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2009-11-10 | |
From The Times
November 9, 2009
The historian Ben Shephard: "quoted" by Sir Andrew Motion in his Remembrance poem
Sir Andrew Motion has been accused of âshameless burglaryâ by a military historian whose research he lifted and put into a poem about shell-shock for Remembrance Sunday.
The former Poet Laureate yesterday insisted that his use of quotations that he discovered in a history book belonged to a noble tradition of âfound poetryâ dating back to Shakespeare.
But Ben Shephard, an expert who produced The World at War for television, complained that the poet had been âextracting sexy soundbitesâ from his painstaking work on military psychiatry.
Motionâs poem, published as a tribute to war veterans in The Guardian on Saturday, uses quotations from soldiers and psychiatrists whose accounts Shephard spent ten years compiling. âHe has no right to claim any sort of legal or moral ownership of the material,â Shephard said. âThere is nothing original in this at all.â
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Motion described his poem An Equal Voice as a stitching together of voices of shell-shocked people, from a variety of sources, into âa poem by them, orchestrated by meâ.
But Shephard said: âWhat Motion actually stitched together were 17 passages from my book A War of Nerves: the âvoices from a variety of sourcesâ were not âfoundâ by Motion, but by myself. Of the poemâs eight stanzas, five consist entirely of material from A War of Nerves, very slightly rejigged; in the remaining three stanzas, extracts from the book sit alongside reworked passages from Siegfried Sassoon â the only other source used. Of the 152 lines in An Equal Voice, all but 16 are taken directly from A War of Nerves. There is a word for this. It begins with âpâ and it isnât poetry.
âThere is a further issue. My work can be lazily ripped off like this, without any recompense â what did The Guardian pay Motion for copying out my research? Yet every time I quote a line of poetry in a book, I have to pay. As most of the words here are not Andrew Motionâs â the entire first stanza, for example, is taken almost unaltered from a letter written by the American psychiatrist Thomas W. Salmon in 1917; I could list the generals, psychiatrists and soldiers whose words provide the rest of the poem â it would be obscene if Motionâs estate claimed copyright on this material. If a poetâs words are not his own, why should anyone pay to use them?
âAnd the poem itself? In War of Nerves I warned that it would be all too easy, given the nature of the subject matter, to take material out of context and âpull together a collage of horror and pathosâ. Andrew Motion has now done exactly that.â
Shephard claimed that one soldierâs reference to his âwife and kiddiesâ was ânot middle-class enough for Motionâ, so the poet had bowdlerised it into âwife and childrenâ.
Motion, the son of a lieutenant-colonel who served in the Second World War, was in defiant mood. âHe doesnât get it, does he?â, the poet said of Shephard. âThis is ridiculous. He has got completely the wrong end of the stick. To blow off about it like he has done completely misunderstands what found poetry is. It has a long pedigree, which he seems not to be aware of.â
This long and honourable tradition, the poet explained, involved quoting or rearranging existing texts to alter their emphasis. He cited Ruth Padelâs book based on the writings of her great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin, work by James Fenton and Anthony Thwaiteâs dramatic monologues in Victorian Voices.
Shakespeareâs Antony and Cleopatra borrowed whole passages from Sir Thomas Northâs Life of Mark Antony he said, including the description of her barge: âThe poop was beaten gold; purple the sails . . .â
Motion makes clear in the introduction to his Remembrance poem that its title An Equal Voice is a direct quotation from Shephard and refers to his history book by name. âIt is the case that it does give a bit more publicity for his book which has been out for eight years,â Motion said. âItâs not for me to say whether he should be grateful for that.
âI have done absolutely nothing that is underhand. As far as getting paid for it, it was always my intention to give whatever The Guardian have paid me to the organisation that exists to benefit people who have got shell-shock. I havenât said that, because it would have looked as if I am trotting about trying to find a halo.â
As for changing âkiddiesâ to âchildrenâ, Motion said that this was done to keep a consistent tone throughout the poem and avoid sentimentality.
Perhaps it amounts to nothing more than a literary misunderstanding: the historian examined the poem like a work of history and the poet read the history book as if it were a poem.
Spot the difference
From A War of Nerves by Ben Shephard (2000):
âWar from behind the lines is a dizzying jumble. Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust reports . . .â
âmarching men with grimy faces and shining eyes . . .â
âbloody clothes and leggings lying outside the door of a field hospital . . .â
âI have been in the front line so long, seen many things . . .â
From An Equal Voice by Andrew Motion (2009):
âWar from behind the lines is a dizzy jumble. Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust reports . . .â
âmarching men with sweat-stained faces and shining eyes . . .â
âbloody clothes and leggings outside the canvas door of a field hospital . . .â
âI have been away too long and seen too many things . . .â
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