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Response Poems Response Poems
© 2008, W. Todd Kaneko

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different." — T.S. Eliot

"Bad artists copy, great artists steal" — Pablo Picasso

"Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal." — Igor Stravinsky

"I steal from every movie ever made." — Quentin Tarantino

"You Shall Not Steal" — Exodus 20:15

Sometimes, writing a poem is done in response to work done by others—as poets, we can imitate. When we talk about poetry imitations, what we are really talking about is writing poems inspired by the works of others. There are lots of ways to write using another's poem as a spark—artists have been doing it for years, so we'll use this idea of using other poems as a spark for inspiration. Below are some ideas for you to play with when using another poem for inspiration. Note that these are not hard and fast rules that you have to follow in order to produce a good poem. Nor is this list meant to be exhaustive. What I hope you gain from this is an idea of how to take something that you find in another piece of artwork and use it to make your own art.

Note that you can apply many of these to your own work in thinking about revision.

1. Write a reply to the poem. For me, the most obvious example of this is Raleigh's reply to Marlowe in their Nymph-Shepherd poems, and more recently, Donald Hall's "Nymph and Shepherd" has found a place in that conversation. In essence, a reply requires that you come to some sense of what the poem is saying to you; this doesn't mean that you have to be able to paraphrase the poem—that's never our goal. But if you understand the poem, and that's a relative term, write a poem that answers the questions or statements that the original poem makes. You might tell Charles Simic that I am no humble scribe. Or you might insist to Naomi Shihab Nye, Love means that you don't have to breathe at all. Or you might tell Billy Collins that you shouldn't write a poem about fishing if fishing isn't something you have ever done. Or tell Kim Addonizio "No—this is what women want." Note that you aren't necessarily arguing with the poem--you might know exactly what Alberto Rios means when he says that we live in secret cities.

2. Imitate the form of the poem. Read through the poem and see if you can identify the formal considerations that the poet has thought about to make the poem work. Count syllables in a line. Count the lines in a stanza. Look at rhyming and repetition schemes. Consider the use of line breaks to make surprising turns of phrase and image. If the poet has used a fixed form, then we might begin there—but then we can look at the way that a poet has approached a fixed form in order to better understand both the poet and the form. For example, Natasha Trethewey's poem "Miscegenation" is a ghazal, and if we choose to write a response to this poem, we have to try and figure out how Trethewey approached the ghazal form, and how she made the poem work outside of the formal considerations.

3. Build off a primary metaphor that the poem works from. Beckian Fritz Goldberg's "Blossom at the End of the Body" is striking because of the way it plays with the image of the flower in so many surprising ways. I might try and write my own mortality poem using the flower as my metaphor, trying to make the poem use that metaphor as a motor to make the poem happen. In "Render, Render," Thomas Lux uses cooking imagery in a way that we might imitate to see how the metaphor provides the motor for the poem--it's the imagery that powers the poem, so by imitating the engine, we might come to a better understanding of how the vehicle works as a whole.

4. Steal the first line of the poem. From there you are on your own. A poem generally works from that first line, building on it and deviating from it in a variety of ways, each of which is specific to a particular poem. So take the starting point used by another poet and see where it takes you. Alternatively you can steal a line that is not the first to use as your first line, but then you don't have that same spark to begin with. Another more challenging way might be to steal a last line and see how you might get there on your own. Even more challenging: take the first and last lines and write the rest of the poem yourself.

5. Use a passage as an epigraph. One of Billy Collins's most well known poems, "Litany," works off of its epigraph. Collins goes on to use the epigraph as the first lines of his poem, but that isn't necessary. Take the lines or stanza and use your poem to build on what the original poem doesn't necessarily explore. This may mean an snarky/ironic twist to the language used, or more intense play with the images being used in the passage to produce something new. Take the passage and don't worry about what the original does with it—focus on what you get from it and go from there.

6. Turn Prose into Verse. This means more than just adding line breaks. Or maybe it doesn't. I know this isn't exactly a reponse to a poem, but it's a way of using a poem to respond to another's text and I wanted to include it here for you. For example: Wikipedia tells me all I need to know about the chupacabra and the "Texas carcasses which turned out to be domestic dogs and coyotes." That's going into a poem. It won't be verbatim, but I like the idea of a mythical creature becoming something much more ordinary.

7. Write the opposite of the poem. Contradict the poem: what it says, how it works, and what it means. This is different than writing a reply because the new poem doesn't necessarily address the old poem—it takes the content of the origonal poem and transforms it into an opposite in any way the writer sees fit. A long narrative poem like Rita Dove's "The Bistro Styx" might be condensed into a short list poem about the hour after landing in an airplane. A poem like Simic's "Bestiary for the Fingers of My Left Hand" might be a single stanza about the palm or the foot. Writing the opposite of a poem is fun to do, but probably one of the most challenging of the ideas listed here.

Remember, as Eliot says, we aren't necessarily after a poem that merely imitates what has gone before us. We are after poems that take from the original and transform it for the world. We are looking for ways that our work might intersect and converse with the work of other poets. The rules I've laid out aren't hard and fast, perform or fail rules--they are just meant to get you started writing in response to the many great poems we'll read, and to hopefully get you thinking about how these different poets make the poem happen through whatever means necessary.

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