'One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star'- Nietzsche
Get Adobe Flash player


Bob Dylan’s new album, Triplicate, comes out March 31.


By John Kendall Hawkins

First of all, let me say that I love Bob Dylan. Love him.

As I wrote here in an overwrought piece last year, I have, like a latter day Prufock, measured out my life with Dylan tunes. I wrote a concert review piece for the Melbourne Age back in 1997 (Time Out of Mind period) that swooned toward the momentum for seeing him eventually being awarded the Nobel prize. The fuckin’ guy’s a legitmo genius. Nat Geo has a series called Genius, that so far has profiled Picasso and Einstein (with Aretha Franklin and her Pink Cadillac up next), and I could easily see Dylan in the cue: Cubism, Relativity, Soul, and that Harmony-in-One-Breath he self-references in “Precious Angel.”

But Dylan’s new song, “Murder Most Foul,” sucks. It sucks historically. It sucks so bad, I felt an obligation to nominate the song for the 2020 Ig Nobel Prize in Literature. And so passionate was my plea for recognizing this song for what it’s worth that I got an email back from the editor of Improbable magazine, sponsors of the Ig Nobel, a simple, “Uh, thanks, John.” I wrote, in part:

It’s horrible. In an historic way. Bad lyrics, bad arrangement, Dylan’s voice channeling — of all people — Wolfman Jack. It’s the worst Dylan music since the whole of Self Portrait, on which, ironically, were the first Dylan tunes I really liked — “Wigwam” — where he just hums and hums while the Band stuffs behind him, and “Quinn, the Eskimo,” where everyone’s waiting, like for Godot, to jump for joy, but with Quinn it’s because he’s bringing hothouse igloo ganja. Everybody knows Godot, if he arrives, will be bringing re-fried Sartre,

“Murder Most Foul” is like an acid trip within an acid trip, where the inner one went really wrong, and the outer trip couldn’t pick up the slack. One of Dylan’s greatest abilities as a songwriter over the years has been his magical talent at turning cliches and truisms into lyrical gold. Just a fucking master at it. With “Murder Most Foul,” he’s turned into the Alchemist of Shit. I mean it. It’s even bad conspiracy theory. There are professional theorists out there who will now have to go through strange and mysterious changes as a result of this song. I like to think that when Dylan wrote “Ring Them Bells” for all of us who are Left, he had someone like me in mind. But now I’m thinking Quasimodo, ringing dem bells, and pouring some hot liquid down on the mob (former fans, I understand) below.

It’s like he can’t handle his legacy going the way of Marley, his One Love turned into muzak delivered from Trump Tower-like elevators on which you are always in fear someone might fart just as you’re singing the lyrics in your mind, your index fingers automatically doing that parallel index finger dance thing,like windshield wipers : Let’s get together and feel alright. Pfffft. If Dylan is a genius to me, then Marley was once like a god. But not a stinking god of Muzak. How could the CIA not be behind this post-mortem humiliation? I’m thinking.

Yours sincerely.

The lyrics of “Murder Most Foul,” the title derived from an Agatha Christie novel, border on inchoate. Some really crazy shit going on here, even by Dylan’s loose associative poetic license standards. Dig it: Dylan sings, from JFK’s POV, “Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb / He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?” Aside from the blatherscheissen this rhetorical question represents, “Wait a minute, boys” sounds all too familiar: A cop from “Hurricane,” another conspiracy-enticing song about the wrongful conviction of boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carrter, said the same thing: “Wait a minute, boys, this one’s not dead.”

Then he WolfmanJacks, “You got unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect.” So, with “we’ve,” Dylan is now officially a conspiracy theorist. Kennedy died because he over-owed someone, it seems. Gee, who could you owe who would take you out if you didn’t pay, without caring about the consequences for the nation or democracy? Verse 4, with all its play this, play that, depressed me to the point of suicidal ideation. “And that it’s thirty-six hours past Judgment Day / Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues.” That’s factually impossible, if you do the math, but also a truly horrific image. The pagan wolfman speaking in tongues: come again?.

In these days of locusts, no end in sight, Dylan might have written about something relevant. He could have written “I Dreamed I Saw Covid-19 Land.” To be current and all scared-up, like the rest of us are supposed to be. Or, he could have written “The Climes They Are A Changin’”. Nuff said on that front. Or he could have reprised the implicit threat included in his song “Precious Angel” (“Men will beg God to kill them / but they won’t be able to die”) by icing a precious angel, no-prisoners-taken Revelations style. But such dross instead!

