The Fine Art of Mimicry
“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.
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...