Thoughts on Imitation

A student asked me to look at an imitation of Walt Whitman for another class this morning, and I began composing thoughts about imitations in my response to her.  Here they are:

To my mind, an imitation can take a few forms.  The first is that you can adopt a voice similar to the poet, which allows you to show an understanding of the formal, stylistic, and content choices that a poet makes.  The upside to this is that you’re demonstrating deep understanding of the poet, the downside is that the poem doesn’t feel at all like yours.  You’re essentially addressing subjects that the poet might have addressed.  (The most common form of this kind of imitation is anachronism– you tackle a subject that didn’t exist in the poet’s day, but that he/she likely would have addressed if he/she were living today.)

Another is to emulate just the stylistic choices that a poet might make, but looking at a subject of your choosing.  This form asks the writer to read the source material widely and make extensive notes on the kinds of choices a poet would make at given times.  In the case of Whitman, you’d probably be looking at rhetoric, image and syntax most heavily.  Whitman tended toward long, long lines and sentences, with lots of parallelism and some stilted syntax.  He was heavily argumentative in his tactics, and a lot of scholars have noted that he tended to borrow from the Bible his rhetorical constructions, but generally reserved those constructions for non-Biblical subjects, lending them a new tension.  The images didn’t necessarily fit with the historical context of the rhetorical strategies.

The third kind of imitation, which I think is the one you have chosen, essentially serves as a word substitution.  Using a single poem as source material, the poet adopts the construction of the poem almost verbatim, substituting in his/her own words as needed.  If there’s a metaphor in line 5 of the source material, there will almost certainly be a metaphor in line 5 of the imitation.  This kind of imitation does not require that the imitator be deeply familiar with the source poet, only the source poem.  But to be successful there must be a pretty intimate study of the source poem.

It seems to me that for the purposes of classwork, any of these forms of imitation might be reasonable.  I doubt, however, that the first will be terribly successful for writers to undertake for any period of time; writing as someone else may generate some interesting ideas but will ultimately lend a certain inauthenticity to the work.  Likewise, the third may be successful once in a blue moon, particularly as a tongue-in-cheek response to a particular poem, but it is not a sustainable strategy for a life’s work.  The second, however, seems to me to be rich with possibilities, because it is the only one that seems capable of accommodating infinite variation. Like received forms, this kind of imitation seems not only worthy but an indispensable tool for learning the craft of poetry.