Viv Kemp. Off Base: Some Notes on the Role of Imitation and Poetic Voice

Imitation is perhaps at its best when it’s wrong. Not ethically wrong, but ‘off’ or flawed. This isn’t to say that a worse imitation is somehow qualitatively better than one that is accurate, but that when imitation takes its subject matter as merely a start or distanced reference point, something interesting can happen. To illustrate this, I will mainly talk about my own experiences with imitation, particularly those of a poetry student taking the Ludic Literature module as part of a Creative Writing MA. I want to begin, however, by discussing through Robert Lowell’s Imitations (1961) what ‘imitation’ can mean in a poetic context.

Following the success of Life Studies (1959) – a collection that saw its author emerge from a five-year creative rut to codify what would become the most dominant and enduring trend of contemporary poetry, Confessionalism – Lowell published a strange collection of poetry that was met with a mixed response. Begun as a series of translations in 1958, the collection was dubbed ‘Imitations’ for how ‘reckless’ they were with their original’s literal meaning. [1] While Allen Tate had suggested titling them ‘Versions’, T S Eliot recommended ‘Imitations’ to avoid any ‘meticulous little critics’ who would object to Lowell’s method of translation. [2] Ultimately, those pernickety critics did descend, with the more neutral citing that prospective readers should peruse it near ‘a salt mine’ such was the necessary scepticism. [3] That last comment, from the translator and New York Times Book Review critic Dudley Fitts, seemed to have stung Lowell. As Ian Hamilton notes, Lowell cited that remark in numerous letters. To comfort him, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote Lowell back to say ‘Fitts’s the cheapest poetry reviewer, […] as if he had once in his life translated a line of poetry into a line of poetry’. [4]

The reason I linger on Imitations is the project it hints towards. Lowell described his translations of Mallarmé, Rilke, and Hugo as attempts to ‘do what [they] might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America’. [5] This evokes the premodern pedagogical processes that Jeff Dolven cites, of ‘learning to reproduce the styles of the past’ as ‘a way of knowing the past’. [6] While Dolven refers to these in the context of critical analysis, for the creative this sense of learning and development not only still exists but is vital. With poetry, a form of literature that is impossibly ancient (especially compared to fiction and its ‘novels’), the past can feel alive and relatable. Lowell’s project tackles the most notable ancients, Homer and Sappho, although his introduction seeks to separate himself from so-called ‘straight’ translators – who he says are ‘taxidermists’ – by presenting himself as someone who seeks to move these poems ‘into a new air’. [7] In the book’s introduction, Lowell declares it is a sequence of ‘one voice running through many personalities, contrasts, and repetitions’. [8]

While I could analyse some of Lowell’s imitations, I fear it would miss the point. I don’t have the French, German, or Russian to judge their quality as translations, but it is hard not to observe how their ‘Lowell-ness’ shines through. His take on Rimbaud’s ‘The Famous Victory at Saarbrücken’ (entitled ‘Eighteen-Seventy’) begins by describing a poster of Napoleon who ‘rides in apotheosis, sallow, medalled, a ramrod/ perched on a merrygoround horse’.[9] This bears more than a passing resemblance to Lowell’s depiction of Colonel Shaw in ‘For the Union Dead’, whose monument ‘sticks like a fishbone/ in the city’s throat’, Shaw ‘as lean/ as a compass-needle’.[10] The similarities between Rimbaud as envisioned by Lowell and his own later work is intriguing, however that similarity comes from Lowell’s own divergences. In effect, the attention falls solely on what Lowell is doing, and how it points to what he will later do. While one can imagine an interesting parallel between how Lowell’s Rimbaud in 1870 and Lowell’s mid-60s speaker treat depictions of righteous victory, it is quite distant from the actuality of Rimbaud’s writing, whose slangy derision (sur son dada, literally ‘on his hobbyhorse’ although it plays on the onomatopoeia of ‘giddying up’ a horse) is made stately if pathetic. The latter is classically Lowell, but not very Rimbaud, Imitations displaying not a methodology of translation but the process every poet goes through, that of deciding upon and developing their own voice.

