The Hunt for a Plagiarist

Stephanie Zacharek reviews the book "Words For The Taking:The Hunt for a Plagiarist" by Neal Bowers.

Published December 27, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

"Words for the Taking" is a book about stolen goods -- or maybe more specifically, about pages ripped from a writer's life. In January 1992, Neal Bowers, a poet and professor of English at Iowa State, received a phone call from a fellow poet on the West Coast, alerting him to a poem she'd seen published under the name David Sumner. The poem had so many of the earmarks of Bowers' style that she couldn't believe it wasn't his. Sure enough, the poem was one of Bowers', originally published in Poetry magazine. The plagiarist had made a few minor changes (making the work more clunky and pedestrian) before submitting the poem under his own name to another small journal.

That discovery was only the beginning of Bowers' odyssey, outlined with skill and mordancy in "Words for the Taking." "Sumner" had plagiarized several other poems by Bowers, and many by other poets as well. Outraged, Bowers enlisted the help of a lawyer and a private investigator to root out the thief. "Words for the Taking" is partly a detective story and partly a rumination on the weight and worth of poetry -- a worth that's hard to measure in dollars, since even the most prestigious literary journals might pay as little as two dollars per line for a poem. Bowers wants to be reasonable -- he spends an admirable portion of the book examining whether he's making too much out of nothing -- but in the end, thank God, his passion, his sense of fairness and his understandable anger win out. Bowers writes of the violation he felt over Sumner's theft of a poem he had written about his late father: "The poem was a bittersweet bloom I planted on my father's grave. The thief dug it up, pruned it to his liking, and damaged the roots in the process. Worse, he replanted it in the soil mounded over my father and pretended the loss was his."

Bowers finds his plagiarist, though he never meets him face-to-face. But what'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. Too often we think of poetry as a "soft" thing, written by gentle, sensitive souls. Bowers shows us its hard side -- and reminds us that, even at an estimated retail value of two bucks a line, it's worth drawing your sword for.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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