Well, we’ve been down this road before with Dylan. When he wrote “Titanic” for his album Tempest, now, he purportedly was at home on the couch watching Leo and Cate go upstairs/downstairs on TV and went to town on some paper and produced what had been his worst song before “Murder Most Foul.” (Playing at the edges of conspiracy theory, he released that album on 9/11.)

You can well imagine Dylan couch-potatoing on the same sofa, years later, not once in his career having brought up JFK before, suddenly, digging into the popcorn, while watching The Irishman, the Netflix film about Jimmy Hoffa directed by Martin Scorsese and starring De Niro, Pesci and Pacino, and having sold the viewer early on the notion that the Mob took out Kennedy for reneging on his promise to lay off if he delivered Illinois’s electoral votes to Kennedy, he reached the Joey Gallo murder scene in the movie, and wondered to himself if Scorsese was true to Dylan’s depiction in his song “Joey,” where Dylan says of Joey, eating dinner in a clam bar in New York, “He could see it coming as it he lifted up his fork.”

Dylan’s depiction of Dallas, November 22, 1963 is awful. But he’s been criticized for making shit up before. But he was also taken to task for his portrayal of the facts surrounding the Hurricane Carter murdercase. His song, “Hurricane,” off Desire, the same album as Joey, was made fun of by National Lampoon magazine in a send-up piece titled, “Ex-Singer Held In New Jersey Slaying,” which implicates Dylan and The Boss. More serious criticism followed, with one sleuth calling Dylan out, line for line, for the alleged factual inaccuracies of his song.

It’s difficult not to think that Dylan, despite garnering every prize and plaudit imaginable for his contribution to American culture, and civilization in general, as evidenced by his Nobel prize in literature a few years back, still worries, as Shakespeare never did, whether his legacy is safe. But nobody really gives a shit about JFK any more, what with Trump in the White House (and what that implies about the nation), and Climate Change, and Covid-19 breathing down our necks. So the choice of this song, its quality, and release timing are very suspect.

It’s hard to not think of Dylan as akin to Hemingway’s fading fisherman, Santiago, the Cuban hero of The Old Man and the Sea, not long after which Papa won the Nobel prize for literature. In that novella, old man Santiago goes fishing, one last time, for marlin in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba. After many hours and much struggle, he lands a biggie and hauls it, along the boat, and heads for port. But sharks come and, despite Santiago’s best efforts to ward off destruction, they end up eating all the meat off the marlin, so that Santiago ends up arriving home with a skeleton.

Sharks have been circling Dylan for years, and maybe the realest cruelty of “Murder Most Foul” is its exposure of a genius with nothing left. On Time Out of Mind, there are two great vintage Dylan songs on the album — one is “Trying To Get To Heaven” and the other is “Highlands.” The former has mind-blowing lyrics like, “When you think that you’ve lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more” and “I’ll close my eyes and I wonder / If everything is as hollow as it seems.”

But the scatalogical character in “Highlands” could sum up Dylan, in the context of our times:

The sun is beginning to shine on me

But it’s not like the sun that used to be

The party’s over and there’s less and less to say

I got new eyes

Everything looks far away

If there were gods still who had pity, you’d want them to lead Dylan gently away and fade, to the Highlands where he belongs, before he feels the blow of what he must already know, that, like the worn-out character Dylan wills through Time Out of Mind, he is himself a ghost who must let go.

There are no more marlin for him left.


The Sixties Victory Lap in an Empty Arena

By John Kendall Hawkins

“The only reason I have is that I want to learn about it, just to know. But I assure you, don Juan, my intentions are not bad.”

“I believe you. I’ve smoked you.”

“I beg your pardon!”

The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castenada

“‘Tis strange — but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction.”

Don Juan, Lord Byron

I was having a reverie about angels. Dylan’s Three Angels? No, German angels, speaking Wim Wenders English. Something was burning. The Reichstag? Nein. They were in Paris, carrying on with the gargoyles from Notre Dame, playing high stakes poker with Tarot cards, Gauloises cumulus clouds, talk of Hegel’s master-slave, Being and Nothingness, the occasional chuckle festival as tourists below caught their eye, like a scene from Annie Hall. Someone startled my sleeping ears to hear it said, What have you been smoking? On CNN a cathedral burns.  “The Truth, man,” you reply, “about the Sixties.”

