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Susan PlettFinding Your Voice:
Other Poets as Inspiration
Copyright©2011 by Susan Plett

This is Susan's twelfth column in our "Poet's Classroom" series.

“Read what you want to write.” How many times do we as writers hear this advice?

There’s a reason for that. Just one page into a new novel, for instance, it is relatively simple to identify the genre. Even if the genre is difficult to nail down, the basic tone or music of the work is immediately evident. We get a feeling about it.

The same is true of poetry. The more we read of the kind of poetry we want to write, the more the essential music and cadence of it seeps into our subconscious. This begins to influence our thought patterns, and we bring those patterns with us when we come to our own page, ready to write. In the "Introduction to Poetry" classes I teach, one of the assignments given is “Read a poem a day.” There are several websites that publish poetry on a daily basis, for example Poetry Daily and Writer’s Almanac. Or you could choose a site like Utmost, and begin reading through the gallery.

A varied diet

One way that we can use other poets as inspiration is to read a variety of poets. Some poems will appeal to us more than others. The important thing is to pay attention to our reactions. If we find a poem particularly moving, how has the poet achieved that? If we find a poem leaves us flat, we can try to identify what is missing. And if a poem arouses a negative reaction in us, why is that happening? We may be reacting to cleverness of language, or lack thereof. We may find ourselves appreciating a particularly startling metaphor or simile. We may appreciate the poem on an emotional level, regardless of skill, or, conversely, find ourselves with no emotional reaction at all. By learning to evaluate our responses we learn to define our own goals as a poet. (for instance, it was through reading the poetry of Amy Lowell and Catherine Moss that I came to my own love of the sustained metaphor.)

Reaction poetry

There is often poetry in our own emotional reactions to a poem. The "reaction poem" we write can become a sort of conversation between us and the writer of the original poem. In one well-known, humorous example of a poem and a rebuttal, see Frances Cornford’s “To A Fat Lady Seen From the Train,” and GK Chesteron’s answering poem “The Fat White Woman Speaks,” in which Chesterton assumes the voice of the woman addressed in Cornford’s poem. (Worthy of note: a reaction poem does not have to be a negative one, just as not all conversations need be confrontational.)

Our daily reading may help us discover a poet we want to read more of. Even if the poet doesn’t have a collection published, many poets have an online presence, or an online portfolio. Check a local library for copies of anthologies or magazines your particular poet has been published in. Immerse yourself in his or her work for a short period of time. While you may find that your initial attraction has worn off (I can think of at least one poet whose skill takes my breath away, but whose overall outlook is not something I want to emulate), you may also find that you are more enamoured than ever.

Intentional mimicry

There is a huge difference between mimicry and plagiarism. Always be intentional about not plagiarizing. Make a list of at least five things you have an emotional reaction to and create a template for yourself. By way of example, my list might include:

• people in nursing homes
• people who drive big trucks and cut me off in traffic
• hearing my father whenever I sing hymns in church

One of my favourite poems of Amy Lowell’s, Decade, begins with the lines:

When you came, you were like red wine and honey
and the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness

Making this into a template might look like this:

When (interaction), you were like (food item) and (complementary food item)
and (use one of the five senses) (tactile verb) my (body part) with (concrete detail)

Which might then look like this, when I tried to plug “father/hymns/church” into it:

When you sang beside me, your voice was tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches
Warmth wrapped around my shoulders, strong, solid.

This is a different voice for me. For one thing, I had to fight against my hard and fast “present tense” rule, and for another, I keep wanting to snip out words I don’t think belong (“wrapped” is unnecessary, in my opinion). However, the value of adhering as closely as possible to the original poem's construction is that the new approach can take us out of tried and true patterns. Trying something new can be effective not only in refining our voice, but in freshening our work.

You don’t need to go as far as making a template, however. "Decade" is a poem that contrasts an initial infatuation with a maturing love. With this kind of past-and-present in mind, I might start another poem this way:

Mother

You were rainstorm and lightning
Striding always through storm-shadow
Now you are a deep mountain lake
on a windless day

Using form poetry for mimicry

Another type of intentional mimicry is to try some known forms (sestina, villanelle, pantoum, terza rima, triolet, or sonnet, to name just a few). Calgary poet Micheline Maylor says, “Think of experimenting with form poetry as going to a cocktail party. You are going to meet some forms that you dislike instantly, some forms that intrigue you, and some forms that you come to love only if and when you spend enough time with them.” In my own experimentations with form, I have come across two books that have been invaluable: In Fine Form, a collection of modern form poetry editted by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, and Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance.

Whatever method of emulation you use, the key to ensuring that you are remaining true to your own voice is, I believe, writing about your passions. I love Mary Oliver’s poetry, her consistent, persistent seeking and finding of the divine in nature, but I don’t see the world the way she does. If I were to seek to emulate her, and start writing nature poetry—it would lie flat on the page, with none of the energy and life she imbues. It would be nothing more than a poor carbon copy, and that would show.

Poetry that breathes on the page starts in the heart of any poet. And this is the caution: Study craft, read other poets, soak in the delicious heat of well chosen words—and bring what you learn back to yourself, your own heart, your own uniquely observed passions.

And maybe one day it will be your poetry that an eager young poet will be seeking out.

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Copyright ©2011 by Susan Plett