Sir Andrew Motion’s poem ‘An Equal Voice’ caused much controversy when it was first published in the Observer. It was made up almost entirely of quotations from Ben Shephard’s excellent book A War of Nerves, divided into lines and slightly rewritten. The poem seemed to many of us not just a bit of a cheat, but rather crass, as the quotations (from Great War soldiers, doctors and others) that Shephard had integrated into an intelligent argument were taken out of context and used by Sir Andrew to make a rather obvious point about how awful war is.
Despite the controversy, the ex-laureate clearly sticks by his poem, as he has included it in his new collection, The Customs House. In a note appended to the book’s acknowledgements, he explains what he has done:
Several poems in Part 1 of this book, ‘Laurels and Donkeys’ are best described as ‘found poems’ – which is to say they contain various kinds of collaboration. Some use the words of others without much alteration, others edit and rearrange an existing text, and others combine existing sources with my own words.
‘Collaboration’ is a bit rich for ‘An Equal Voice’, since Shephard expressed extreme disquiet about the way that his work had been used. (‘There is a word for this. It begins with ‘p’ and it isn’t poetry.’ he remarked at the time.)
The acknowledgement listing continues:
The title and most of the content of ‘An Equal Voice’ are taken from the historian Ben Shephard’s book A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists 1914-1944 (Pimlico, 2002). To this degree the matter of the poem is in the public domain.
I don’t understand that last sentence. It’s lawyer-speak, I think, but what does it mean? Is it a defence of what he has done? Does Ben Shephard consider his book to be ‘in the public domain’?
Or is Sir Andrew simply acknowledging that he can’t claim copyright for the ‘matter’ of this poem, but only for his finely-crafted line-breaks?