I always thought the Sixties would remain a sacred place as years passed — the Stonehenge of my life’s most sacrosanctimoniuos experiences that I would never get tired of circling, counterclockwise. A place I could look back on for the sustenance of levity and the earnestness of a collective naivete.  Some of us — many of us, at times — really thought we could change the world, flowers in muzzles, free love (free everything), ego-altering drugs, daily rallies, a press beginning to care. Fifty years later, I thought I’d be partying like it was 1969.  Instead, I feel like the Last Guy turning off the lights at the event horizon, not slamming the door behind me, trying not to wake the emptiness behind me.

There have been months of golden anniversary events — the moon-landing, Woodstock, Bowie’s Space Oddity, the Beatles last studio album, memories of my first rock concert, the Legacy of Leary and LSD.  But also the rise of Nixon and the imperial presidency. The brutality of Chicago. Vietnam. The Kennedys and MLK. But nothing starts me up; my Love Bug is syphilitic and old, like Nietzsche’s asylum brain, preserved in a kind of Cuckoo’s Nest, his sister Elizabeth, a Nurse Ratchett playing Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg while she dispensed the blues. Still in search of perspective.  What did it all mean?

That’s why I was so looking forward to Tarrantino’s Hollywood. But his was a stale, dead Sixties.  Why no Abbie and Jerry, two men walking and talking, wondering aloud what they call revolution-for-the-hell-of-it in Paris? The Manson stuff, ostensibly the Tarrantino Ending people were anticipating, totally lacked the helter-skelter we were fed growing up. (And maybe a story all wrong.) Why no further Pulanski, Rosemary’s Baby released the year before setting the stage? It was like discovering that Jimmy Jones induced mass suicide, not by kool-aid, but by forcing his captive audience to listen to him read from the Saturday Evening Post. (Making it a Post apocalypse.) Why no Beatles White Album songs?  Black Bird? Happiness Is a Warm Gun? Still relevant topics.

The Beatles have been in the news, anyway, because it was time to remember Abbey Road, their final album (sorta). I still struggle with the legacy of the Beatles.  Were they really deep, or was I very shallow? Everyone agrees they wrote shit until they were turned on by Bobby Dylan  and Ravi Shankar. Golden boys. Hell, even when those Alabama kids got enraged by a Lennon comment about Jesus and built a bonfire to his vanity with Beatles LPs, it was good news because it meant the little brats had to go to replenish their stock as soon as the rage burned out twenty minutes later. Now? I still wonder what Lennon meant in “Penny Lane,” when he sang, “And though she feels as if she’s in a play / She is anyway.”

Now all that’s left of the Abbey Road ‘mystique,’ are mainstream media shots of sets of clowns my age treading across the famous crosswalk like the Fab Four, with about as much frisson as elevator muzak.  You can feel the whogivesafuckedness of it all, as you zoom in, descend, on a live Google feed, like a memory god or gargoyle, to confront a keychain culture (remember the Berlin Wall?), where, like Dylan once observed, “Not much is really sacred.” Farewell, Abbey Road.  These days I’m haunted by their ghostly, psychedelic voices on “Blue Jay Way.”

And now we need to care about Bowie again.  The Moon Landing, 2001: A Space Odyssey (some say they’re related, wink), and Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth, resulting in the birth of a persona 50 years ago, Space Oddity, that Bowie would groom with great care over a long career. Biographer Simon Critchley, addressing Bowie’s aesthetic sensibility, writes, “Bowie’s world is like a dystopian version of The Truman Show, the sick place of the world that is forcefully expressed in the ruined, violent cityscapes of “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs”…”

Thomas Newton, the alien of Tevis’ novel, who has journeyed from Anthea, his own self-immolated planet, which is virtually out of water (and thus life) to find salvation from Earth, is sidetracked by the American Way — women, jazz, capitalism, and the CIA — until it’s too late to help Anthea. Seeing a repeat of its demise on Earth, Newton seems indifferent to helping his terrestrial hosts: 

“I want you to save the world Mr. Newton.”

Newton’s smile did not change, and his reply was immediate. “Is it worth saving, Nathan?”

