On Writing Poems – part 4 – Copying

I’ve already proposed you should steal. Now I’m going to encourage you to copy. A lesson I think is quite valuable to keep in mind when attempting to write poetry is to look at other crafts, other arts, and other pursuits for inspiration in regards to systems and ways of thinking, and of process. Let’s say music and songwriting, which seems closely related to writing poems. It seems very natural, at least to me, to understand that part of learning how to write songs is by learning how to play other people’s songs. Learning someone else’s song shows you how and why all of its components come together to move you. Why one chord voicing leading you to a new one works under the meaning of a certain lyric; how that accent on the third beat connotes forward motion, propelling the groove. Learning someone else’s song, and especially after learning a number of other peoples’ songs, a songwriter begins to fill their toolbox with items that knowingly work and fit together.

Now, most poets start as admirers, engaged readers. And most poets continue to read other poets’ work, continue to be inspired by it. Some of us even use it, vis à vis, the cut-up method or similar. But I think few of us, like musicians, spend time “covering” another poet’s work. That is, learning it by recreating it. Actually writing it down, performing it, as it were.

Rather than just reading, or reading and note-taking even, I want to encourage you to write, word for word, someone else’s poem. Repeatedly. I would especially encourage you to do this with paper and pen, to include your body in the task more fully. Let your arm, hand and fingers take part in the exercise. Musicians develop muscle memory, their hands and fingers “know” how to grab a chord, or how to arpeggiate it, without thought, because of repetition. Poets can do this too, but in that space somewhere between our brain and fingers. Somewhere more like our heart.

Start with your favorite poem if you’ve never done this before. Copy the title, and the spacing between the title and the first line, below. Copy the capitalization, the punctuation, the line breaks. Especially pay attention when you are writing to the line breaks. Is the poem in a recognized form? Is it a sonnet? An ottava rima? A haiku? Do you recognize the meter? Answer these questions as they arise. Notice what you notice was a mantra of sorts from Allen Ginsberg during many a lecture. Do that.

Read it aloud. Feel your breath and let your body rock gently to whatever rhythms move you from the text.

What do I expect you to get out of this? What you put into it. Despite the array of forms and meters and schools and traditions, what we work with is like smoke. Words are cagey, changing, and aloof. They don’t care what you intend, and they aren’t like Ikea furniture to be poured out of boxes and assembled according to someone’s predetermined assumptions. (I mean, unless you want them to be. They can be that if you want. Remember refrigerator magnet poetry?) The point in writing down, repeatedly, another poet’s poem is to get into their rhythm of unlocking words from what you think they mean. I have found that poetry, like most areas in life, is best when I get out of the way. 

Why do I want to get out of the way? What am I talking about? Any poem of mine starts as intention. I want to stay as close to that point as possible. Everything I might do after that intention is my ego trying to write what I know will be a great poem. That’s the poem I’m not interested in. The poem I am interested in is nurtured from that intention. I’ll make the poem, typically as a series of passes over and through a text, sculpting and chipping away, adding and removing. Each decision I make I want to be made as close to that point of intention as possible. I’ve found that the state of mind I enter while learning someone else’s poem in this manner broadens me, and opens me to the things words can say in combination whereas my own preconceived notions and biases are more likely to obscure.

Try it, get a poem out that you cannot recite from memory, and copy it down word for word, repeatedly until you can. Not to learn by rote, but to truly dissect it. Answer all the questions which arise. A great poem is more than the sum of its parts. By copying it down like this we can begin to quantify the “more than” portion, and then add it to our toolbox.

Published by pedalpoet

Poet, writer, and songwriter living in Seattle, WA

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