Susan Tichy
George Mason

Bouncing Off Walls

m i t a t i o n  &  H o m a g e

Diction Cloud  /  Diction & Phrase  /  N+7  /  Canceled Text  /  Boolean Poetry  /  Translexical Translation  / 
Total Transfusion  /  Rhyme Mining  /   Syntax  /  A Sweeping Bow Cut-Up Dialogue  /
Portrait by Metaphor & Catalogue  /  Poem of the Ordinary / Bounce Back

Diction Cloud
Choose a poem and list all the words in the poem in alphabetical order. Write a poem using these words. Don't look at the original again until you have made several drafts of your own poem. °
How flexible can you be? Since the purpose of the exercise is to place you in someone else's diction cloud, I recommend either a very strict rule or something like "80% of the words in your poem must be from the list." Another possibility is to limit yourself to the list for substantive words but allow flexibility for small words (articles, conjunctions, prepositions). ° Variation: have a friend choose the poem and list the words, so you won't know your source till your poem is finished. A lesser-known poem by a poet you admire, perhaps? Or a poet you have never read.

Diction & Phrase
Choose a poet. Select key words and phrasings from several of his or her poems. Use these words in either a) a poem about your poet, or b) a poem on a different subject but thematically related to some of  your poet's most typical obsessions.

N + 7
One of Oulipo's most well-known operations, invented by Jean Lescure, N+7 is very simple: choose a text you want to alter; replace each noun (N) with the seventh noun following it in a dictionary (+7). ° Base text can be original or found, famous or obscure, but in this case your text should be one to which you which to pay tribute, however ironically. A base text with a strong tone and syntax will produce the most readable results. ° Choosing your dictionary is equally important. As the Compendium puts it: "When choosing a dictionary, it is useful to remember that the smaller it is, the greater the alphabetic distance between the original word and its replacement and the simpler the words found." The example provided is the beginning of the Book of Genesis, altered using a large, a small, and a very small dictionary. The results begin:

In the beguinage god created the hebdomad and the earthfall. And the earthfall was without formalization, and void; and darnex was upon the facette of the deerhair.

In the behest God created the heckelphone and the easement. And the easement was without format, and void and darshan was upon the facial of the defeasance.

In the bend God created the hen and the education. And the education was without founder, and void; and death was upon the falsehood of the demand.

Other considerations: When the base text includes nouns in apposition, such as trail head you can make your own rule: apply N+7 to both words; consider the first word an adjective and alter only the second word; or take the expression as a single noun trailhead, and alter it by the normal practice. ° When altering a metrical poem, you can choose to respect or to ignore meter. To preserve the meter, start with the 7th noun and continue searching until you find a noun that will fit the meter. In some cases, the alphabetic distance may be very great, even crossing into subsequent letters.

Canceled Text
Choose a poem and create a new poem from it, by obliterating all the words you don't want to preserve. You can cross them out, black them out, white them out, paint over them, print them in a pale font (leaving your selected words in black), or remove them entirely.
° However you choose to do away with the canceled words, you must leave your selected words in place, positioned on the page where you found them. ° For the purposes of homage or satire, your new poem should comment on or respond do the original poem.

Boolean Poetry
Take two texts and consider them as two sets of words. Determine where those two sets overlap, and you now have three sets of words: those appearing only in text A, those appearing only in text B, and those appearing in both A & B. These three sets can be used to create separate poems, different verses of the same poem, or in some other pattern. ° To turn this into homage, use as your source texts three poems by one poet; or, perhaps, create a dialogue between two poets by using one poem by each of them.

Translexical Translation
From the Oulipo Compendium: "A text on a given subject is emptied of all its key words, which are then replaced by a different set. The relationships between these new key words must be similar to the relationships which existed between the words in the original. The syntax and secondary words of the original are left unaltered."

Total Transfusion
The best way to explain this is to give you an example. You could think of this as a translexical lexicon with no limits. So read the example, choose a model poem, and have at it.