A half-century later, Planet Earth is still blue and there’s less and less we can do.

I tried to draw inspiration from looking and hearing back to my first rock concert — Led Zeppelin at the sold-out Boston Garden in October 1969, with the MC5 and Johnny Winter.  Crazy loud. Incredible drums. Everybody (it seemed) smoking doobies, while Robert Plant, according to one account, went “bouncing around like [Rudolf] Nureyev.” Cops looked on grim, Hells Angels looked grimmer, a fight broke out, eventually it all fizzled.  But today, the guitar work from “Stairway to Heaven” loops in my head like torture chords I can’t stop and I find myself hating the song almost as much as I hate the riffs from “Hotel California,” riffs which can never ever leave FM radio. Driving, it could cause an accident.

And Woodstock 50.  Just another joke like the first one.  Except this time they didn’t bother holding it all, so there was no food shortage or rain deluges to worry about.  Ciley Mirus was said to be interested in twerking out in the cowfields, but she ain’t Jimi and her butt can’t twang the Spangled.  Can anyone even recall Woodstock anymore? CCR? Janis? Does anyone even remember Dylan’s signature performance?

Well, too much of nothing can bring a man down; there can be no doubt about that.  I lean toward a Timothy Leary revival these days, now that cathedrals are spontaneously combusting and the center cannot hold, and the falcon cannot hear the falconer, on account of the talon-less shit is wearing earphones and flying clockwise backwards. The Tibetan Book of thr Dead as a trip.  Yeah.

I’ve been listening to The Psychedelic Experience by Leary, and in the introduction he’s quoted as saying, “We’re all schizophrenics now, and we’re in our own institution.” It sure does seem that way — disconnected, the sweet green icing of MacArthur’s Park melting all around us, even Silicon Valley execs looking to weasel out of the Apocalypse, just waiting for the AI robots to drop El Cid, discover consciousness, and bring us home to the promised El Dorado.  

What does it all mean? Did the Sixties even happen? And as the angels play with their cards all day, does anyone even care?


Like some latter day Prufrock, I have measured out my life in Dylan tunes.  Fifty years of one more cup of coffee. That’s a lot of coffee. That’s a lot of stirring.  It started out with the folkies jumping on the bandwagon of his early ballads of change — lots of wind blowing, lots of hard rain — until Pete Seeger jumped him at the ‘65 Newport festival, reportedly taking an axe to his amp; Dylan was off the wagon. Fuck the bourgeois folkies, I went with Napoleon in rags, AKA Alias.  I stirred through it all and dropped another cube. 

Then I went electric with Dylan for forty years, moving down an endless highway, endless tour of coffee shops, stirring people everywhere, and every place he went with his retinue of wise fools and besotted sages, becoming the circus that was in town, wafting the whiff of chaos we desired like some pheromone that made you feel politically pretty for at least the length of a song.  Starting out like Abbie Hoffman’s revolutionary-for-the-hell-of-it, bringing theatre to the crowded fire of the times, and ending up, some say, like the Wall Street brokers Hoffman once rained dollar bills down on, snorkeling for dollars in the stock yard. 

Fifty years later, old age hitting me, like a freight train, gone the idealism that we all thought underwrote and justified the “benign” excesses of American democracy, I struggle with the relevancy of all things Dylan. I struggle with post-modernity and the relevance of relevance, the is of is-ness. Like Prufrock, I have arrived at that place again, where time is an ocean that ends at the shore, and have seen it for what it is for the first time — like some truculent escaped runaway through time, caught in a Truffault tracking shot lasting decades and ending with me facing the camera, fin de siecle stamped to my face like Jimmy Cagney’s twisted grapefruit in Public Enemy. What can Dylan do when you’re fresh out of mermaids and you’re going down in the flood of all that consciousness?

I pondered, sitting down with one last cup of coffee, as settled in, with my son, to Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, newly released on Netflix.  I remember the tour well. In Boston, a portion of the tour was broadcast live from Texas and I videotaped the concert with my Sony Portapak, commercials and all, and later had it illicitly transferred to cassette tape by two sound engineers at the University of Massachusetts, who groused the whole time about Dylan’s relevance and corruption (but made sure that they got their copy of the concert), and found, as I made the rounds, that nobody gave a squat about the tape, most of my friends and acquaintances having settled into Bob Marley’s more “global” appeal and less taken with the Dylan “mystique.”  Political extraversion, bodies in motion, was winning the day over moody introversion, which seemed irrelevant to a world on the brink of nuclear war.

