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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary essay



Words for the Taking

by
Neal Bowers


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Words for the Taking



Title: Words for the Taking
Author: Neal Bowers
Genre: Essay/Autobiography
Written: 1997
Length: 143 pages
Availability: Words for the Taking - US
Words for the Taking - UK
Words for the Taking - Canada
  • The Hunt for a Plagiarist

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Our Assessment:

A- : a fascinating study of the frustrations of being plagiarized

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Salon A 12/27/1996 Stephanie Zacharek
TLS . 28/2/1997 James Campbell
The Washington Post . 1/1/1997 Jonathan Yardley

  From the Reviews:
  • "(W)hat's really fulfilling about Words for the Taking is the way Bowers, almost without trying, affirms poetry as valuable work, forged more out of sweat than of divine inspiration, and deserving of fierce protection." - Stephanie Zacharek, Salon

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       There are few baser, more contemptible souls on this earth than plagiarists. Pathetic little copyists, trying to take credit that is not their due, they are among the lowest of the low.
       Neal Bowers, a poet of some repute, is sent a poem that a colleague thinks is his -- but published under a different name. Bowers recognizes it as one he has previously published. The title is different, and a few small changes have been made, but it is obvious that the alleged author -- "David Sumners" -- stole Bowers poem. So begins the saga.
       It turns out that this, and several other poems by Bowers have been published by this "David Sumners". Bowers isn't the only poet the bastard steals from -- he takes credit for poems by Mark Strand and Sharon Olds, among others, as well -- but he seems to have a thing for Bowers' style, and it seems that he latched onto the author. In painful detail Bowers describes the frustration of trying to hunt down the fakes, trying to hunt down Sumners, and trying to lay claim to his creations again.
       Sumners is a devious bastard, planning his plagiarism carefully. Bowers actually finds him relatively quickly (with the help of a P.I. and a lawyer), but he does not get the satisfaction of an admission of guilt or comprehensive retractions of Sumner's submissions. Sumners takes steps towards making Bowers whole, but he only goes halfway.
       It is a fascinating and horrible little story. As it happens Sumners is a true psychopath, involved in one of the few activities even lower than plagiarism (he is, according to Bowers, a convicted child molester), and Bowers actually shows admirable restraint in not going for this scumbag's jugular.
       There are many fascinating aspects to the book. Most shocking is the general reaction of others regarding the horrendous crime perpetrated against Bowers. Few people take it very seriously, and Bowers is forced into a defensive position (even though he has been wronged and violated in the most offensive non-physical manner thinkable, the vilest sort of mental sodomy). Editors and even other poets tell him not to take it so seriously -- or that he should be flattered !
       Bowers restraint is remarkable. We do think, however, that his efforts were misplaced. While it was necessary to ascertain Sumner's identity, whereabouts and modus operandi the ones to go after are, of course, the poetry publications that published the ripped-off pieces. This is what temporary restraining orders are made for. If somebody had used Mickey Mouse's likeness without authorization, is there any doubt that Disney would sue (and easily win a judgment against) the magazine publishing the likeness, rather than the artist that had copied the likeness ? Sure, a single successful suit of this sort puts your average poetry magazine out of business -- but then isn't that just an added benefit ?
       Bowers even cites instances of magazines that were apprised of the fact that they were publishing plagiarized work, providing them with extensive documentation proving his claims -- and they still went ahead and published the stolen goods. A suit would have destroyed these magazines, and it would have certainly gotten people's attention. (It is the magazines that are responsible for what is published in their pages. Contracts with authors in which authors attest that they are the creators of the work provide redress for the magazines if and when they are sued for publishing plagiarized work (i.e. they can then sue the authors in turn) -- but they are first in the line of fire.)
       Bowers is himself a poetry magazine editor, so presumably he has a soft spot for these rags and their editors. Nevertheless, we think that is the way he should have gone. Bowers does find some support in the poetry community -- there are some (generally big-time) editors who are helpful and supportive, but Bowers only finds a true wave of support when the press picks up the story. Journalists don't understand much, but as Bowers correctly points out, they do understand plagiarism.
       The general reaction to the acts of plagiarism is what is most troublesome throughout the book. Even Bowers opines that any plagiarist must be a poor, deluded nut, deserving of some sympathy -- a completely mistaken view. Some plagiarists, like Sumner, may be, in some form, mentally off, but any act of plagiarism is inexcusable and no plagiarist deserves one iota of sympathy. Sumner's creative explanations of how he came to do what he did might sound vaguely plausible, but fortunately Bowers sees through them. There is never any excuse for plagiarism. (To be clear, there are differences between creative appropriation, as practiced by T.S.Eliot and everyone else, and what Sumner did. Creative appropriation is a much more complex question; plagiarism of the Sumner sort is straightforward and unacceptable.)
       One other concern we had is that this book provides its wicked anti-hero with exactly the attention he craves. There is no way around that, we know, but it is a typical American tale of how to achieve celebrity.
       The coda to the book is also worrisome -- the plagiarist is still out there, now submitting works of fiction under yet another pseudonym. And he has a great excuse when he gets caught: it is an experiment, to see how many editors recognize the famous stories he is submitting.

       Plagiarism is a sticky subject, but we'll take this opportunity to add our two cents to the discussion. We believe in the primacy of the artwork, and we actually don't like the notion of authorship. It shouldn't matter who the author of a work is. Poems (and novels and all the rest) are like our children: we've created them, but as soon as we have they become independent entities. We like to exert some control over them, but most of that is illusory: they are their own beings.
       That said we still think it is unacceptable for another person to claim authorship of one's creation. However, in this instance what disturbed us even more than the simple theft was that Sumner made small changes to the poems -- to escape detection, it seems. Stealing is vile, but fiddling with the artwork is beyond sin.
       We also think the author should get what benefits he can from his efforts. Yes, in the case of poetry remuneration is barely worth mentioning, but publication and attribution also bring their own reward -- and no two-bit thief deserves these.
       Admittedly, there are other feelings of ambiguity regarding this case specifically. There is way too much poetry in this world (we're using the term poetry very loosely here) and it is hard to take almost any of what is now being written seriously. In particular, to our embarrassment, we found the few examples of Bowers' poetry instantly forgettable and barely even second-rate (though admittedly Sumner's changes made them even worse). We can understand why they seem catchy and caught the eyes of so many editors -- but this is not stuff that will outlast this generation, or indeed stuff that need ever have been published, regardless under whose name. Sumner's choice of this poet to fixate on is perhaps the most bizarre thing about this whole situation -- perhaps he figured that his crime would not be noticed if merely added to the morass of mediocre poetry filling all these poetry-journal pages.

       All in all a fascinating and horrific story -- horrific because we feel Bowers' impotence, his inability to get his due, Sumner getting off practically scot-free, and the incomprehensible reactions of so many who are themselves involved in the poetry industry. Bowers may not be much of a poet, but this is a well-written, informative, and surprisingly tempered account of an impossible situation. (Please note that others disagree with our opinion of Bowers' poetry -- he's won a bucket-load of awards and they actually let him teach the subject at Iowa State. Just another indication of the pathetic state of modern poetry is how we read that, but that's just our opinion .....)

       Highly recommended

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Links:

Reviews: Neal Bowers: Other books of interest under review:
  • Don Foster's tale of literary forensics, Author Unknown, in which he describes trying to identify Anonymous and others
  • See Index of Literary Essays

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About the Author:

       American poet Neal Bowers was born in 1948. He teaches at Iowa State University. He has received numerous literary prizes.

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© 1999-2010 the complete review

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