Post Your Opinion
Letters to the Editor
Dear Editor,
In his review of my book, Hypothesis ("Satisfying Sprawl and Commendable Scope", December 2002, pp. 38-39), Ethan Paquin claims that certain lines in my poem "Body Bag" are a "carbon copy" of a single-line poem of the same name by the American poet Franz Wright. I must take issue with this allegation, especially as he provides no proof that I have "consciously or unconsciously" modelled my poem after Wright's. Because we both describe a body-bag as "one-size-fits-all", Paquin questions both my integrity as a poet and the merit and originality of my work. Until he made his assertions in this magazine, I had never heard of Franz Wright or his "Body Bag". Nor had I read any of the other American poets whose "exact lines and attitudes" Paquin suggests I had "culled" "whether [I] knew it or not" during the writing of Hypothesis. Consequently, I am disappointed that Books in Canada did not feel that it had a duty to me ¨and to its readers¨to make sure that his assumptions about my work had any flimsy basis in fact.
After reading Paquin's review, I went back to my own records. Though I do not retain dated working drafts, for more than twenty years I have kept accurate records of where I have submitted finished poems to magazines for consideration. My ledger indicates I first submitted my "Body Bag" to The Fiddlehead in December 1997 and finally placed it with Contemporary Verse 2 in March 1999 for immediate publication in April 1999, in the Spring issue. By consulting of a periodical index to find out in which issue my poem appeared, Paquin could have determined this for himself, especially as I specifically acknowledge Contemporary Verse 2 in Hypothesis as the publisher of "Body Bag".
Since, according to Paquin, Wright's poem dates from 1999, the above chronology seems to prove that my poem was written earlier. However, to be sure no other evidence could suggest that I might have been influenced by Wright in any revision I may have made to my poem after April 1999, I decided to see if I could trace the publication history of his poem. A quick search on the internet determined that it appears in Wright's book, The Beforelife (published by Alfred A. Knopf on January 31, 2001). As a favour, friends in the United States took a look at a copy of the book, which revealed that, according to a brief prefatory note, the author "wrote these poems between December of 1998 and December of 1999," thus corroborating Paquin's dating of the poem, but also confirming that the composition of my poem predates Wright's by one or two years. A review of the magazine credits in Wright's book (which my friends and I verified and fleshed out by checking cumulative periodical indexes, the magazines' online tables of contents, or the library copies of the magazines themselves) shows that, as far as I can determine, his poem did not appear in print until The Beforelife's publication. Because Hypothesis appeared shortly afterwards in April of the same year, it would have been next to impossible for me to have revised my poem in the light of Wright's. In any case, the lines under scrutiny in the version of "Body Bag" that appears in Hypothesis varies from the one published two years earlier in Contemporary Verse 2 only in its line breaks.
Paquin also appears to have misread my poem. Wright's poem, which Paquin quotes in its entirety, as I do here, is "Like the condom in a pinch one size fits all." Early in the review he characterizes my "Body Bag" as a "dirge for the AIDS era in which it is implied the eponymous object, like a condom, is 'one-size-fits all.'" Nowhere in the disputed lines do I compare a body bag to a condom (or, as he also puts it, my "prophylactic to body-bag yoking"); nor do I elsewhere in the poem: "The orange body bag I am sure/ awaits each one of us is/ one-size-fits-all, contains any/ weather without effort, zips/ open and closed over you/ irreversibly from the outside."
To some readers, I might appear to be making too much of an issue about what may seem no more than hectoring on Mr. Paquin's part, especially as there are several other issues in the review that also merit addressing. However, as I stated earlier, Paquin never once substantiates his allegations and instead quickly falls into a summary "critique" couched in hyperbolic, aggressive, and accusatory rhetoric in order to suggest that the coincidental similarity between my and Wright's poems "raises a red flag" and some interesting questions about the importance of invention." The grating irony for me lies in Paquin's ability to invent so thoughtlessly and wantonly. His suggestion that my book is derivative of the accomplishments of other poets¨American others, to be precise¨ is, ultimately and ignobly, more a reflection on his critical skills, which are sadly in sync with so much critical thought today, than it is on my abilities as a poet. Like all too many reviewers, he seems incapable of seeing anything freshly, outside of what he has read elsewhere. It is Paquin's reading of Hypothesis that is derivative, not the book itself.
Obviously, Paquin does not give much credence to either serendipity or synchronicity as forces in creativity. Instead he uses his misreading of one poem and his rash allegations about its composition as a beachhead for an ill-conceived assault both on the rest of the book and on my credibility and honesty as a writer. I can only hope that the readers of Books in Canada ¨ and even the magazine's editorial board¨saw through Paquin's unfounded assumptions and did not take his review of Hypothesis seriously.
John Barton

Dear Editor,
I was not accusing John Barton of plagiarism. Synchronicities and similarities exist between works independent of each other, written by poets who don't even know each other. We all know this. It's a given, and this is what I found interesting when seeing the two pieces side by side. I regard Barton's line as a weak moment in Hypothesis, an expected moment, a pat metaphor, when much of his poetry¨which I praise in my review¨rises above all of that. That said, I never meant to shame Barton for some supposed lack of integrity. Nor do I think my comments were anywhere near the ballpark of implying a devious or less-than-scholarly activity on his behalf. I sincerely apologize if this wasn't clear.

Ethan Paquin
Amherst, New York

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us