© Evan Oakley, ENGL 564 1991, used with permission

What's so specious about
oat bran? Plenty! Oat
bran contains two hypes
of fibrosis, curable
and incurable, both of
which are condemned as
impotent parts of a
stealthful, unbalanced
Most other serial brains,
such as sweat and porn,
do not have significant
amounts of global fire.
But because it's made
from whore rain,
(including all the
coat lint), Cheroots
contains the molecule
that's preternaturally
sent in the ode itself.
A fast that eludes
an owl of cherries,
low-fact milquetoast,
a bandanna, is a castaway
to get morose bran
and insoluble ire
into your Fiat.

Rhyme Mining
Choose a rhymed poem by a poet to whom you wish to pay tribute. Consider how sense is linked by sound in the poem, and whether its rhyme is beautiful, witty, odd, or what. Now, list key words in the sound patterns: full rhymes, slant rhymes, assonance, and alliteration. Use this word list to write a poem that does not use end-rhyme. Pay attention to syntax as a tool to place key sounds where you want them and where they will be more or less audible. ° You can vary this exercise by choosing a poem with full rhymes, generating slant rhymes for its key words, and writing a poem from your new list of words (including the original rhyme words).

As an exercise, this calls for you to write the first draft of a poem by imitating the syntax of a model poem. As imitation, it calls for you to keep to that syntax, as much as possible, as you revise the poem.

Type out the poem triple-space, so you have enough room to write between the lines. Begin your poem by writing under each line of the model poem. Write sentences that follow the exact syntax of the model.
° You can do this very simply just by using the same part of speech, word for word. A more useful approach, however, is to imitate the syntax a little more consciously (as in this discussion of Adame’s poem). If you do this, you may find that the rhythms, even the logic of your poem will mirror that of your model. If you choose a very different subject for your poem, however, it may not resemble the model in any other fashion. ° Use concrete diction, sharp images, interesting sounds. ° When you are satisfied with your own lines -- as a rough draft, at least -- erase the original lines. (Or, if you are working by hand, copy out your own poem in a fresh copy.) ° Read your poem aloud.

To revise: examine the function of the grammar and syntax in relation to their function in the original. Get to know what they are doing before you start changing them.
° You may or may not keep the lineation of the first draft, but pay attention to the relationships between syntax and line. If you make your own pattern, different from your model, think about what pattern you are making. Don’t just make it simpler because simple lines make you more comfortable. Let it be strange if it wants to be. 

As you revise, keep as much as possible of the original syntactic structure. Don’t cut up complex or compound sentences into simple ones. Don't change incomplete syntax to whole sentences, and don't change altered grammar to standard usage. If you have inverted syntax someplace, don’t be hasty to reverse it into straightforward syntax. If the lines and sentences sound different than your usual poems you've done a good job! Don’t revise them to sound like your usual self. The purpose of this exercise is to stretch your ear in new patterns.

Some poems that work well as models:

John Donne: Batter My Heart Three-Personed God, Death Be Not Proud, or Song (Go and catch a falling star)
Robert Frost: Mending Wall (1st 20 lines or so)
Marianne Moore: Poetry, The Fish
Cummings: Next to of course god america i
Langston Hughes: The Weary Blues
Lorine Niedecker: Paean to Place
George Oppen: Image of the Engine
Elizabeth Bishop: At the Fishhouses, Questions of Travel
Gwendolyn Brooks: My dreams my works, or  Looking (from Gay Chaps at the Bar)
Robert Duncan: Up Rising
Allen Ginsberg: Howl
Robert Creeley: For Love
Susan Howe: Hope Atherton's Wanderings
Alice Walker: Revolutionary Petunias
Adrienne Rich: A Woman Mourned by Daughters
Pablo Neruda: Death Gallop/Galope Muerto
Leonard Adame: My Grandmother Would Rock Quietly and Hum

