For thirty years I was an English teacher, and I always had trouble explaining the concept of “plagiarism” to my students. As someone once said “Plagiarizing is stealing from one person, research is stealing from a lot of people.”
There are obvious cases -- the student who downloads an entire essay -- or a paragraph that he inserts into his essay -- and then he tries to pass the whole thing off as written by him. That is plagiarizing, swallowing & regurgitating.
However, what Bob Dylan did is different. Bob Dylan wrote “More frailer than the flowers these precious hours.” One (out of possibly a million?) listeners noticed a striking similarity between Dylan’s words & the words of Henry Timrod, a relatively obscure Civil War Poet. Henry Timrod wrote “A round of precious hours, oh here, where in that summer I basked & strove, with logic frailer than the flowers..” Dylan, in his autobiography, admitted spending long hours studying Civil war Material. He must have come across Timrod, he must have read Timrod’s words, perhaps he even copied the words down.
Whenever I come across something that is particularly well written, I copy it into my notebook. Copying words down makes me remember the exact words better, and I do want to remember these words because the person said it so well.
Do I copy down who wrote these words? No. Where I found them? No. Why? Because all that takes too much time, and because all that information clutters the pages of my notebooks -- and I need blank space around the words I just jotted down. Once those words are on my page, I can arrange & rearrange them.
All you need to do is look at a brilliant book about Picasso: “Picasso’s Picassos.” The progression of paintings shows Picasso at play. He would, more or less, paint on to his canvass a copy of a famous painting. Painting number two in the series would show shapes, object, colors, moved around rearranged. Painting three would show a further variation.
All of my life I saw, in Museums, in books on painting, only the final version of a series. It looked strikingly odd: odd shapes, odd colors, it made no sense, but it was, in its way, powerful. This book made clear what all artists do, they play & the final product of their playful skill is seen by us, not stage two or three or four. And their play often begins with the words, or paintings, created by others.
My notebooks are full of the lovely words I copied down because I could then play with these great words, use these great words in an essay somewhere, someday ("Immature artists plagiarize: mature artists steal.")
In the late 1500s, when printers sought to make a living selling books, they were known to steal a few lines and sometimes long passages, word-for-word, from someone’s journal that was being passed from friend to friend.
Was the author of the stolen words displeased, angry? On the contrary, he was immensely flattered. I wrote these words; you were so in love with my words that you copied them down word for word. Best of all, you published my words in a book! Angry? No. Immensely pleased? Yes. Plagiarism? Stealing? “Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.” The true aim of all authors is to have their words heard, read. If they are not given credit, well that should not be what writers aim for -- and clearly personal fame was not paramount in the 1500’s.
One of the most memorable essays I ever wrote centered around the phrase “killer cows.” I compared cars to cows in India: both can roam freely. No one can curtail their movement. Cows are worshiped in India; cars are worshiped in America. But the object we worship kills almost 50,000 people per year: hence, killer cows.
Perhaps ten years later I came across my heavily underlined copy of “The Pedestrian Revolution” (A brilliant, for-long-now-out-of-print book), and there was the very concept I was so proud: cars, like cows in India, are worshiped, but cars kill….
I had no idea I had stolen these words from someone else. Or more correctly, I am always stealing (“Originality: remembering what someone told you, forgetting who it was who told it to you“). I steal from everyone & everywhere, but I don’t bother trying to remember who it was who said these lovely words I copied down into my notebook.
Bob Dylan admitted a long time interest in the Civil war. In his autobiography Dylan wrote “I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, and left it alone.” Perhaps Dylan did more than “lock it away” in his mind. Perhaps Bob Dylan did what I do: he copied the words into a notebook.
Scholars take the time & effort, to make correct, detailed, minute, attributions. Creative artists are spinning a web & will use any filament they find. It should be obvious that if this filament leads a reader to the words of the original writer of the filament, both the original writer & the borrower will be pleased. I have led you to a person whose writing I love so much; I stole some of his words, almost word for word.
One of the people writing about this controversy said (and notice, I will give you this persons exact words, but my notebook does not tell me the person‘s name, or where I found it): “Plagiarism wants you NOT to know the original; allusion wants you to know.”
Those are great words because of the double meaning in the second phrase. First, plagiarizers, those who have stolen long passages from another person, do not want you to know that so little of what they wrote is theirs -- and they don’t want you to know who the original writer was. You might go to the original & find other passages they stole -- or you might find that much more than words were stolen. Basically, plagiarism is an attempt to hide all original sources: finding the original will almost definitely diminish the stature of the copy.
Allusion wants you to know. Bob Dylan is pleased you found his source, the writer whose words he stole, and Dylan is not the least bit afraid that his stature will diminish, the power of his poetry will be dimmed, by the fact that you, & others, now know that he is, as others have pointed out, a magpie.
One of the greatest plays of all time, The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, was written in the late 1500’s, that period of time where people loved to have their words stolen and broadcast to others -- without proper attribution. As a student in class I was told that many lines found in Webster’s plays were lines written by other people -- and copied into his own notebook. Webster’s plays are no less powerful for containing the words of others. In fact, his play are made more powerful because of the wise use of the great words uttered by others. Our professor said that Webster’s greatest, most memorable, most quoted line -- “Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle: she died young” -- was a line cobbled together from the words of others found in his notebooks.
Allusion also wants you to know in the literal sense -- “To Know“ to be enlightened by the words. Writers will steal from anyone in order to make their poem better: As Faulkner said: “If a writer has to rob his mother he will not hesitate. The Ode on A Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.”
Allusion rewards writer & reader. The writer has gained the power that resides in the well crafted words of others, and the reader is both better informed & encouraged to go find out more
In my case it took a long time to let go of the concept of “I Want The Credit.” I want you to know I said that.
Two incidents calmed me down forever. In one case, I wrote a letter to the editor which was published in the local paper. I mentioned that in some small cities certain businesses have helped finance public transportation by paying a certain sum of money for every passenger dropped off at their mall. Less than a week later the newspaper reported that at last night’s a city commission meeting one of the city commissioners suggested we “ask local businesses to help fund public transportation….” Was I given credit? No. was I angry? Yes…., but then I realized that my real aim was to get the businesses to contribute. This was accomplished. Did I need credit? Would getting credit help the idea? No.
Second example. Ten years later The board of Trustees at my college was considering a faculty buyout, and I was just at the point when I wanted to retire, to take advantage of the buyout. They were waffling. It didn’t look like they would do it this year, and I needed it this year. I wrote them a one page letter in which I stressed that this was a “win-win” situation: they would be doing something nice for their long time faculty, so the faculty would in a sense win, receive a nice severance package, but they, the Trustees & the College would also win. In the long run the College would save money because the newly hired faculty would cost them so much less in benefits & salary.
A week later a Board of trustees member was quoted as saying “This is a win-win situation." Do you understand that “credit” for an idea is secondary (“If you want credit, nothing will ever be done; if you do it, no one will ever give you proper credit.”)
When he was alive, Henry Timrod sought credit, wanted people to know he was the writer of those words. But Timrod is dead, his words long forgotten. Were it not for Bob Dylan, none of us would be reading any words written by Henry who?