I mostly enjoyed watching much of Scorses’s film.  It was especially gratifying to nostalgitate with Joan Baez and Allen Ginsberg, the latter’s opening lines of Howl sprinkled throughout the film like a grave motif, “I saw the best minds of my generation / destroyed by madness, starving / hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro / streets at dawn looking for an angry / fix angelheaded hipsters burning for the / ancient heavenly connection to the / starry dynamo in the machinery of  / the night.” Fuckin’ ay.

But I didn’t find any real relevance to the film.  It was good to see Dylan re-animated by the ‘70s. His interview seemed as inchoate as ever, your desire for him to be profound, trumping common sense and the bald fact that he was blurting old fart cliches (but then, much of the attraction of his whole schtick over the years has largely been his phrasing of cliches and truisms, which I don’t hold against him, given its Nobel quality performance value). I kept waiting for relevancy to kick in, and sorely missed the exclusion of songs in the doco, such as I had recorded earlier with my Portapak — the ever-relevant cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” for instance, would have reminded viewers how long the southern border “crisis” has been with us. I stopped watching the doco about 80 percent of the way through, when my son excused himself to go off to a more relevant party and I sat stewing in ennui.

In his Netflix interview, at one point Dylan laments how we, the people, no longer remember the lines from great poets any more — he cites Ginsberg, Whitman and Frost — but settle for lyrical snatches from popular songs.  I find this true and untrue. I get asked at times over the years what my favorite Dylan tunes is — an impossible-to-answer request; no true Dylan aficionado should have to answer — and, always, I find myself saying, “Love Minus Zero.” I don’t really know why. It just seems a perfect and beautiful tune, and no rhymes.

Otherwise, it’s true, it’s no longer Dylan albums that reach out to me any more, but the lyrics that stand the test of time: “It’s easy to see without looking to far that not much is really sacred.” Have we as a species, seemingly at the height of our consciousness, ever been more profane?  “The angels play on their horns all day / the whole earth in progression seems to pass by / but does anyone hear the music they play? / Does anyone even try?” No emojis for that emotion. And later, in “Trying to Get to Heaven” from Time Out of Mind, “I’ll close my eyes and I wonder / if everything is as hollow as it seems.” Stuff you don’t even want to think about, if you’re Prufrock measuring out another coffee spoon. And, from the same song, the ever-profound observation, for which no comment is required or adequate: “When you think you’ve lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more.”

Heady stuff.  But then you weigh it up, as I recently did, with the crass jingle-ism that you would think Dylan doesn’t need any more — the beer commercials during Super Bowl 2019, the one an “arty” Budweiser ad that features “Blowing in the Wind,” and the other featuring Jeff Bridges’ Dude making a cameo appearance to pitch “change is good” by way of switching to Stella Artois, “The Man in Me,” cooing in the background.  If you’re not careful, you could almost think you’re seeing double. So, I dunno, which beer should I drink?  I close my eyes and I wonder. Does Dylan need such bier hall push to stay relevant at this stage?

More bizarre is the whole silly saga of his new whiskey brand, Heaven’s Door.  First is the question whether Dylan “stole” the name from an already-existing whiskey company, as they claim. That laughed aside, the most likely reason why Dylan decided to splash out, post-Nobel, on a whiskey factory is because his namesake, Dylan Thomas, has been exploited by a UK whiskey company, the mofos actually using the most famous line from his villanelle — “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Was Heaven’s Door, arch Dylan’s answer to such a molestation? A kind of inside joke? Can a whiskey company really sell a 10 year-old whiskey when it’s only been open six months. Again, I close my eyes and I wonder.  Musing aside, the $50 100 proof double-barrel whiskey itself is pretty good, smooth, lyrical, honey to the tongue, or as the Heaven’s Door site says: “The richness of the vanillin and lipids imparted by the barrel are obvious and welcome, in that, the buttery texture underlines the gustatory power.” Jokerman at work? WTFK.