A Sweeping Bow
To write a more general imitation of your model, you will have to think about all the above (diction, phrase, syntax, rhyme & sound), as well as line and line break, subject matter, tone, metaphor... etc. Here's how:

Choose one poem as a model. List its nouns, its verbs, and its modifiers. List its metaphors, images, and idioms. Study its syntax and scan its meter or rhythm. List its rhymes and slant rhymes. Define its tone. Consider the distance or intimacy of the speaker. Define its line type and its line length. ° Now, choose a subject that parallels the subjects your target poet writes of -- but make it a subject you care about and think about. If your target poet is Niedecker, for example, don't try to write about Black Hawk Island, Wisconsin, but do write about a place you know and love. Or, if your target is Levine, write about a job you've done or a pardigmatic scene out of your teen years.

Cut-Up Dialogue
Choose two poets and then choose one or more poems from each. Intercut lines and phrases from the two poems (possibly adding lines and phrases of your own) into a semi-coherent dialogue.
° By dialogue I don't mean characters are talking to each other, necessarily, but I do mean that the two poets' ways of using language are talking to each other. You may want to literally alternate lines, letting syntax fall as it may, or you may want to string your pieces together to form whole sentences. ° Think of this exercise as shifting frames around, as a film-maker does. ° The less your sources resemble each other the more interesting this will be.

A Portrait Made by Catalog and Metaphor
(an imitation of Marianne Moore’s “Those Various Scalpels”)

In this exercise you will write a series of unconnected metaphors, similes, images, and questions, then use them to construct a catalog of images and metaphor that portray a person. As you work your way through Steps 1-11 be sure to vary the tone; make some warm and some cold, some tragic and some comic, some ironic and some emotional; some very close to you, some very removed from you. You should also make the leaps of association as large as possible; make some so large you're not sure they make any sense at all.

Begin with these steps:

1) Write an aural (sound) image. Elaborate it by apposition, then elaborate it by simile.

2) Repeat step one using a visual image.

Here are some examples:

Leaves scratch across a parking lot, something in a hurry to escape--like rats leaving a sinking ship.

One involuntary squeak, a small admission; like a bagpiper trying to stop sound at the end of a tune.

Curved white wicker in a metal frame, a perforated sail, as useless as a weekend rain.

3) Write two appositive metaphors for parts of the human body. Again, make your leaps large. Such as:

 Your lips, a train I am tired of waiting for.
 The knee, a perfect animal.
 Collarbones, an oath of loyalty to the idea of balance.

4) Write a metaphor or simile involving something you saw in another country. If you have never been to another country, use something you've read or heard--but remember that it is hearsay. Such as:

An argument as obsolete as the Great Wall.
As pathetic and calculating as beggars on the Royal Mile.
If the Eiffel Tower could talk it would sound like her.
Faith? I'll show you faith: the cathedral in Cologne, where they keep saints' bones in a bomb shelter.
He's a kind of Mayan temple of a grandfather.

5) Write a metaphor or simile involving weather. Such as:

He thundered but he never struck.

6) Write two verb metaphors. Such as:

 He thundered but he never struck.
 The cat’s walk enunciated itself across the grass.

7) Choose an ornate or highly decorated object and describe it in detail.

8) Turn your description from Step 7 into a description of something else. For example, the details describing an ornate tablecloth become the details describing sunlight on a hillside.

9) Write a descriptive sentence that contradicts or reverses itself.

10) List 8 or 10 words that can change parts of speech, such as: hand, can, fast, shadow, square, uniform, balance, primary..

11) Write three questions.

OK, this is your raw material. Use it to create a portrait of a person. Choose a real person, not a made-up or general character.  And of course there are more rules.

1) Your poem can be composed of no more than two sentences and must be at least thirty lines long.

2) Link your passages with colons, semi-colons, dashes, apposition, and simile only. Use no conjunctions.

