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The Ricin Poet

Over in Seattle, there’s been some recent unpleasantness with anonymous, threatening letters sent to eleven gay bars in the city:

Ricin Threat Letter

A similar letter was also to The Stranger, Seattle’s independent newspaper, where Dan Savage posted it to The Slog, guessing that the letters were probably written by a gay man.

But the story gets stranger: a commenter then pointed out that several lines of the letter were taken pretty much verbatim from poet Mark Doty‘s A Display of Mackerel:

They don’t care they’re dead
and nearly frozen,

just as, presumably,
they didn’t care that they were living:

So we have the moving words of a T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, National Book Award-winning, openly gay poet being used in a letter threatening to poison gay bar-goers. It’s a twisted situation.

Doty has responded, with sadness, on his own blog:

It’s hard for me to describe how horrified I feel by this. On the literal level, my poem describes looking at a group of mackerel on ice in a fish market, and contemplating both their beauty and their apparent absence of individuation. The poem was written in 1994, in the awful latter days of the AIDS crisis here, when there was no hope in sight and the losses just went on and on… now here are my lines twisted to a new context, and what was intended to suggest consolation is instead bent to an occasion for creating fear.

Luckily the first busy weekend has passed without incident – with a bar crawl in solidarity with the businesses in question – and there’s hope it’s just a malicious hoax.

But do any Bookkake readers know of other occasions when poetry has been used in anger like this – either by the poet, or, as in this case, by a plagiarist?

There’s Britain’s own ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ Samina Malik of course, imprisoned and later freed for such doggerel as ‘How To Behead’:

“It’s not messy or as hard as some may think, It’s all about the flow of the wrist… You’ll feel the knife hit the wind and food pipe, But Don’t Stop, Continue with all your might.”

Much has been made of the poetry of Yeats and Pearse, too, in the conflict in Northern Ireland, and there’s been an anthology of poetry by the detainees of Guantanamo Bay – more despairing than angry, however. I don’t doubt there are plenty more examples.

Posted January 13, 2009 by . Comments Off on The Ricin Poet
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