Flogging a dead pigeon

Hands up who remembers me being rather unkind about a poem about the passenger pigeon that appeared in the London Review of Books in August. Basically, I accused the poet of having cut various factoids about the passenger pigeon from assorted books and websites, and pasted them into a ready-made 'poem'. To show how easy I thought it was, I then used the same technique to generate my own poetic masterpiece about Bolivia.

Well, all joking aside, it turns out I was right: Mark Ford, the assembler of the passenger pigeon poem, has written an article in the latest edition of the LRB, entitled Love and Theft, in which he tries to draw a line between bricolage (a new word for me) and plagiarism. Here is a little bricolage of my own, formed from some of the choicest snippets of Ford's article [my emphasis added]:

…Already web skills are playing an important role in the evolutionary struggle for survival. Will future historians turn first to the wrist and clicking finger in assessing a corpse from our era? Will those who develop RSI be the information revolution’s lepers? How soon before our relatively recently acquired skills become as obsolete as the ability to kill a mammoth with a spear or write shorthand or programme a VCR?

I found myself pondering all this while writing a poem about the demise of the passenger pigeon, which was published in the LRB (5 August)…

[M]y experience of swooping down and roosting on various websites in search of facts about the passenger pigeon brought to mind another [Wallace] Stevens poem, ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’, which is also concerned with extinction:

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill…

The children blithely picking up the bones of their ancestors, unaware of and indifferent to the sensual fullness of being they once enjoyed, seemed to me to act in a way analogous to my behaviour in cyberspace, hopping from site to site, converting whatever I picked up to a flickering simulacrum of itself, to what Stevens, in the same poem, calls ‘a tatter of shadows’…

My passenger pigeon poem acknowledges that the information it contains has been gleaned from the internet, but it also deploys the Sterne/Burton defence by taking in some allusions, including…

[And so on.]

At the risk of being even unkinder to Mr Ford than I already have been, I couldn't help wondering whether this internet-hopping poet hadn't, perhaps, searched Google for comments about his passenger pigeon poem, come across my article (which is currently on the first page of hits), and thought to himself Bloody hell! The gaff's blown! I've been rumbled! I'd better write a piece acknowledging my cut and paste job before this thing goes ballistic! (or words to that effect).

But, no, I think that would be being a little bit too unkind.


1 thought on “Flogging a dead pigeon

  1. Presumably, as Ford helpfully quotes in his first paragraph, "If some instances of copying be proved against him, they will detract nothing from his genius..."

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