Poetry: Imitation Versus Stealing

Michele Sharpe
3 min readApr 8, 2021

#NaPoWriMo2021 Poetry Prompts

a display of accordion fold paper flowers (or possibly the tops of umbrellas) in shades of yellow
Photo by Cathy Mü on Unsplash

T.S. Eliot (why do I keep bringing him up when I claim to resent him?) is credited with saying “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Of course, it’s plain wrong to plagiarize, and Eliot’s statement shouldn’t be taken as a license to lie. In fact, if we practice good research habits and read the statement in context, it becomes clear exactly what he meant by “steal.”

One of the surest of tests [of excellence] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

So, it’s okay to “steal” an idea or feeling from another poem as long as (to quote another much-resented writer) we “make it new.”

Modernists like Eliot and Pound were not the first to grapple with the distinctions between imitation and theft. Generations of poets have been influenced and inspired by their forebears.

The literary critic Harold Bloom devoted an entire book to what he called “The Anxiety of Influence,” arguing that all literature is a response to the work that preceded it. The book, published in 1973, was the literary equivalent of the Biblical dictum, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

What creative person wouldn’t become anxious at the idea there is no possibility of creating anything wholly new?

Maybe mature creative persons don’t become anxious. Readers of poetry may come across epigraphs that openly acknowledge the influence of other artists. Those epigraphs are usually framed as “After Jane Doe.” Or, sometimes the title of the poem tells us who the poet is imitating, as in “After Horace” by Carolyn Kizer.

If you’re searching around for a subject or theme for a new poem, try reading or re-reading poems by other people. They may inspire you to imitate a form or respond to a theme, or try out a different way of working with colors, or . . . . The…

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Michele Sharpe

Words in NYT, WaPo, Oprah Mag, Poets&Writers, et als. Adoptee/high school dropout/hep C survivor/former trial attorney. @MicheleJSharpe & MicheleSharpe.com