A Canadian Poet Laureate Is Accused of Ripping Off Tupac and Maya Angelou
Pierre DesRuisseaux, a French-Canadian poet who was named his country’s poet laureate in 2009 and died last year, is being accused of plagiarizing the work of Tupac Shakur, Maya Angelou, Dylan Thomas, and others in his 2013 book Tranches de vie. The accusations, first brought by a British fellow poet and so-called “poetry sleuth” named Ira Lightman, first appeared in a Guardian profile of Lightman this week, and have led DesRuisseaux’s publisher to pull Tranches de vie from shelves, according to the National Post.
At first glance, DesRuisseaux’s works would seem to be easily identifiable as ripoffs. Here, for instance, is the text of DesReuisseaux’s “When I’m Alone,” as translated into English by the National Post:
Sometimes when I’m alone I cry
Because I’m alone.
The tears I cry are bitter and burning.
They flow with life, they do not need reason.
And here’s an excerpt from Tupac’s poem “Sometimes I Cry”:
Sometimes when I’m alone
I cry because I’m on my own
The tears I cry are bitter and warm
They flow with life but take no form
Here are the opening lines of DesRuisseaux’s “I Rise,” as translated by the Guardian:
You can wipe me from the pages of history
with your twisted falsehoods
you can drag me through the mud
but like the wind, I rise
And here are the opening lines to Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise
If these were works in a field with firm, well-established rules against reusing other people’s work without explicitly crediting them, like journalism, DesRuisseaux’s would be a clear-cut case of plagiarism, one that would throw his entire career into question. But contemporary poetry, like just about every field of art in the 20th and 21st centuries, has a more complicated relationship with borrowing.
It’s not unheard of, or even uncommon, for a poet to incorporate lines from other people’s poems, or from literature outside of the universe of poetry, in order to satirize, recontextualize, or celebrate them. Kenneth Goldsmith, one of the most acclaimed American poets of this era, has made an entire artistic practice out of appropriating fragments of language that already exist in the world. (He teaches a class called Uncreative Writing at Columbia and once gave a dramatic reading of New York City traffic radio reports to the Obamas at the White House.) “The Ecstasy of Influence,” a modern classic essay by the novelist Jonathan Lethem, makes a sprawling, utterly convincing argument for the use of appropriation in art, constructed almost entirely from bits of text that Lethem himself appropriated from other writers. For a more concise version, see Shawn Carter: “I’m not a biter I’m a writer for myself and others / When I say a B.I.G. verse I’m only biggin’ up my brother.”
Who’s to say DesRuisseaux wasn’t doing the same thing? The fact that his choice texts included popular works from extremely well-known poets like Angelou and Thomas would suggest that Tranches de vie was intended as a kind of tribute. Certain edits he made, like his choice to repeat “alone” in the Tupac poem rather than rhyme it with “on my own,” as Tupac does, are artful to the point of being genuinely transformative.
But as the Guardian story notes, he also seems to have used language from less venerated sources, like a poem called “Funny… But Not,” posted to the website AllPoetry.com by a self-described aspiring writer who looks like a teenager at most in her avatar photo. (Some of her other titles include “My Five Kitty Cats” and “My XBox.”) And the fact that DesRuisseaux’s publisher elected to discontinue selling the book suggests that the poet may not have been up front with his collaborators about his intentions if he was appropriating in a deliberate way. Given that DesRuisseaux is no longer living, we may never know for sure.