As It Happens

Former Canadian poet laureate accused of 'borrowing' from Maya Angelou, Tupac Shakur and others

Canada's late parliamentary poet laureate Pierre DesRuisseaux has been accused of translating several English poems into French and passing them off as his own.
Former Canadian parliamentary poet Pierre DesRuisseaux (centre) has been accused of plagiarizing from poet Maya Angelou (left) and rapper Tupac Shakur (right) (Steve Exum/Getty Images, Parliament of Canada, Mike Segar/Reuters)

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Canada's late parliamentary poet laureate Pierre DesRuisseaux has been accused of translating several English poems into French and passing them off as his own.

"It's not as simple as the cases I normally investigate of an English-speaking poet taking 90 per cent of another poet's English-speaking poem and trying to brazen that out," British poet Ira Lightman, who investigates plagiarism in his field, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"It's more subtle. It's a translation concealing that it has an English source."

DesRuisseaux, who died last year, was the parliamentary poet laureate between 2009 and 2011. Known for his writing about Quebec culture, he won a Governor General's Award for French-language poetry in 1989.

However, the originality of his 2013 poetry book Tranches de vie came under scrutiny after his death when Ontario poet Kathy Figueroa read an English translation of his poem J'avance on the parliamentary website and noticed it bore a striking resemblance to Maya Angelou's I Rise.

U.S. poet Maya Angelou wrote 'Still I Rise,' which bears a striking resemblance to Pierre DesRuisseaux's 'I rise.' (Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Glamour Magazine)

Angelou's prose reads: "You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies,/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I'll rise."

A translation of DesRuisseaux's poem reads: "You can wipe me from the pages of history/with your twisted falsehoods/you can drag me through the mud/but like the wind, I rise."

"I recognized it immediately and just sort of went into shock. I couldn't believe it," Figueroa told the National Post. "It was obvious that he ripped her off. It was blatant, it was obvious, it was appalling."

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is one of several writers whose work bears resemblance to Pierre DesRuisseaux's. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Figueroa posted her discovery to a Facebook page that Lightman follows, and he decided to investigate further. 

"Especially with a man four or five months in his grave, I'm not going to take one poem on the parliamentary website  and then announce that this is willful plagiarism," he said.

DesRuisseaux died Jan. 18, 2016, in Pointe-Calumet, Que.

"What I then do is try and look as thoroughly as possible at everything by that author."

He started by downloading a free sample of Tranches de vie online and found 10 other examples of poems that appeared to be translated, without credit, from English works. 

He then asked the publisher, Montreal-based Éditions du Noroît, for a full copy, in which he said he found another 20 or so apparent translations of English works by rapper Tupac Shakur and poets Dylan Tomas and Louis MacNeice, among others. 

"That book is full or borrowings," he said. 

Poetry by Louis MacNeice, an Irish poet and playwright, was allegedly translated without credit by Pierre DesRuisseaux. (Poetry Foundation)

It's not clear wheteher DesRuisseaux meant to mislead readers. His other books, Lightman said, don't appear to follow a similar pattern. 

While Lightman praised Éditions du Noroît for aiding him in his investigation, he said the company should make a public statement about the findings.

"The very word publish and publications is to make public. Having done that without that necessary debt being paid, without those necessary acknowledgements, they then are, in my opinion, obliged to make public too all of the things that are missing from the book," he said.

Éditions du Noroît did not respond to As It Happens' request for comment.

Comparisons between DesRuisseax's translated work and other English poetry, via the National Post:

Sometimes I Cry, by Tupac Shakur
Sometimes when I'm alone
I cry because I'm on my own
The tears I cry are bitter and warm
They flow with life but take no form

When I'm Alone, by DesRuisseaux
Sometimes when I'm alone I cry
Because I'm alone.
The tears I cry are bitter and burning.
They flow with life, they do not need reason.

In the Beginning, by Dylan Thomas
In the beginning was the three-pointed star,
One smile of light across the empty face,
One bough of bone across the rooting air,

In the Beginning, by DesRuisseaux
In the beginning there was the three-pointed star
A bright smile on an empty face
A branch of bone in the rooting air

Prayer Before Birth, by Louis MacNeice
I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat
or the club-footed ghoul come near me.

Prayer Before Birth, by DesRuisseaux
I am not yet born but hear me.
Don't let the vampire or the rat approach.


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