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Unread 01-30-2019, 02:21 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
Join Date: May 2013
Location: England, UK
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Default When is a poem not the same?

This question relates to the magazines/sites not taking poems that have previously been published. I'm wondering how far that applies to major revisions or reusing parts of old poems.

For example, say I take the first two stanzas of an old poem, and then take the poem in a different direction in the next three or four stanzas, does this still count as the same poem, and hence previously published?

I realise there's likely not going to be a precise answer to this question, but I'm wondering if anyone can point me at precedents, or has done this. I can't find anything online.
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Unread 01-30-2019, 03:19 PM
Jayne Osborn's Avatar
Jayne Osborn Jayne Osborn is offline
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Interesting question, Matt.

My own opinion, FWIW, is that a poem that's had major revisions is not the same poem as its original version. A new title helps to effect the change too.

Perhaps more to the point - I've found it difficult to actually find certain poems online that have been previously published. In reality, just how much time is a competition judge or an editor going to spend trawling the Internet to see if a poem they like has appeared anywhere else? And even if it has, it's not the end of the world; it very likely means it's a good 'un.

Editors and judges are busy people. I've judged a few poetry comps myself over the years, and I must say it never occurred to me once to search online for poems I chose as the winners or runners-up. There has to be an element of trust.

And finally, on a personal note, ...I get to mention once again (Ahem - sorry, folks) that I've won The Oldie and The Spectator competitions with the same poem! Previously published? Yep, but I didn't lie about it, they never stipulated anything in the first place. Many publications aren't as precious about it as they once were.

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Unread 01-30-2019, 04:05 PM
David Rosenthal David Rosenthal is offline
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Hey Matt,

I think a test that might help is to ask yourself how you would acknowledge previous publication if you put the poem in a book. Would you say, "originally appeared in Journal A," or "originally appeared in Journal B?"

One could say about a given poem something like, "originally appeared in Journal A in a substantially different form, under a different title." But even so, if you would feel obligated to attribute the poem to Journal A, then I think you have to recognize that Journal A has "first rights" and the poem was "published" there first.

Imagine the editors of the two journals, each having assumed they were publishing a poem for the first time, looking at your acknowledgements page and seeing the poem attributed to both Journal A and Journal B. They might rightfully feel deceived.

Of course, you might not care how they'd feel, or you might never plan to publish the poem with a publication acknowledgement, in which cases, it doesn't really matter. But I think the thought experiment might help with how to answer your question.

David R.
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Unread 01-31-2019, 12:29 AM
Max Goodman Max Goodman is offline
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Location: Sunnyvale, CA
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Jayne and David are both right.

If it's the ethics of the matter that most concern you, mention in your cover letter that, for example, the first two stanzas appeared as part of an earlier poem. Then the editor can make the call.
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Unread 01-31-2019, 12:44 AM
Aaron Novick's Avatar
Aaron Novick Aaron Novick is online now
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I got all excited that we were going to do some metaphysics of identity, but then I actually read the posts and realized it's an ethical question. "Mention it in your cover letter and let the editor decide" is the correct answer, in that case.
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Unread 01-31-2019, 05:57 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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A poem is not a poem when it is some other thing: a box of matches, a racing form, a cup of hot chocolate.

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Unread 01-31-2019, 06:06 AM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
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Location: England, UK
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Thanks people,

A couple of times I've thought about adapting or cannibalising something already written, or part-written, to send to something like NVN or Rattle's Poets Respond say. I recently did do this and the poem went up at NVN. In these cases I've yet to send the original anywhere, but ultimately intend to (I'm pretty useless at sending things out to 'proper' magazines, but I'm good at intentions). So, I guess what I'm wondering if I'm 'nobbling' the original, possibly better, poem by doing this.


I guess different editors will have different habits. The only editor I've ever asked (Tim Green at Rattle) googles the title and a line or two from all poems before he publishes them, both to see if it's previously appeared, but also to check for plagiarism. Anyhow, I less wondering about what I can get away with, as to how this might be viewed if I didn't.


I think in this case, if I subsequently published as it appeared in Journal A, I'd credit journal A. If I published it as it appeared in Journal B, I'd credit journal B.

Here I'm thinking more of the two end results not simply being different versions of the same poem, but different poems, in the sense that they'd take different rhetorical routes, and come to different conclusions, say. But if you put the two side by side you'd see shared material: lines, metaphors, images, even stanzas etc., that were the same.

Max, Aaron,

I'm not sure it's an ethical question, exactly. Practical maybe. Yes, I can ask the editor. But in a way, it's too late then.


I guess a sub-question is the more philosophical one of how much of a poem you can change until it's a different poem. Theseus' poem? Go for it. I'm interested.


That's true, but also the answer to a different question, I think. (What’s a Grecian Urn? About 20,000 drachmas after taxes; Why do cowboys write poetry? They get inspired by the moos)


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Unread 01-31-2019, 06:38 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Hi Matt,

After taxes indeed! Also, when is a door not a door?
I guess some questions are unanswerable. Perhaps those are the ones worth asking.

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Unread 01-31-2019, 09:46 AM
Julie Steiner's Avatar
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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I've never understood why some poetry editors have one-and-done attitudes toward previously published material, anyway.

Lots of radio stations play the same songs as each other, but a good song isn't regarded as damaged goods after its first appearance.

So why is poetry different? Why do poetry magazine editors have this weird virginity fetish about good poems having been previously seen by the (tiny handful of) readers of one poetry magazine or blog before being seen by the (tiny handful of) readers of another?

In practice, poets whose consciences aren't troubled by unauthorized simultaneous submissions (especially in unlikely-to-be-detected print-only venues, since no one can check all of those) enjoy significant advantages over poets who "follow the rules even when no one's looking." The poet who submits the same poem to twenty venues will have a much better chance of being published than the one who submits to one venue and then virtuously waits over a year (sometimes) to hear back before shopping that poem somewhere else.

Personally, I think that "no-previous-appearance" and "no-simul-sub" rules exacerbate the well-documented dearth of female contributors to poetry magazines. Girls are societally encouraged to be goody-goodies who comply with every rule (such as not interrupting, putting their hands down while others are speaking, etc.), while boys are societally encouraged to demonstrate "leadership qualities" by transgressing rules (such as talking over others until the others demonstrate weakness by dropping out, and generally seeing how much they can get away with in various situations).

Regardless of gender stereotypes, I think that rules that are largely unenforceable penalize the conscientious and reward the flexible. Which can't be a good thing.
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Unread 01-31-2019, 10:25 AM
R. S. Gwynn's Avatar
R. S. Gwynn R. S. Gwynn is offline
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Location: Beaumont, TX
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I knew a poet, one of the first to use a computer, who would recycle lines: "I twist this wrench as if all the ____________ in the world depend(s) on it."

a. oil
b. cattle
c. water

I found this a little disturbing.
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