plagiarism for writers and publishers in general, the book appealed to me on a number of levels. Like Bowers, I am a poet and teacher of English, as well as a volunteer editor for a small cooperative press with a couple of anthologies to my credit. Perhaps most disturbing to me, though, in connection to Bowers' tale, is my role as faculty advisor to my university's student literary magazine (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater's Muse ). While we do not solicit manuscripts outside the university, as do some bigger and better-known university-based magazines, I have had to deal with one student's plagiarism and publication of another student's work. Knowing the agony that resulted in our case, (we reprinted the poem with the real author's name attached and an explanation in the next issue. I recommended that the plagiarist be proscecuted under the university's academic misbehavior policy) I was shocked at the treatment Bowers received under similar circumstances.

Cleveland State University's Whiskey Island Magazine had "a copy of the plagiarism in hand in March 1992," but the "student editors accepted the identical poem only ten days later. When [Bowers] discovered it in print and protested to the magazine's faculty advisor [he] received no response." Later, when a Cleveland Plain Dealer journalist (once journalists finally took interest in the story, Bowers found his best allies) investigated the matter, he learned that the student editor "felt awful" but "might have taken the warning more seriously except that it was a source of amusement among some of her professors and colleagues." Perhaps professional poets can wink (wince?) at students' bad judgment, but this callousness on the part of one's professional peers, who should know better, must have been crushing for the poet. Indeed, many of Bowers' acquaintances gave him advice which, when paraphrased, basically boils down to "get over yourself" and, of course, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Putting myself in the author's place, I don't think I could have persevered as long or as well as he did against these odds. I'm glad that he did.

Besides being a useful cautionary tale, the book entirely engrossed me because Bowers is a tremendously talented poet, his prose infused with illuminating and many times grimly-hilarious metaphors so that the reader gets all the facts but also feels in the marrow how this crime gnawed at the victim's life in all aspects -- his professionalism as teacher and writer, his friendships among the writerly and publishing community both locally and nationally, and his relationship with his heroically dedicated wife. Marriages have foundered under lesser stress than this all-consuming crisis of identity theft, but this couple turn their energy toward the real enemy and triumph in most important ways.

Early in the discovery of the extent of his loss to the "tape-worm" plagiarist, the poet begins to encounter what could only have seemed bizarre reactions from his colleagues and friends. He endures suspicion of his motives for pursuing the criminal and blundering "it-could-be-worse" consolation of the type evoked in the old saw "I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no legs." And Bowers admits that plagiarism is not a capital offense, but rather "probably doesn't hold its own alongside the lesser felonies, as...anyone who has had his life savings stolen by a con artist will attest." But for a man who wakes up one morning with neither legs nor shoes, who doesn't even realize that the theft has taken place until a kind stranger alerts him that he has fallen out of bed, another's worse condition is, understandably, pretty thin soup. Bowers' own comparison of his plight to that of a "mark" in a con game is apt in other ways too. Rather than be involved in the messy, painful, inconvenient and downright embarassing task of setting things right, a shocking number of editors displayed both callousness and cruelty. The editor of Poetry Forum, Gunvor Skogsholm at the time, is quoted scolding Bowers for his lack of immodesty: "It's my strongly felt opinion that a good poet by nature ought to possess humbleness and that he or she ought not to think to [sic] highly of him -- or herself....those have always been the personal traits associated with a POET" [capitalization is apparently Skogsholm's]. As a poet who has received some less than courteous treatment from a couple of editors, I cannot even fathom how outraged Bowers must have felt at this rude and insulting lecturing.

Hoping to do a good deed for another poet and maybe gain a little consolation from a fellow sufferer, Bowers writes to Mark Strand to alert him of the theft of one of Strand's poems. This ex-Poet Laureate shrugs off the fact of his own victimhood, saying "I heard from some magazine about [the thief's] plagiarism...I really didn't care....It is, however too bad -- and very sad. I don't think he can build much of a career with plagiarized poems." Bowers is totally perplexed at this seeming nonchalance, but the "scam victim" mentality is very well documented. People who have been bilked are often very loathe to admit that it could happen to them. Good cons rely on that reluctance.

Like a good detective-fiction writer, Bowers withholds some of the most dramatic results of his search until nearly the end of the book. I was reading selected very funny and very shocking passages of the book aloud to my husband as I breathlessly rushed ahead to see not "whodunnit?" but "howdidhedunnit forsolong and tosomany?" My husband asked the same questions as the ones which hover over the book, dragging the reader on: "Who WAS the guy, really?" and "How does it turn out?" I was truly frightened along with the author and his wife as they determine that justice demands that they continue in their pursuit of the slippery villain, even though they think many times that they and their lawyer and a private detective have flushed him, captured him, and extracted the signing of a statement of culpability. The author makes five simple and reasonable demands (though the plagiarist keeps teasing them with diabolical groveling fawning, and pitiable letters -- and small amounts of cash) which it appears for a while are being met. Yet, as the net begins to descend, the Bowers feel themselves becoming entangled psychologically to an extent they thought impossible at the onset of their search.

Bowers worries (and who wouldn't?) if there is something about his own very personal poems concerning the poet's ambiguous relationship with his now-deceased father which caused the thief to single Bowers out as his favorite "mark" to plagiarize. Trained in literary analysis, he and his wife drive themselves nearly to distraction trying to figure motives. It is a common failing among English teacher types -- after all, we ply this symbol-hunting trade for a living. Only the intercession of a wise psychologist friend awakens them somewhat. She points out that one cannot approach abnormal personalities on the basis of what sane people do and think.

I felt an array of emotions at the conclusion of Words for the Taking : fear, since there is no way to safeguard one's work from theft; sorrow, that an innocent person had to endure such emotional and financial damages just to restore partial justice (the attorney's bill alone was over $4,000); and gratitude, that Bowers has expended this much of his time and talent to recount what can only be a demoralizing nightmare when he, like most poets, probably just wants to be left alone to write poetry. Perhaps it will be some consolation that there are some of us who think that poetry is extremely important, who "demand on the one hand/ the raw material of poetry in/ all its rawness and/ that which is on the other hand/ genuine..." (Marianne Moore, "Poetry")

[Order Words for the Taking from Amazon.com.]

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Gay Davidson-Zielske, a poet and editor, teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.


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