As Charles Caleb Colton, 19th century English writer, so famously said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” For many of us, it’s much more than that — it can be a kick-start out of a deep, dark slump.
For many artists (like me) who squeeze in their creative work around another full-time job, the “getting started” part is what usually derails us. This is especially true for poets, I think. Novelists or painters can pick up where they left off and add a few lines or touches, even when they only have twenty minutes after dinner. For poets, the process of finding the creative spark each time can take much longer.
Every so often, poets take Colton’s advice to heart and find a poem we really like, or that is iconic or unusual . . . and we model a new poem after it. This can get the writing mind freed up very quickly. And it can also be lots of fun! A “copy-cat” poem can just echo the model in subtle ways, or it can re-use its style or syntax. Sometimes, an imitation can be an outright parody.
For example, one of the most oft-parodied poems is this one by William Carlos Williams. The possible riffs using the opening line are endless!
This is Just to Say
I have eaten
the plums that
were in the icebox
and which you
saving for breakfast
they were delicious
so sweet and so cold
My parody, which appears in The Gray Limbo of Perhaps, came to me on the day I finally relegated some old towels to the rag pile and felt just a tiny twinge of nostalgia, as the marriage was long over by then.
This is Just to Say
The towels which we
the mauve ones with
tiny claret flowers
that we used in our
hanging them lovingly
side by side on the shower bar –
have been torn into little
squares and draped over
a bucket in my garage.
Forgive me, but my
car windows needed drying
and the towels were just perfect:
so pink and so old.
Another famous poem has provided the template for many “stuck” poets, no doubt — Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It inspired me to write “13 Ways of Grading High School Essays.” (See post of March, 2014.) If you look closely at Stevens’ 13 stanzas, you can use each one as its own model. Wedged into the middle of my 13 stanzas, I also inserted a parody of another Williams poem, the uber-famous “Red Wheelbarrow” poem, which I believe is still taught in schools on occasion:
so much depends
a red wheel
streaked with rain
beside the white
In my essay-grading poem, stanza VIII takes the red and white images in a different direction — which I couldn’t resist:
Everything depends upon
three glasses of red Merlot
lined up within reach
beyond the stack of white papers
on the desk.
At a wonderful poetry workshop I attended on Sunday, sponsored by RHINO magazine in Evanston, poet Greg Grummer used the “imitation” technique in an exercise where we were to tap into our “not conscious” mind when creating a poem. He encouraged us to let the words and images spill out unfiltered as we channeled the rhythms and structure of the model poem.
The poem we used was by Sharon Olds, an American poet whose best-known work is about the abuse she suffered from her father. It begins with this line:
because I wanted to see him die –
and not just know him, down to
the ground, the dirt of his unmasking, and not
just to give him a last chance
to give me something, or take his loathing
This is the first part of what spilled out from my head, echoing what Olds had written but with an entirely different vision. I let the filters go and just went with what came to me:
because I wanted to feel the earth cool –
and not just oceans and rivers
but stars and even you –
the hunger to lie in an open field,
to take back perfection, the beauty
of the honey bee on the eye
of a daisy.
Who knows where it came from or what will come of it? And who cares? But over the next few days, I can work with it like putty and stretch it and mold it to see if it will become something worth keeping.
Yes, we flatter the original poets by imitating their master works. But we can also use the process to unlock our minds when they get stuck. From imitation, we more easily move on to originality and, if we’re really in tune with our own muses, a master work of our own.
(Painting of plums in a bowl by Brett Humphries)