Saturday, July 21, 2012

Imitation – Igniting Language and Inspiration

Imitation is one of the ways young children learn to speak. They hear sounds and echo them back. Of course, it is a lot more complicated than that, but without a model to follow, they won’t start talking. And it’s not just words they imitate – they imitate our actions too. Which reminds me of a story of my children as preschoolers. A good friend had been watching them for me while I ran to the grocery store. When I came to pick them up, she told me, “They played house while you were gone.”

My four-year-old had said to his brother, “You can be Dad and go to work. I’ll be Mom.” He then grabbed a book, sat on the couch and pretended to read.”

I was a little embarrassed by that story (but not much). It wasn’t my habit to sit on the couch all day with a good book in hand. I kept the house fairly clean and played with my kids regularly; but I also spent a lot of time reading with them. Maybe that’s what he was imitating.

It is not just children who learn by imitation, many artists have learned new skills by copying the masters and I’m sure there are writers who have done the same. In Mary Oliver’s, A Poetry Handbook, she devotes a whole chapter to imitation. She said,

“Every child is encouraged to imitate. But in the world of writing it is originality that is sought out, and praised, while imitation is the sin of sins.
Too bad. I think if imitation were encouraged much would be learned well that is now learned partially and haphazardly.”

I like her advice (and love her poetry.) I heard something similar in a writing class so I went to an old master, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and used his poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a pattern to follow. I started with a couple of stanzas and modeled mine after his. Here are Coleridge’s verses:

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken -
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

And here are my stanza’s following his structure and tone:

But in the cloud, the misty shroud,
there grew a mournful sound;
a wind that breathed through wings to weave
a wailing all around.

The wind was on, the wind was in,
the wind was all between.
It whipped and crashed, and blew and lashed,
as scythe upon the green.

Once I wrote those stanzas a story started forming in my mind and so I wrote a whole poem based on Coleridge’s albatross. I won’t share the entire ballad because it is rather long, but this gives you an idea of the exercise.

Imitation is a good beginning for writing and for language development but I don’t want to stop there with my own creations. And I don’t want my students to stop there. When children rely only on verbal imitation they are using echolalia – an automatic response with very little meaning. I need to help them move past imitation so they can communicate their own thoughts, ideas and desires.

And if they imitate my actions, I’m thinking, sitting on the couch (or at my desk) reading a good book isn’t such a bad idea.


  1. Like your poem! Writing poems inspired by other poems is a great exercise. Violet's post today inspired a conversation about this, too.

    Have you read "Steal Like An Artist" by Austin Kleon? You might like to check his site out:

  2. I'm doing the same WOW as Tabatha! Two poems of imitation in the same PF roundup! I love how often the echoes from around the blogosphere are captured in our poetry-sharing!

    (thanks for the bonus link, Tabatha!)

  3. Thank you both for your encouraging comments and the links. I'll check them out.

  4. Yay, love this blog Jeannie! Your insights are always interesting.