The problem with sharing poetry on the internet: how to properly cite poems found online

I’ve been taking Buddhism classes at the Auckland Buddhist Centre almost nonstop since the beginning of the year, and on top of that, have been reading a lot of books by / about / for people committed to living Buddhist practices more fully. One of the unexpected results of this activity is that I am regularly encountering poems that are both “old friends” and many that are completely new to me.

These days I’m far more interested in keeping track of my favorite poems than I have been in the past. As someone who appreciates both accuracy and giving credit where credit is due, sharing poems on the internet feels fraught with peril… and it gets worse when I’m often using the internet to track down poems I encounter in the wild, remembering only fragments. Copyright infringement and amplification of errors and misattribution, Oh My!

Example: the Countee Cullen poem I shared recently is actually quite a bit longer than the portion that I (and many other people before me) shared online. I certainly didn’t realize how much more there is to it until I went looking for a reputable source; I considered including the whole thing in my post, but in the end opted to reproduce the “error,” if that’s the most appropriate way to describe the unintentional truncation of a poem without indication that it’s only an excerpt.

Here’s another example: I recently shared Portia Nelson’s poem “Autobiography in Five Chapters” after re-encountering it toward the end of Jack Kornfield’s book, The Eightfold Path for Householders. It’s an easy poem to Google up.

But because of guilt or the need to be right or righteousness or whatever, it was bugging me that a bunch of other sites were referring to the title of the poem as “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters”. I kept digging, and I figure the 35th anniversary edition of Portia Nelson’s own book got it right; I’m pretty sure it is in fact called “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters”. [I have no idea whether the punctuation is supposed to be inside or outside the quotation marks here, gah.]

It’s been a long time since I’ve written an academic paper with proper citations (and while I’m at it, I’ll add that my sense of “proper” spelling and punctuation has been thoroughly confused by having moved to a place where British English is the norm). AND it still seems like the right thing to do to properly credit authors and publishers and the like when I reproduce their work.

Apparently this is the way to do it:

  1. The author’s name
  2. The poem title in quotation marks
  3. The website title in italics
  4. The date the poem was posted (in day-month-year order)
  5. The publication medium (Web)
  6. The date you accessed the poem

Thanks, Jennifer Spirko, “How to Cite Poems Found Online in MLA Style,” as discovered at Pen and the Pad, posted 17 April 2017, accessed via the web on 15 July 2018. I’m going to make the effort.

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