Imitation Assignment

For their fourth poem assignment, I had my Introductory Poetry Writing students write an imitation. A copy of the assignment prompt is below:

In chapter 1 of The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser argues that “we teach ourselves to write the kind of poems we like to read. The more poems you read, and the more models you learn from and imitate, the better your writing will get” (9). In this poem assignment, you will pick a poem of your choice from Best American Poetry or the supplemental poems on Blackboard and write a poem that is stylistically similar. Your poem must include at least three similar traits, which you will explain in a reflection that will accompany the poem. There is no length requirements for the poem, but the reflection should be about a page long (double-spaced) and explain what you like about the poem you chose and the “writing tools” you utilized in imitating it.

To prepare my students for this assignment, we dedicated one day of class to practicing close reading. We wrote a list on the board of all the literary devices we had studied over the past five weeks, then looked for examples in the poem “Difference” by Mark Doty. I asked students to be specific about how the use of that literary tool contributed to the meaning and the reading experience.

After the discussion, I distributed the assignment sheet you read above. I also showed them a poem of mine that was inspired by a poem by Noelle Kocot. I explained what aspects of Kocot’s poems I imitated and pointed out these literary devices in my poem.

Lastly, I asked them to complete a close reading of the poem they chose to imitate as a take-home assignment. This assignment was simple: print a copy of the poem and turn it in to me with a substantial amount of specific notes in the margins.

I know that imitation assignments are far from new in Creative Writing pedagogy, but the student’s poems were so fantastic, I decided this was worth sharing. I almost enjoyed reading the reflections as much as the actual poems. I was so impressed by how quickly and eloquently they incorporated these words into their vocabularies. I felt like this assignment helped students realize how important reading with an eye for craft is, and how we can find inspiration from the poems we read.

I’ll end on a quote from a student reflection that made me especially happy:

The first time we read “For Jane,” by Stephen Stepanchev, I was very confused. However, the more I read over it, and the more we learned in class about literary tools in poetry, the more the poem began to speak to me.





Teaching Stanza Breaks

Building off of the previous lesson I posted, here is a summary of my lesson on stanza breaks for my Introductory Poetry Writing course:

1. Last class we talked about line breaks. Let’s review what we know about them (paraphrase on board).

  • There are two kinds: end stop & enjambment.
  • Line breaks indicate a pause, similar to punctuation.
  • Enjambment emphasizes the word at the end of the line or the phrase it is cutting in two.
  • End stop draws less attention to itself (allows other aspects to be prominent).

Today we are going to continue on a similar vein and talk about stanza breaks and punctuation, and how all of these tools contribute to a poem’s rhythm.

2. First of all, what are the functions of stanza breaks? They function much like paragraphs do in prose writing: they represent a jump of some kind, often in time, setting, or content. They signal to the reader that one thought or image has been completed.

3. All of the things we said about line breaks also apply to stanza breaks:

  • Stanza breaks utilize either end stop or enjambment.
  • A Stanza break also represents a pause, though a longer one than a line break.
  • Using enjambment at the end of a stanza emphasizes the final word of the stanza.
  • End stop breaks still draws less attention to themselves than enjambment.

4. Let’s look at some poems and talk about how the breaks influence our reading experience.

  • For Jane” by Stephen Stepanchev (ask for a volunteer to read aloud). What type of stanza breaks does this poem utilize? What did the breaks signal, or how did the breaks affect your reading experience? (Example of end stop line breaks).
  • Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa (ask for another volunteer). This poem doesn’t have stanza breaks. How did this affected your reading experience?

5. In-class exercise: Now we’re going to take the poem “Grief” by Matthew Dickman (a poem we had previously read and which consists of a single stanza), and we’re going to add some breaks where we think it could be appropriate or effective. (Copy and paste the poem into a word document, read it aloud, and add stanza breaks where students suggest them. With each suggested break, ask how that alters our reading experience.)

6. So, in our discussion, we’ve mentioned often how line and stanza breaks affect the speed we read a poem by showing us when to pause. In poetry, we call this rhythm. Rhythm has the same meaning for poetry that is has for music; it is the pattern of speed the poem establishes.

7. Along with line and stanza breaks, another tool that contributes to rhythm is punctuation.

  • “Proverb” by Kenneth Koch. Koch uses punctuation consistently in some parts of the poem and omits it in others. Let’s point to the punctuation in specific sections and talk about how they affect the rhythm.

8. However much punctuation you decide to use, I suggest being consistent. Set rules or patterns that you will follow through out the poem, so that your reader isn’t thrown off. For example, decide you are only going to punctuate at the end of sentences and stick to that rule.

Teaching Line Breaks

This fall, I am teaching Introduction to Poetry Writing at Oregon State University. I excitedly planned my lessons, assignments, and exercises during the summer, many of which I feel proud of and want to share. Here’s the first one.

Summary of my lesson on Line Breaks:

First I introduced the terminology of the different types of breaks:

  • End stop: when the end of a line coincides with the end of a sentence or clause.
  •  Enjambment: when a line ends mid-clause, and the clause continues onto the next line.

Line breaks function somewhat like punctuation in that they indicate a pause for the reader. Therefore, using enjambment brings emphasis to the end of the line. However, if you use enjambment haphazardly, it can become confusing and put off readers. Ted Kooser gives a great example of this in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual (which is one of the required texts in the course):

Mother and I went down to the shoe

store and she took along her white

purse so she could get a pair of

shoes to match (117).

Kooser explains that line breaks are a huge part of what gives a poem rhythm, and “the closer your writing gets to the pacing of conversational speech, the less it’s likely to call attention to itself” (118). Just like any other decision in a poem, it depends on the poet’s intention.

I added my own thoughts:

It is absolutely fine to not want your line breaks to call attention to themselves, to let other aspects of your poem take the spot light. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with using line breaks to create an interesting, more interactive reading experience. Whatever choice you make, take a step back and look at the poem like a potential reader, approaching the poem for the first time. Do the line breaks seem purposeful?

After looking at a few more example from The Poetry Home Repair Manual, we turned our attention to the poems they were assigned to read from Best of the Best American Poetry, the anthology I chose for the class.

The assigned reading for this lesson was “Dharma” by Billy Collins and “A House is Not a Home” by Terrance Hayes. After ask for volunteers to read each poem aloud, I asked them to look for specific breaks that they found especially effective, and I asked them to articulate how the break affected their reading experience. (I believe this was an effective angle to approach discussion, because participation was excellent.)

After all observations were noted, I added that I often don’t know what line breaks I will use until I try breaking the line at various points to see how the effect varies, then I passed out the in-class assignment, which students worked on until the end of the period (about 15 minutes).

In-class Activity

Finish this block of text by filling in the blanks:

In the dream, I woke up to find myself stuck on a boat with ___________________. It was a tiny boat, barely larger than ________________. Out of nowhere ____________________________, I ______________________________________. That’s when it started raining. Then I saw lightning. Then I saw ________________________. Then I saw a lighthouse. But the lighthouse looked more like a ____________________.  That’s when I realized I was dreaming.

Now take the text and break it into lines. You will do this twice. The first version should utilize primarily end stop line endings. The second version should utilize primarily enjambment.