Similar wry devilry seems to have been at work with his selection as the Nobel laureate for literature in 2016.  Not only was he coy about accepting the award in the first place, acting like the folkies were trying to kidnap him and force him to give a “spokesman for a generation” speech, he waited until the very last moment, when losing the ka-ching was on the line, before he accepted. (Did he finance Heaven’s Door with the Nobel money?) Great controversy ensued. His friend Ginsberg’s pushy nomination aside, just about everyone knows that Dylan should have received a Nobel prize for Performance, not Literature.  You’d like to think that Nobels are awarded not just for lifetime achievement, but also for relevancy.

Holding a Dylan CD cover now feels like Hamlet must have felt, graveside, holding up the skull, exclaiming, “Alas, poor Yorick,” followed by the fond remembrance of things past, how Dylan helped inspire through my early years.  Now, there’s serious shit ahead, and the end feels nigh; Dylan’s not so relevant. Dylan himself seems to know this at times. He says that when he wrote the song “Titanic,” off his album Tempest (released on 9/11), he was literally watching the James Cameron film. A chance to put the upstairs/downstairs of American culture in perspective at a time of 1percent / 99 percent and he chose to do session work with the band. No reference to climate change and the growing lack of icebergs. Or maybe “Titanic” was  a winky nod to lefty conspiracy-theorists re: 9/11. Fans will, as always, fill in the gaps of any real concern on his part.

One of Dylan’s great lyrics haunts me ever in these days of constant and growing surveillance, both inside the mind (Facebook, Google, and Amazon algorithms) and outside the mind (NSA, the slow strangulation of freedom of speech and thought Snowden and Assange have warned us about), is from “It’s Alright, Ma” off his Bringing It All Back Home album. “If my thought-dreams could be seen / they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”  Words were never more prophetic. It’s just that, as the world breaks bad, seemingly under the stress of democracy’s end and the imminent Singularity threatening humanity’s demise, I’d like a response more akin to Heisenberg in the face of the powers that be than what Dylan seems to raise a glass to.  “Life is about creating yourself,” he says in the Scorsese film. As the locusts arrived. It kinda give me a chill

Early last year I shot English Breakfast tea skyward through my nose when I read in a Sydney paper that the world was in the throes of “a collage poetry plagiarism epidemic.”  Heck, being global and all, I guess you’d have to call it a pandemic.

Now, see, I knew there were all kinds of problems in the world, what with abstract nouns rooting like rabbits and needing beer-fuelled culling by joystick-riding heehaws, but I never saw poetry as a virus carrier before, and chances are, that had I thought so, I’d have welcomed it as a nifty development.

Of course, plagiarism’s a serious topic, and I shouldn’t stuff, like some punk from the Old Geysers Gliberation Front. When I was a kid I plagiarized a Moody Blues number that I owned so deeply in my heart that even today I’m not sure it wasn’t John Lodge who nicked it from me.

After all, hadn’t Dylan purloined “Blowin’ in the Wind” from my back pocket?  Well, most kids plagiarize; they are often trained that way. Ideological plagiarism is universal, and compulsory. Now more than ever.

Then, suddenly, I became a man, and was not accused of plagiarizing again, until a couple of years ago, when a throw-away blog comment was savaged by Glenn Greenwald’s white-blood-cell cult. Actually, I never saw more over-referencing in my life than amongst Glenn’s commentariat, so important was the property of words to them, which I found curious given his predilection for liberalism.

But then there’s a lot of funny stuff that goes on between ironic smirks in that lot. In keeping with our theme, Greenwald’s early book on two-tiered justice was treated as though it were a fresh and original idea.  Funny stuff, indeed.

Anyway, most of us know that the serious kind of plagiarism means intentionally presenting someone else’s work as one’s own.  A more problematical secondary definition would be presenting someone else’s ideas as your own.  I emphasize intentionality because it can be tricky: For instance, it seems clear, when you give it a good listen, that George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” did, in fact, plagiarize the main melody of the Motown hit, “He’s So Fine.” 

And yet, they are both gorgeous, unique songs, that don’t depend simply on the (much-quoted) melodic line. It’s even dicier when it comes to the origin of an idea and what happens to it when it is responded to dialectically by other minds. This is what postmodernism refers to as Intertextuality.

We mustn’t confuse plagiarism with copyright infringement or lack of originality, because we’d all be in the jammer slammer if that were verboten. Nor is it okay to accuse by lazily saying, “It looks like I’ve something I’ve read somewhere.” And let’s give up the notion that much originality takes place in the MSM.