3) Use two or three words from step 8 to end lines, so that at the end of the line the word appears to be one part of speech but as we read onto the next line the word shifts to another part of speech. Or, if you can't manage that, use several of these words in both their parts of speech: a fast horse and a ship made fast, a shadow and a dog who shadows you wherever you go.

4) End the poem with a question from step 11.

Poem of the Ordinary
At least since the beginning of European Romanticism, poets have striven to write unordinary poems about ordinary objects and events. Such poems have been seen as confirming and celebrating our common human experience and as a kind of resistance to elitism or to cultural hegemony. They demonstrate that the raw materials of poetry are everywhere. Still, they differ from each other as much as any other set of poems. Some are visionary, some realistic. Some emphasize plain diction and straightforward, speech-like syntax and rhythm. Some turn the ordinary strange. 

1) Read the following poems:

Pablo Neruda: Ode to My Socks
Philip Levine: Saturday Sweeping
Sharon Olds: Pajamas
Lucille Clifton: [at last we killed the roaches]
Robert Hass: Vintage
Zbigniev Herbert: Pebble
Gary Snyder: Hay for the Horses
Robert Bly: Three Kinds of Pleasure
Allen Ginsberg: A Supermarket in California

2) Choose one poem to imitate. List its nouns, its verbs, and its modifiers. List its metaphors, images, and idioms. Study its syntax and scan its meter or rhythm. List its rhymes and slant rhymes. Define its tone. Define the distance or intimacy of the speaker. Define its line type and its line length.

3) Choose an utterly different but equally ordinary object or event and write a poem in the manner of your model.

And further...

Here is a longer list of poems to consider in the same fashion.  The first group may be found in The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry. The others are generally easy to find in other anthologies.

Robert Frost: Design
Carl Sandburg: Muckers
Wallace Stevens: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
W.C. Williams: The Great Figure, Proletarian Portrait, This Is Just to Say
Ezra Pound: In a Station of the Metro
Marianne Moore: Bird-witted
Langston Hughes: Madam and the Phone Bill
Elizabeth Bishop: At the Filling Station
William Stafford: Traveling through the Dark
Robert Lowell: Skunk Hour
Gwendolyn Brooks: We Real Cool
Frank O'Hara: A Step away from Them
Robert Bly: Looking at New Fallen Snow from a Train
James Wright: Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry Ohio, Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm, A Blessing
John Ashbery: Mixed Feelings
W.S. Merwin: The Room, Sun and Rain
Philip Levine: Belle Isle 1949, Fear and Fame
Gregory Corso: Should I Get Married
M. Scott Momaday: Crows in a Winter Composition
Mary Oliver: Black Snake This Time (compare D.H. Lawrence's "The Snake")
Lucille Clifton: poem to my uterus, to my last period
Adrian C. Louis: Coyote Night
Harryette Mullen: from Trimmings, from S*PeRM**K*T
Martin Espada: The St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry Stomp

Gertrude Stein: any from Tender Buttons
Theodore Roethke: My Papa's Waltz
Robert Hayden: Those Winter Sundays
Anne Sexton: Woman with Girdle, Menstruation at Forty, In Celebration of My Uterus
Sharon Olds: The Only Girl at the All Boys Party
Rita Dove: Mickey in the Night Kitchen
Charles Simic: Fork

A variation:

2b) Choose several poems to work with and group them by type. Define "type" according to whatever features you are interested in. For example, group poems that transform the ordinary to the visionary vs. poems that depict "real life"; or, group poems about work vs. poems about our bodies; or, group personal narrative poems vs. poems describing or responding to an object. Once you have your groups, write at least two poems designed to fit in to particular categories you've created. You can complicate your categories by paying particular attention to where they overlap. This might lead you to visionary narrative vs. real life narrative, or "real-life" narrative vs. "real life" description vs. "real life" stream of consciousness.

See also
Translation as Interpretation on the Diction/Image/Metaphor Page