“I will know my song well, before I start singing”
—Bob Dylan, A Hard Rain’s Going to Fall
I hope you got out your window yesterday. I did, just for a couple of hours, but it was worth it. My friend M (we’ll call her that) is a young, new poet and she’s learning how to write, and doing quite well. But she worries that she’s trying to copy her favorite writers when she reads them all the time and then writes her own verse. This post is particularly for her.
A dear poet friend of mine is taking me out for a belated birthday dinner tonight (it was almost 2 months ago, but that’s apparently how busy our lives ended up). Afterwards, because it’s a bit of a tradition, we might sing a little karaoke. I hated karaoke until I met her. I sang a bit in school, the national anthem for high school homecoming (which was horrendous), then a bit in college, but for some reason karaoke made me cringe. But then, I learned to pick the songs I really loved. Even if they weren’t popular (usually old standards, some real grandma pleasers). I practiced them, and then I actually learned to be okay at it (not great, but you know, not terrible). Don’t show up and hold me to that, alright?
I bring this up because today, I was having lunch with a fiction writer and we talked about how important mimicry is when you begin delving into your own writing. At least it was very important to me, still is really.

In fact, Roethke talked about this a great deal. He wanted people to obsess about poems and their favorite poets. He wanted them to write long papers about poets they loved. I know that students worry about copying and sounding too much like their influences, but really, your voice is always there. It can’t help it. Little voice just can’t be stopped. Mimicking can be good all around when you’re learning how a poem works, the syntax of another writer, the rhythm of another.
When I’m working on a piece now and I’m stuck, I’m constantly reading and re-reading my favorite writers. Admiring them, cursing them for their perfection, memorizing them. It’s the only form of study that you can never do without as a poet: Reading. Oh yes, and obsession, you can’t do without obsession either.
So (you see where I’m going with this), it’s the same thing. Karaoke actually taught me how to sing. I learned it by completely, at first, trying to sound like someone else. Now, I sound like myself (for better or for worse, I’m totally stuck with me). But at least I sort of know what I’m doing. So I think it’s okay to be a copy cat. That’s what I’m saying. Don’t steal, don’t plagiarize, but sometimes trying to sound like someone else is the only way to get to your own voice, right? Good luck M, I’ll sing a song for you.

Originally Published: May 15th, 2008

Ada Limón is the author of Lucky Wreck (2006), This Big Fake World (2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award. She earned an MFA from New York University, and is the recipient of...

  1. May 16, 2008

    Yeah! It's wild how many people, when they start writing, take that whole "I don't need to read stuff" stance. It's all derivative. That's the only way it can all be a conversations, rather than people just screaming without listening.
    Good point!
    Good morning.

  2. May 16, 2008

    Hi Ada:
    Happy belated birthday!
    Your post reminds me of how Thom Gunn would always matter-of-factly say--in person and in print-- that he considered himself a derivative poet.

  3. May 16, 2008
     Julie Carter

    I never thought of it in terms of karaoke, but you're right. It's a good comparison.
    Only by trying what someone else does do you discover how hard (or easy) it is to do. You get to hear what you sound like when you employ the same tricks, since you won't sound like the original no matter how you try.

  4. May 16, 2008

    Thanks Adam, Francisco, and Julie!
    An old pal Daniel Nester once had a reading series called karaoke + poetry = fun. I don't know if he still does that, but I liked the idea.
    Perhaps we should each start our own?
    All the best,

  5. May 19, 2008
     Brian Salchert

    Oddly, I've written three or four poems that somewhat mimic Emily Dickinson.
    When I was young and easy, I tried to mimic several poets.
    Charles Peguy was the first one.

  6. November 2, 2008
     Scott Jacobs

    I hope you can help me (this is directed initially at "Brian Salchert", as it was in his post that Charles Peguy's name appeared - but if anyone else can help - that's fine too).
    I recently translated a poem found in a German newspaper that was attributed to Charles Peguy.
    It was about death "Der Tod ist nichts". I have since also found it on the internet attributed to Canon Henry Scott Holland (who apparently used it in a sermon), and to St. Augustine.
    I have searched under the German line, and under "Death is Nothing", and the French "la mort n’est rien" - I guess I need to find the source - finding the poem in a book of Peguy's poetry, or St. Augustine's works, or find Canon Holland's sermon and see if he attributed it to Peguy or St. Augustine or... would be definitive.
    I have had no luck so far finding the original source material on the internet - if anyone knows an online source for Peguy's poetry, Holland's sermons, or St. Augustine's works, I would love to know what it/they are.
    Short of that, obviously someone here has/had access to at least some of Peguy's poems in book form. If it is still available, perhaps someone could search for me. (I am in Germany at the present, and although only 20€ would get me a year's access to the libraries of Ludwigshafen and Mannheim, I have not the 20€ (or a job - the two facts are inter-related...)
    I hope that someone can help.

  7. July 9, 2009
     Andrew Solomon

    I have just been trying to resolve the same question, and came across your query and wonder whether you ever made any progress on this. I know the sermon by Henry Scott Holland, to whom I have always attributed the passage; it was his eulogy for Edward VII, and it was contrasted sharply with a proto-existential view of death. Soctt Holland was Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford and a great social reformer; later in life, he was Canon of St. Paul's, which is where he delivered this famous encomium. A friend just sent me a slightly different version of it attributed to St. Augustine. To the best of my knowledge, Scott Holland did not attribute it to Augustine, but perhaps he thought the reference was clear to his listeners? Or perhaps the attribution to Augustine is an attempt to give greater significance to the passage than would inhere in it from a British cleric. Thoughts?

  8. July 10, 2009
     Annie Finch

    "In fact, it is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent."\r
    –Ralph Waldo Emerson