How do we become better poets?
As with all forms of writing, the way you get better at writing poetry is by intentionally writing more poetry. Keyword: intentionally. If you want to get better at poetry, you need to focus on different elements and techniques.
So to get better at rhyming, you’d write poems while focusing on rhyming; to get better at writing stanzas, you’d write poems while focusing on stanzas. Over time and overall, your poems will start to improve as you get the hang of all of the elements and techniques.
As a poet, I am never sure where my poetic strengths and weaknesses are (without asking other poets or readers anyways). In order to practice poetry intentionally, I plagiarize great poems.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery
If you could learn how to write a great poem from William Shakespeare or Shel Silverstein, wouldn’t you? Imitating great poems is similar to having the greatest poets in the world sit with you and show you what makes and doesn’t make a great poem.
Great poems come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and styles. Wordsworth and Keats will help you write great sonnets, Bruce Lansky will help you write humorous poems, Dickens will help you choose your words wisely, and on and on.
Imitating (it’s only plagiarism if you publish their poem as your own, right? Welcome to art.) poetry is one of the most effective ways to teach yourself poetry for three important reasons:
- There’s a lot of poems to study. If you ever feel stuck with your personal poems, there are 500+ years of literary canon to choose from to give you training with poetic elements and techniques.
- It’s easy to practice. Instead of wasting your time trying to figure out what element or technique focus on, you can just pick a poem you like and imitate it. Or a poem you don’t like and try to write a version that you do like.
- It’s adjustable practice. You can imitate as precisely or as broadly as you like. Want to use words with the same letter count as the poem you’re imitating? Try it! Want to imitate the stanza and line count? Try it! You can customize your imitation in a limitless amount of ways.
On songwriting and imitation
Don’t isolate these suggestions just to poetry. Lyrical and musical imitation is a fantastic way to teach yourself how to write better songs!
Imitate songs that you really enjoy—why do you like that song? Can you add in elements from other songs that you like to make your song pop more to your ears?
“Fix” songs that you don’t like by writing them in a way that would make you like them. For example, I can’t stand country music (it’s the accent), but I love “If I Die Young.” Conclusion? Cover it as a pop-rock song and thereby teach yourself about writing in that genre.
How to choose a poem to imitate
Here are a couple tips for choosing the poem you want to practice on:
- A poem you like. If you already like the original poem, chances are good you’ll like whatever alternative you come up with. Do this if you need encouragement!
- A poem you hate. Try and figure out what about the poem irks you. Is it the content? The form? The rhyme? Can you eliminate that in your own poem? Do this to learn about your style!
- A formal poem. Formal poetry such as villanelles, sonnets, and limericks all have their own rules (which great poets sometimes break). Copying someone else using formal elements makes practicing formal elements less obnoxious. Do this to focus on technique!
- Imitate a random poem. Focus less on whatever random poem you pick and more on making your poem your own. Do this to keep yourself on your toes!
And here’s a list of great poems to get you started!
What do you think—is it unethical to copy poems for practice? What poets do you think would be beneficial to imitate? What poems do you think are especially useful for teaching poetic elements and techniques? Share in the comments!