Fake news, plagiarism, and liberal poets

Fake news, plagiarism, and liberal poets universally loved by their mirrors
By Eddie Vega

There is no deadlier bullet than a wicked truth and no sharper bayonet than a subversive poem. That may sound odd, but only because you are reading this in a U.S. publication. It is one thing to be a poet in a country that does not know you even exist—no matter how much you publish or what and how many awards you win. It is quite another to be a poet where poetry matters. Consider Benjamin Moloise in South Africa, Hashem Shaabani in Iran, Warsame Shire Awale of Somalia, all executed by the state for their verse, or Susana Chávez of Mexico, who was murdered and mutilated for her poems decrying the murderous violence against women by drug cartels in Ciudad Juárez.

In those countries poetry gives powerful people night sweats. Which makes them want to shoot poets, not with tropes but with copper-tipped bullets, or to cut them down not with cultivated conceits but with poorly sharpened machetes, or to hang them with ropes that leave ligature marks on corpses. That’s how the poets there die, not in some retirement home for professors who spent entire careers writing about how their parents left them alone for too long with the nanny who kissed like a lapping dog or how shafts of light are sharper in October than in August, or how a close wet shave inspired thoughts of Ulysses sailing between the razor thin margins of Scylla and Charybdis. In our country, the worst they face is a critical review.

Most reviews of U.S. poetry get as much notice as the poems themselves because they tend to be efforts at selling the book rather than of offering insight about the merits of the work. In fact, some poetry reviews have been rejected by editors because there was nothing in the review that would make readers want to buy the book. When that is the standard of review, what readers often get are highly placed, smarter than the average bear, Amazon-style five-star reviews by family and friends of the poet.

Not so with William Logan, the most astute, incisive, and courageous reviewer of poetry alive today. He writes about poetry like it mattered; like it was worth your life if you got caught writing it. And if it’s worth dying over, it had damn well be good and true.

Case in point: the recent poetry book by Jill Bialosky, How Poetry Saved My Life. It is not a book worth dying for, and a book that despite its title is unlikely to save one.

In a recent review of the Bialosky book, Logan identified several problems, mostly poor writing and critical thinking. But it was the bombshell discovery that Bialosky plagiarized extensively in her book that shocked the U.S. publishing establishment—Bialosky is a senior editor at W.W. Norton, a major publishing house known for poetry textbooks—and caught the attention of literary rubberneckers in every market where English language newspapers are available, which is to say, everywhere.

(I won’t waste column space providing the salacious details when they are mere clicks away: Google Logan Bialosky Plagiarism Tourniquet Review.)

Why does this particular review matter? It’s only poetry, after all? It’s because in the age of fake news and monumental efforts to factor out the idea that there’s such a thing as Truth or that there can be even simple commonly accepted facts, it hurts our democracy when a noted poet and editor—in fact the sole recognized arbiter of what poetry gets published at Norton—plagiarizes like no one was watching.

It doesn’t matter that she did it in the backwaters of corporate media. It doesn’t matter that she did it in the safest genre for Americans to write in because of poetry’s negligible political and societal impact. It matters because the Norton editor undermined the only thing that sustains poetry across generations: pitiless adherence to Truth.

Unlike other countries where the practice of poetry increases the chance of a brutal and violent death, here poets ordained by the publishing industry can complain only of stinging reviews and tarnished reputations. The horror. The horror.

But that’s only true when there are literary critics, such as Logan, who know, really know what’s at stake and are willing to suffer the blowback from the subjects of their criticism and those invested in them. To attack the Queen Bee is to attack the entire hive that depends on her.

Following a NY Times story about the Logan review which focused on Bialosky’s plagiarism, 72 writers, about half of whom had published works with Norton, responded with a letter to The Times: “72 Friends of Literature, in Defense of the Poet Jill Bialosky.” They claimed: The Times, by giving a large platform to a small offense, has tainted the reputation of this accomplished editor, poet and memoirist.

I read that last sentence with some amusement. No. Scratch that. I laughed so hard I had a heart attack. I’m fine now. Thank you.

The signers—headed by Kimiko Hahn and David Baker—are ideological liberals, universally loved by their mirrors, who in this particular instance found common ground with Donald Trump: The New York Times is fake news.

In this instance the Times is not fake news. It reported the very real news that Bialosky had plagiarized extensively, and if it seems a small offense, it is so only because so few people care enough about poetry in this country to hold poets accountable when they present work as original that was crafted by someone else or when they publish original but mendacious gibberish. But let’s be clear about the former: there is no worse sin a writer can commit than plagiarism.

In his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” William Carlos Williams famously wrote that people died miserably every day for lack of what is found in poetry. I don’t know if Williams was right on that point. Certainly people die every day without the consolation of poetry, or religion, or a last meal. But is there something that poetry offers without which people would physically die and that they can’t get from any other source? Something as critical as news about a coming Cat 5 hurricane, or a warning label on a box found in a nuclear power plant? Williams thought so—and Bialosky premised her book on that dear and precious idea. I don’t know. But I do know this and know it with certainty: people die every day for lack of many things, but no one ever dies for lack of plagiarism.