See the Poem, Be the Poet, See the Poem Again

This is the first post of a two-part essay on the pedagogy of poetic imitation.

As the Lead Professor for Concordia University Irvine’s Core English 201: World Literature to the Renaissance, I try to vary the papers I assign each semester, both as a way of discouraging cheating and as a means of staying sane. About three years ago, I came upon a new idea—new for me, that is—that would allow the students to be more creative while helping them understand that most basic block of good poetry, and of writing in general: diction.

Students often take for granted the existence of works of art, as if the poets or painters behind them were not real humans who struggled to compose their pieces or who made difficult choices along the way. So, by asking my students to write a 40-50-line poem in imitation of the Iliad (as far as is possible in English, with the emphasis on diction and figurative language rather than on meter), I ask them to be the artist and to appreciate more fully those struggles and choices. In addition to the poem, they write a short paper, comparing their own poems to Homer’s; in this way, even a poor poet may earn a good grade by showing his own deficiencies while articulating the stylistic elements of the Iliad. Happily, the exercise does produce some nuggets of gold, and the writers, many of whom have never tried their hand at poetry before, feel a sense of pride hitherto unknown.

I suppose that the idea for the assignment came from my source study work on Shakespeare and Spenser, as I have always been fascinated by their imitations and reworkings of such classical authors as Ovid and Virgil.  In his biography of Shakespeare, Dennis Kay writes of the grammar school in Stratford where the boys were “introduced . . . [to] dramatists like Plautus and Terence . . . there was even a tradition of performing scenes from these plays, and for composing English versions of classical plays for performance by the boys. When Shakespeare, in The Comedy of Errors, one of his earliest plays, went out of his way to double the complexities of his already complicated source in Plautus Menaechmi, his audience would have recognized straightaway the familiar schoolroom material . . .” Nor was this a new idea in the 1500s. In his study of education in ancient Rome, Stanley Bonner shows that imitation formed a key role in the teaching:

From early childhood, when their nurses had told them stories of the animal kingdom to keep them quiet, and from their primary school days, when they had laboriously copied out fables, boys had become familiar with the delightful world of Aesop, in which animals met and talked and behaved like human beings, and in which there was always a moral to adorn the tale. Now they had to try their hand at writing these fables for themselves, first telling the story orally, and then writing it down in their own words.

Furthermore, the classic readings for Concordia’s Core English 201 course showed the power of imitation in a clear progression as we watched Virgil imitate Homer, Dante imitate Virgil, and Sir Philip Sidney imitate Petrarch. If it worked for them, why shouldn’t it work for us?

When Concordia’s Core had the great good fortune to welcome Stanley Lombardo—translator/poet responsible for our editions of Iliad, Aeneid, and Inferno—as a guest convocation speaker, I was gratified to learn that he was a fan of imitation as well. Afterwards, I asked him if he had published his ideas on the subject.  He has not, but he sent me this paragraph with his permission to use:

As the great American poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “Imitation, conscious imitation, is one of the great methods, perhaps the method of learning to write.”  Just as there is a long tradition of art students being taught to copy the great masters and thereby learn technique, so too aspiring poets once learned the art of composing verse by imitating the classics. This is a practice that has largely been abandoned in favor of emphasizing originality and free self-expression, as if poetry were not an art to be mastered but simply a spontaneous verbal effusion. It is not necessary to limit imitation to the old masters—modern or even contemporary authors can serve as models—but one must serve as an apprentice to learn a craft.

While I am not training poets per se, there are still valuable lessons to be learned from this exercise, not the least of which is that poetry is hard work.

Kerri L. Tom is Professor of English at Concordia University Irvine