Today Lesléa is talking about imitation in writing poetry and how she used that as a starting point for several poems in her latest collection I Carry My Mother.
by Lesléa Newman
“Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.”
I can’t remember who I stole that quote from. Which doesn’t make me a great writer necessarily. I am, however, a pretty good thief.
I started my career as a crook back in the 1980’s when I was attending the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute. I was studying with such literary luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, and Alice Notley, and one of them put a life-changing book into my hands: Rose: Where Did You Get That Red? The author, Kenneth Koch is often credited for being the granddaddy of the “poetry in the schools” movement, for he was one of the first poets to go into the public schools and teach children how to read and write poetry. How did he do it? He read the children great poems and had them write their own poems modeled on and inspired by the poems they heard. In effect, he taught the children how to “steal.”
And so I decided to give it a try. I am the kind of writer whose process consists of, as the writer Gene Fowler says, “sitting at the typewriter until three drops of blood appear on your forehead.” In other words, ideas for poems do not come easily to me. Once I do have an idea, I can work for hours, days, weeks, even years, to get the poem right. But more often than not, coming up with an idea involves a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.
And so I turned to Koch’s book eagerly. Why invent the wheel when it has been invented before, and so beautifully? Why not use the already invented forms of beloved poems as a container to pour my own words into? I have found this way of writing especially useful when writing poems of grief, as I did in my most recent poetry collection, I Carry My Mother, which explores my journey through my mother’s illness and death and how I have carried on without her. My mother loved poetry, and this seemed like a fitting way to pay tribute to her. And when I sat down to write poems about my mother and how I mourned for her, my emotions were so unwieldy, I found it enormously helpful and comforting to have an already established structure to work with and make my own. The structures I “stole” not only held the poems together, they held me together as well. Perhaps this was because the poems I chose were so familiar to me, they were like old friends. And what better tonic for healing is there than to surround oneself with friends who have known you for the better part of your life?
One of the classic poems that Koch employed in his book and his teaching, is Wallace Stevens’ classic “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
which can be found here:
What is Wallace doing in the poem? He is taking something ordinary—a blackbird—and making it into something extraordinary by describing it in thirteen different ways. He looks closely at the blackbird, observing a tiny part of it in the first stanza: “Among twenty mountains,/The only moving thing/Was the eye of the blackbird.” He multiplies the blackbird and imagines three of them in the second stanza: “I was of three minds/Like a tree/In which there are three blackbirds.” He imagines the blackbird moving as part of a performance or pantomime in the third stanza. And so on. And in these various explorations, he not only observes the blackbird, he observes himself observing the blackbird. And thus he observes many things about life itself.
Here is something anyone can do, whether a novice or experienced poet. Simply put, the poem is a list of keen observations filtered through the poetic eye and imagination. The idea is to see something familiar as if one has never seen it before. One observes the familiar object as if seeing it for the first time. You can also use this form of poetry to observe a person, as I did:
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT MY MOTHER
Among seven silent rooms
in the middle of the night
the only moving thing
is a swirl of smoke
rising from the lit tip
of my mother’s cigarette
My mother was of three minds
like the three sorry children
she would someday come to bear
My mother whirled through the kitchen
slamming drawers, banging dishes
clanging pots and pans
She was a noisy part of the pantomime
My mother and her mother
My mother and her mother and her daughter
I do not know which I dread more
arriving at my mother’s house
or leaving it
The pain of being with her
or the pain of being without her
Knitting needles click and clack
as something wooly grows
My mother stares at her creation
Her mood is indecipherable
Oh skinny blonde airbrushed models
staring up at my mother as she flips
through glossy magazines,
Why must you torture her so?
I know how to make matzo balls
big as fists
and how to live on nothing
but cottage cheese, cigarettes, and air
but I know, too
that my mother is involved
in everything I know
When my mother moved
from Brooklyn to Long Island
she marked the edge
of one of many circles
At the sight of my mother
staring back at me
at three in the morning
from the unforgiving bathroom mirror
I cry out sharply
I rode home on the train
and fear pierced me
in that I mistook
the phlegmy hacking cough
coming from three rows back
for the sound of my mother
The ventilator is on
My mother must be breathing
It was twilight all day
and all night long
she was breathing
and she was trying to breath
my mother lay in the ICU
her hand in mine
holding on for dear life
Another poem that Koch used very successfully in the classroom is “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams which has also become a classic and a favorite poem of English teachers everywhere. (There is even an entire book of parodies of this poem written by Gail Carson Levine entitled Forgive Me, I Meant To Do It). The poem, told in very simple language, is an apology. But the beauty of the poem is that the speaker is apologizing for something he really isn’t sorry he has done. In fact, it appears he is rather delighted with himself. Children (of all ages) love this poem, for who among us hasn’t apologized for something we do not regret in the least? The poem can be found here:
In this poem, the narrator has eaten some plums that “you were probably/saving” and then asks to be forgiven. The speaker then describes the plums as “so sweet/and so cold” implying that the plums were greatly enjoyed and the speaker really isn’t sorry for eating them at all.
For an imitation of this poem, I chose to write a note of apology in my mother’s voice and have her apologize to me. Was she sorry for leaving me? Yes…..and no.
LETTER FROM MOM, POSTMARKED HEAVEN
This is just to say
for being a daughter
I always rush off
when my mother calls
There are several more imitations in I Carry My Mother. I “stole” from poets both my mom and I adore including Dr. Seuss, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, and Robert Frost. I also “stole” from contemporary writers that my mother was not familiar with, including Molly Peacock and Meg Kearney. Since I know these writers personally, I contacted them to see if they felt okay about my thievery.
Both poets reacted in the same way. “What an honor!” wrote Molly Peacock when I sent her my poem, “At Night” which was inspired by her poem, “Of Night” which appears in her marvelous book, The Second Blush. And by the same token, when I sent Meg Kearney my poem “Wish List” which was inspired by her poem “Empty List Poem” from her fantastic novel in poems, The Secret of Me, Meg wrote, “I’m flattered,” and then went on to say, “‘Great poets steal,’ right?” I was pleased, and I admit, also relieved, that these poets whom I greatly admire felt, as I do, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
And so, I will continue to “steal” from poets whose work I admire. And who knows? Maybe someday, someone will honor and flatter me by “stealing” a poem from me.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at My Mother” and “Letter from Mom, Postmarked Heaven” copyright ©2015 by Lesléa Newman, from I Carry My Mother published by Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Thank you again to Lesléa for this beautiful post.
If you’d like to learn more about Lesléa and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://www.lesleanewman.com