deer

Nige on how the sight of a deer inspired a prize-winning poem which ‘inspired’ another prize-winning poem…

We retroprogressives have long relished the fact that Britain’s deer population is back up to medieval levels – but now the news gets even better: the deer population, according to the latest research, is the highest it’s been since the last Ice Age. Naturally this news has its down side, as deer populations this large do damage their environment, especially in woodland (last year a cull of 50 per cent was being called for). Is a new age of cheap venison on the way? Don’t hold your breath…

Despite this burgeoning population, deer remain elusive creatures, and seeing one is always a bit magical, like an encounter with a creature from another age. Menaces to the environment though they may be, they are beautiful to the eye and seem to walk in a kind of enchanted air, in a world very much their own, to which we can have no access.

Many poets have written about deer – none more hauntingly perhaps than Edward Thomas in Out in the Dark And then there was one deer poem that was so good it was, by some mysterious process, written twice. Behold – here is The Deer by Helen Mort, which won the Cafe Writers Open Poetry Competition in Norwich in 2009:

The deer my mother swears to God we never saw,
the ones who stepped between the trees
on pound-coin coloured hooves,
I brought them up each teatime in the holidays
and they were brighter every time I did;
more supple than the otters that we waited for
at Ullapool, more graceful than the kingfisher
that darned the river south of Rannoch Moor.
Then five years on, in the same house, I rose
for water in the middle of the night and watched
my mother at the window, looking out
to where the forest lapped the garden’s edge.
From where she stood, I saw them stealing
through the pines, and they must have been closer
than before, because I have no memory
of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur
their eyes, like hers, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.

And here is The Deer at Exmoor, which won the Hope Bourne poetry prize for Christian Ward in 2011:

The deer my father swears to God we never saw,
the ones who stepped between the trees
on pound-coin coloured hooves,
I brought them up each teatime in the holidays
and they were brighter every time I did;
more supple than the otters we waited for
at the River Exe, more graceful than the peregrine
falcon landing at Bossington Beach.
Then five years on, in the same house, I rose
for water in the middle of the night and watched
my father at the window, looking out
to where the forest lapped the garden’s edge.
From where he stood, I saw them stealing
through the trees, and they must have been closer
than before, because I have no memory
of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur
their eyes, like his, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.

Not surprisingly this remarkable coincidence caused a bit of a kerfuffle in poetry circles, with Christian Ward professing himself ‘deeply sorry’, while asserting that it was all a mistake and he had had no intention of ‘deliberately plagiarising’ Helen Mort’s poem. Ah well, these things happen.

[Ed - Ward's statement in the Western Morning News is worth repeating for comic value:]

I read with interest the article printed in the Western Morning News on Saturday 5th January concerning allegations of plagiarism in the Exmoor Society’s Hope Bourne competition. I would like to offer my side of the story and clear things up.

On 21st December 2012, the Exmoor Society sent me a letter informing me that my poem The Deer at Exmoor [which won the 2011 Hope Bourne Prize] was “remarkably similar” to Helen Mort’s The Deer. It was before Christmas so I was unable to respond straight away.

I expected this to be a straightforward matter to be resolved internally by the society and was not expecting an article to even be written. Some of the quotes took me by surprise. I was disgusted, in particular, by James Crowden’s comment that I be put in the stocks and suffer something even worse.

On to my side: I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn’t entirely my own work.

I had no intention of deliberately plagiarising her work. That is the truth.

I am sorry this has happened and am making amends. This incident is all my fault and I fully accept the consequences of my actions. I apologise to the Exmoor Society, Helen Mort, the poetry community and to the readers of the WMN.

Furthermore, I have begun to examine my published poems to make sure there are no similar mistakes. I want to be as honest as I can with the poetry community and I know it will take some time to regain their trust. Already I have discovered a 2009 poem called The Neighbour is very similar to Tim Dooley’s After Neruda and admit that a mistake has been made. I am still digging and want a fresh start.

I am deeply sorry and look forward to regaining your trust in me.


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  1. Worm on Wednesday 16, 2014

    Ha! That apology letter is deeply cringe-worthy! Talking about digging yourself deeper into a hole…

  2. BenSix on Wednesday 16, 2014

    I for one have sympathy with Mr Ward. On another note, I hope it doesn’t seem presumptuous to offer my new poem “If…” for your consideration…

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with queens – nor lose the common touch;
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
    If all women count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run -
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And – which is more – you’ll be a Woman my daughter!

  3. Nige on Wednesday 16, 2014

    Magnificent Ben – is that from your new musical Woman of La Mancha?

  4. […] the theme of plagiarism from Nige’s post, here, raised from the archives as a Bank Holiday treat, is Noseybonk’s take on the dodgy […]