Modeling: Eliot and Bloom

Modeling, simply put, is taking the work of another poet and attempting to emulate that poet. What we are trying to do is figure out the thought patterns and even inspirations behind poets who are long past being able to tell us directly what to do.

The idea is that once you get a feel for another poet's talent, you can start to expand beyond that talent - create something new and unique to you, your "individual talent."

I believe this will work for you. If you need a bit more than my assurance, I offer you the opinions of T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom:

Tradition and the Individual Talent
This is the title of T.S. Eliot's essay about the role that "the tradition" plays in the development of a poet. Today, we might refer to the tradition, broadly, as "the literary canon." There are a couple of ideas from this essay which are worth chewing on as a poet.
  1. There is an ongoing (and, perhaps, everlasting) "tradition" of the art of poetry.
  2. The members of the tradition (or canon) have earned their place by contributing significantly to the tradition through inovation and by participating with/acknowledging the tradition (through allusion, say)
  3. There are limited spaces in the tradition and as more "worthy" poets assume a role in the tradition, others fall out
You may not agree with everything Eliot says in the essay (linked here - do read it when you get a chance), but consider the benefits he implies of a poet who participates in the tradition. Think about composing a sonnet without ever having read the sonnets of Petrarch, Shakespeare, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Knowing what came before us as poets helps us to position ourselves in the pantheon of these poets - we can begin to imagine where we fit or where we want to fit and, if you are so inclined, who we want to remove so we can get their spot!

The Anxiety of Influence
Harold Bloom's essay takes this final step - the deposing of the poet (so that the new poet may take his or her place) and attempts to explain how a poet attempts to overcome his or her influences (the poets of the tradition which she or he attempted to model).
The essay has gained a lot of criticism over the years, but, for our purposes, Bloom points out something that we must keep in mind while modeling:
Derivative poetry is a weaker version of a better poet; a poet must, as Ezra Pound famously suggested, make it new.
Once you've practiced modeling for a bit, be sure to read this essay and remind yourself that your job as a poet is not really to write poetry that "sounds like" the work of another poet (no matter how long he or she has been dead), but to create a poetry that is unique to you - develop your individual talent.

So What/How Do We Model?
There are a number of aspects of any poet's craft to model and I've including a model with each season/chapter to give you an idea of what kinds of things to look for. Here are some basic ways to model:

Model the Poet Line for Line
This allows you to explore how a poet works with his or her sound and line construction. For example, if I were modeling George Herbert's "Love (II)," below, a line for line modeling would force us to construct a quatrain (a stanza of four lines), each line constructed in iambic (-/-/-) with ten syllables per line. The rhyme scheme would also be true rhyme. See the exercise "Modeling Emily Dickinson" for a more thorough example of line for line modeling.
Immortal Heat, O let Thy greater flame
     Attract the lesser to it; let those fires
     Which shall consume the world first make it tame,
And kindle in our hearts such true desires.
Model the Poet's Voice
When we just concentrate on the voice of the poet, we are really trying to emulate the way that the author's poetry most often sounds. Many poets (not all) have a distinctive voice that carries over from poem to poem. One poet who has a very distinctive voice is Allen Ginsberg. Listen to his voice in these lines from his poem "America":
I won't write my poem till I'm in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourselves through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
He sounds like a preacher, but he uses questions like a philosopher. He juxtaposes the "angelic" with the "naked" and he alludes to the Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky while talking about a very anti-Marx nation. Believe it or not, Ginsberg is channeling the voice of another poet in this poem. That poet is Walt Whitman, and you can practice channeling Whitman yourself in the exercise "The Barbaric Yawp."

Modeling the Poet's Theme and Tone
The seasons offer us a very broad theme to work within, but when we model a certain poet's theme we are looking for a more specific moment or object that the poet has decided to focus on. Along with that, we want to pay attention to how the poet wants the reader to experience that moment or object. Do they want to evoke joy or pleasure or pain or envy? This is called tone - like "tone" in painting and in music, this is about how we color or compose the image. Tone is the difference between a "bright holiday scene with twinkling lights on an evergreen" and "a tree that stands like death over the ravaged packages and dead-eyed adults." See if you can pick up on the theme and tone here in D.H. Lawrence's "People":
The great gold apples of night
Hand from the street's long bough
     Dripping their light
On the faces that drift below,
On the faces that drift below
down the night-time, out of sight
     In the wind's sad sough.

The ripeness of these apples of night
Distilling over me
     Makes sickening the white
Ghost-flux of faces that hie
Them endlessly, endlessly by
Without meaning or reason why
     They should be.
Notice what figures Lawrence calls to mind, how he uses repetition and sound. What is his theme and tone? You can try your hand at more theme and tone modeling in the exercise "Modeling W.B. Yeats."

There are many, many ways to model a poet, but the gist is that you find a poet you admire and you take a piece of their work and try to figure it out, bit by bit. Sometimes this is easy; many times it is frustrating. The advantage is that you are "learning from the masters"  - by modeling you are allowing the poet to be your instructor and you are getting that poet into your creative stream; almost unconsciously, you will find yourself writing lines that use some of these poets' tricks, but, hopefully, they will also feel completely unique to your own writing. When that happens, you know you've moved past that particular poet's tutelage.