Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | October 27, 2014

Imitation: Not Just Flattery

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.

spark4For 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

were probably

saving for breakfast

Forgive me

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

received as a wedding gift –pink towels

the mauve ones with

tiny claret flowers

that we used in our

small bathroom,

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:

—–Three glasses

Everything depends upon

three glasses of red Merlot

lined up within reach

beyond the stack of white papers

on the desk.


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)



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