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Imitation Experiment

The best way to learn to write a poem is by reading many, many poems. In this experiment, you will steal (like any great artist) techniques, structures, and even choice phrases directly from poems you love and employ them in your own work. (If you do steal exact language or structures, just make sure you note your theft with an homage or endnote.)

Step 1

Select a poem you admire. Maybe you’ve selected it for its content or message, or maybe you like something about its structure. In either/both cases, write the poem out by hand or type it up on an old typewriter. The goal is to feel the poem in a tangible way, and to comprehend more fully the poem’s form—its finer aspects, its line breaks, its stanza breaks, etc.

Step 2

Discern the following in your reading:

Intent. What is the overall intent of the poem? This is not the same as asking, What is the intent of the poet who wrote the poem? That is a different question, and one that is actually impossible to answer without having the poet present. And even if the poet is present, they may give you a different answer on a different day, or they may not even be able to articulate their intent. To ask, What is the intent of the poem, one should ask, What kind of poem is this? A lyric? A song? A narrative? A poem that tries to build a whole world? Or one that offers only a piece/fragment of a world, situation, or experience?

Title. How does the poem’s title relate to the body of the poem? Is it a generalization of the poem, or a kind of “caption” to the poem? Or does the title seem more slant or even in opposition to the rest of the poem? What kind of juxtaposition exists between the title and first line?

Stanzaic structure. Is there just one, or many? Is each stanza a complete sentence? A single thought? A continuation? How many lines are in each stanza—a uniform number, or does it vary—and what’s the effect?

Lines and line breaks. Why does the line break where it does? That is, not why did the poet make these particular line breaks, but why is the poem making these line breaks—what is the effect? For example, when a certain line breaks, does the word that follows often surprise you? Is there any double-meaning or altered meaning from the end of one line to the next? Are the lines short or long? Do any lines repeat? For that matter, do any words or phrases repeat? Or do you detect variations on lines or phrases in other spots of the poem?

Sound work. The first thing to do is to read the poem out loud. Three, four, five times. Why? Because your ear will pick up more than your mind in silent reading will allow. Where in the poem does there seem to be an emphasis on sounds? Is there rhyming? Assonance, consonance, or alliteration? The key is not simply to note these, but to look for patterns in the sonics and possible variations of the patterns.

Imagery. Find all the images, which are most often concrete nouns. What kind are they—lush, spare, or something else entirely? Do they have color? Do they have time indications? How often do they appear? What is happening in the poem when there are no images? Trace the images by writing each down next to the poem in the order in which they appear. What linkages or patterns are revealed? How might you emulate these patterns?

Registers. Discern the different types of language being used, or what the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin terms “idioms,” in the poem. For example, in Frank O’Hara’s poem “Ave Maria,” the speaker quickly switches between and among registers—from comic to sermon-like, from condescending to pleading, from formal to vulgar, from abstract ideas to concrete images. Notice how one register/idiom plays off the next, and what possible patterns and variations exist in the poem. What kind of register does the poem begin with, and what kind does it end on?

Lists. Does the poem make any lists or seem to imply a list, whether in items, phrases, concepts? If so, what’s at stake? What kinds of things or ideas are present in the list(s)? Does the list appear repetitive, line after line, or is it more subtle and evasive, or spread throughout the poem? Even if items of the list appear random, they rarely are; in other words, closely examine the juxtapositions between the items of the list. An effective list will appear random but not be so.

Step 3

Once you have examined closely the poem you wish to imitate, steal (ok, let’s call it borrow) whichever structures or aspects you wish. Try taking one or two at a time. If the poem is all in couplets, for instance, make that one aspect to imitate. If the poem also has a certain pattern in how it deploys its images, borrow that pattern. If the poem is speaking from the pulpit in a list form, do the same paying close attention to the syntactic structures while inputting your own content.