how you can teach poetry well using an ancient technique

This post is about a venerable method of instruction that goes back to Greek times. It’s one way to teach poetry that gets good results. It’s as good for self-study as it is for teaching.

I’m talking about imitation, or imitatio as Roman and Renaissance rhetoric teachers called it. You find imitation exercises all over the place, but the best handbooks I found that use this one technique are both by poet Kenneth Koch. They are: Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children, and Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry. These are books every poet, and every poetry teacher, in my opinion, should have on their bookshelves next to Harmon and Holman’s A Handbook to Literature. 

Don’t let the fact that the titles state “to children” dismiss these books. I find them useful at all levels. In fact, during one 200-level introduction to creative writing course, a couple of my students commented that they didn’t believe some of the sample responses to the exercises were really written by elementary school children. Those comments still bring me down a little bit, but they do show how effective these exercises can be when worked upon by fully open minds.

When practicing imitation, you want to decide what about your model you’ll prompt students to imitate. Some of the choices include form, style, or what you might traditionally call content, but I’ll call subject matter. You could also call it theme. A great exercise I’ve borrowed from Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? makes use of all three. It models William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say,” the much-anthologized short poem in which the poet asks  forgiveness for eating his wife’s plums. According to Koch, the poem provides an example of

  1. “a poet who wrote in ordinary language about ordinary things” (style)
  2. a small poem with short lines (form)
  3. “apologizing for something you’re really secretly glad you did” (subject matter) (Koch, p. 100)

His students, he states, found the subject matter irresistible; my college students enjoyed the exercise just as much. As a bonus, the style and form imitation may help introductory students shed pretentious poetic diction, the obsession with rhyming in superficial Hallmark card fashion, and an archaic conception of poetry based on exposure to long-dead literary greats. I suspect it also has the power to invite some students into the more recent American poetry conversation about the free verse lyric.

Imitation: it’s a venerable technique of instruction that can give good results in a short space. It’s terrific for in-class exercises. Present a compelling, short model that can be used as an exercise during one class period. Then contextualize the poem’s  form, style, and subject matter. Give your students enough time to write, and especially, enough time to share. With luck, imitation will prompt originality, and your students might even come up with some “keepers,” as I like to call them, to use for workshops.



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