Reading more poetry with my students has been a goal of mine these past few years, and it’s been a goal I feel has been readily achieved with ideas like creating Heart Books or reading novels in verse.
But writing poetry–well, that’s a different story.
Students who aren’t accustomed to writing poetry need a scaffold before they can leap into free verse composition without a topic, genre, or form prompt. For this scaffold, I use imitation.
Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Identify patterns of language, structure, and punctuation in a given poem; Modify the style of the given poem to suit your purpose; Create a poem in the style of a given poem.
Lesson — Before the mini-lesson, I will have already booktalked two of Mary Oliver’s books–A Poetry Handbookand Dog Songs, which is always a favorite with my students. As the mini-lesson begins, I’ll read to them from Oliver’s chapter on imitation.
“You would learn very little in this world if you were not allowed to imitate,” Oliver begins. “Before we can be poets, we must practice; imitation is a very good way of investigating the real thing.”
“I have some poems here today for us to imitate and investigate,” I follow up. I pass out the following options, lately garnered from my incredible poetry seminar with Mary Ann Samyn:
- Mark Doty: “A Display of Mackerel“
- Marie Howe: “What Belongs To Us“
- James Wright: “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota“
“Read over these quickly, and choose one you’d like to imitate. Then open to a fresh page in your notebook.”
“I’m going to write with you, and I’m going to choose ‘A Display of Mackerel,’” I say. “It seems long, but look how short the lines and stanzas are.” I put my chosen poem under the document camera. “Now, this poem is about a display of fish, and I want to imitate it and write about a display of something. There’s a pretty big display of colorful objects in my room…” I trail off.
“Your library!” Nathan helpfully supplies.
“Yep,” I agree. “I’m going to imitate this poem and write about my bookshelf. I’m just going to change a few words per line, but I’m going to keep all the punctuation and the numbers of words the same. It’s so easy to write poetry this way.”
On the document camera, I begin my imitation next to Doty’s original:
They lie in parallel rows, They rest in slumped rows,
on ice, head to tail, on shelves, spine to spine,
each a foot of luminosity each a sheaf of wisdom
“See how easy that is? I keep Doty’s structure, punctuation, and even some of his words. I just change a few to make the poem about my display of books, rather than his display of mackerel. Now you take a few minutes to give this a start.”
We set about writing together.
After 10-15 minutes, we each have a full imitation poem. We break into small groups, working with others who imitated our same poem. We read our poems aloud. Feedback is given on what we notice–similarities to and diversions from the original, and the effects of both.
Follow-Up — We’ll practice imitation a few more times before we leap into writing poetry independently. When we do, I’ll ask, as always, that my students create a small anthology of their work on that genre–some samples of their early forays into poetry through imitation, as well as a few examples of their own independent attempts. I’ll definitely include my “A Display of Books” in my own anthology, as I find it a lovely description of my library that I’d like to preserve.
My Imitation Poem: “A Display of Books”
by Shana Karnes & Mark Doty
They rest in slumped rows,
on shelves, spine to spine,
each a sheaf of wisdom
creased with cracked spines,
which divide the plots’
most gripping sections
like bands of color
in a double rainbow.
prismatics: think indigo,
the wildly rainbowed
spectrum of a springtime rain,
think sun spearing through clouds.
Wonder, and wonder,
and all of them in every way
unique from one another
–everything about them
a onetime blend of letters. Thus,
they’re all creative expressions
of a million different souls,
each a tenuous effort
of the soul’s footprint,
writer’s essence. As if,
after a lifetime of drafting
at this printing, the author’s
taken irreversible steps,
each as permanent
in its inked completion
as the one next door
Suppose we were shoulder-to-shoulder,
like these, the same but different
from our universe
of neighbors—would you want
to be yourself only,
to be in print? They’d prefer,
plainly, to be award winners,
forever honored. Even now
they seem to be straining
forward, heedless of their lifelessness.
They don’t care they’re ink
and simple paper,
just as, presumably,
they didn’t care that they were imagined:
all, all for all,
the rainbowed shelf
and its acres of brilliant words,
in which no verb is singular,
or every one is. How eager they seem,
even on shelves, to be different, selfish,
which is the price of publication.
Shana Karnes is a contributing blogger for WVCTE, an instructor at West Virginia University, and a regular writer at Three Teachers Talk, where this post originally appeared. When she’s not busy with her two daughters, piles of grading, or displays of books, you can find her on Twitter at @litreader.
WVCTE is wondering…
- How might you use this lesson with your students?
- What other poems do you think might be great for imitation?
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