This is not a knock; it’s just an acknowledgement that media bring together ideas rather than generating new ones. Likewise, calling anyone on “borrowing” in comments sections is pointless, as even if not anonymous already, no claim is being made to exclusive rights.

I know that personally I used comments sections as idea scratch pads and have rarely looked back at what I’ve written. Blogs, too, are, by nature, reactionary, which is to say it is usually someone else’s ideas being responded to or linked to.

It’s important to consider the politics of plagiarism, because they can be significant. A plagiarist can see his or her career spiral downward forever after a rightful conviction, depending on the severity. 

But there have been notable exceptions, it seems, to the pariah status that usually accompanies being outed: historian and PBS regular, Doris Kearns Goodwin, lifted whole passages from a another’s work to strengthen her bestseller; but instead of complete infamy, she has gone on to fame as the author of Lincoln, on which the Oscar-nominated film was based.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. plagiarized his PhD (calling into question the “doctor”) and apparently lifted the dream, but his crucial role during the Civil Rights movement of the’60s surely (and rightfully, IMHO) protected his need aura; Bob Dylan has been sometimes shameless, but he remains a perennial candidate for a Nobel in lit (and deservedly so); even Australia’s own artist and historian, the late Robert Hughes (“a polymath in age of imbeciles,” as one art critic rightfully remembered him), had to suffer browbeatings for borrowing toward the end of his impressive career.

The Digital Age has not only complicated things exponentially, but it is an important aspect to consider here. Before the Internet, the distribution of new ideas was actually kind of limited by comparison to the now. Being bound to printed material limited the speed of new information acquisition, while also naturally limiting (time) the breadth of new learning. 

The world was full of select experts we relied on for knowledge attainment. But, just as the Incas and Egyptians were building pyramids in synchronicity but in ignorance of each other, so, too, we can assume that more than one person has thought the same idea simultaneously, or thereabouts, and is not necessarily cribbing from another. 

In short, a person might exclaim, “I’ve heard that somewhere before,” without a necessary link to another source.  The Internet has brought lots of overlap and Intertextuality that didn’t exist the same way before.

Nevertheless, the Internet no doubt adds to the problem. Academia has taken it seriously enough that it now forces most students to submit work through a plagiarism detection system, such as Turn It In (TII). But some academics and many students wonder whether this method is as expedient or as valuable as the previous system of instructor-intensive review. 

But maybe the actual purpose of this detection system is more devious. For instance, the controlling interest in TII is held by venture capitalist Warburg Pincus, which is determined to make big money. Leading to the questions: Who owns the data (students or TII)? Who has access? What is to prevent the corporate purloining of brilliant student work in its early development – TII as plagiarist? That venture capitalist is making money somehow.

Getting back to the collage poetry stoush we started with, while a TII might have stopped the dead poet suicidey in his tracks, it occurred to me as I limned the account that a well-read contest judge might have done a similarly effective job, but the Internet seems to have made that portion of our brains lazy now. 

When I was a young student academics were eager to determine if a poor boy, like Shakespeare, could “really” write such high flown verse; now all any one seems to wonder is if he was gay. 

Actually, I was also quite peeved about the collage stoush because I had just completed a sequence of Ted Berrigan-like sonnets that my lit professor called “a tour de force,” and now not only was that phony Aussie poet banished, but collage poetry was being trashed – just like postmodernism in general. 

Not only are we mooning over the sweet years of the Cold War, but some folks welcome the return of a literary canon.

I haven’t even mentioned class war yet.  High language, with its myriad high-hailed ideas, has always been a middle class proprietary conceit.  People have long been excluded from certain strata of society, based on their language characteristics.  And the influence of one’s economic background on the perception of one’s linguistic ability, and certainly originality, is a common place.

Blacks, Latinos, and poor whites still struggle to pass through the pearly pillars of middle class-managed knowledge libraries; it is often assumed that they are borrowing or stealing from their betters.

In the end plagiarism seems to be one more thing that’s gone wrong with the Internet’s promise to liberate us all from the constraints of authoritarian knowledge acquisition. Words are becoming one more commodity to be controlled by commercial interests that trump the merely human.

  • Full disclosure: I copy and pasted from an earlier draft of this article. Gulp.