The notion of a poet having their own voice is contentious though important. It can sound a bit phooey and cloying, to be honest. However, to this poet at least, scepticism towards that concept was defeated by pragmatic and creative considerations. The pragmatic is due to how a poet’s work is more synonymous with their voice than a prose writer’s would be with theirs. When assembling a collection, the poet has to curate their work with fewer supports and clear guides than the prose writer’s structures of narrative, plot, and narration. Poems are more self-sufficient and self-contained than the novel’s chapters or essay’s paragraphs, and so the poet resultantly falls under a greater pressure to be consistent over the various brief texts that they write, especially if their collection is not linked by theme or subject matter. A reader could be exhausted by the protean slideshow of styles and subjects. Voice, ultimately, is the only certainty a poet has, and it carries through throughout their work. At least it can feel that way.

The drawback of consolidating that voice, which may be more of a problem to me than to others, is the risk that a poet’s whole person may seem to be reduced to that voice. Lowell inaugurated a personal turn which tended to treat poetry as the direct expression of a poet’s life, strengthening the assumption that poetry is generally a work of non-fiction. It can seem that once you consolidate that voice, you consolidate a certain story of your self and life, from which your poetic process and career cycle through until who knows when. To the callow poet that I am, defining your voice from the start seems to limit the chance for craft and play with the medium. It also makes me long for the impersonality of Marianne Moore, who in her work contrasts the ‘rawness’ of poetry with that which is ‘genuine’,[11] or describes the student (to me, the student of poetry) as that who refuses ‘to be less than individual’.[12] ‘Finding one’s voice’ is a phrase, then, used to acknowledge how an emerging writer has matured, yet it can sound like a closing of possibility.

Lowell’s Imitations, however, depicts the process of finding one’s voice and renewing possibilities. While Life Studies marked a new style for the dense, symbolist Lowell of the forties, it developed from the editing of Lowell’s prose memoirs into poetry. Lowell described that collection as a ‘breakthrough back into life’; however Imitations captures the poet playing with a newly born style. [13] Lowell solemnly remarks that Imitations was written ‘when I was unable to do anything of my own’, yet it displays him both finding his voice and testing its limits. [14] By playing Pasternak and Baudelaire, Lowell establishes a wardrobe of wearable styles but also discovers strange mutations that reveal if not his own style then his sensibilities. Lowell is not performing anything we would recognise as translation but, as Jarrell states, translating a line of poetry into a line of poetry; he is taking an influence and transforming it into something else that is like but separate, and ultimately all Lowell.

I take imitation in poetry then to be a synthesis of influence and one’s own voice. It is versatile to different moods and stages of development, either the re-shaping of old clay where your thumbprints stand out, or throwing an array of yours and others’ decontextualised traits and modes into a salad spinner and seeing what comes out.

Imitation, to me, also allows those anxieties about poetic voice to cease. It turns the stretching and stressing of voice into something more malleable and liquid. As Terrance Hayes declares: ‘Voice is an intrinsic liquid, born in the blood, so wear all the masks you want. Voice is an enigmatic fluid, too shifty to tie down, so wear all the masks you want’.[15] Voice is intrinsic and enigmatic, and becomes most apparent under the guise of a mask. Imitation is that process that can revitalise your sense of voice through the new energy a certain disguise can impart to it, but also one where you can see yourself most clearly in what is supposedly strange. Throughout the Ludic Literature module, in exercises that saw me smashing different author’s styles together as if they were atoms in CERN, I couldn’t help but see what my poetic voice was and could be in the crossfire.

My modus operandi for these exercises was always to work fast and within a condensed time-frame, at most two hours, writing out a draft in longhand then typing it up and making light edits. My reason for this was to prioritise reading the core texts, leaving the most fun part to last, but also to encourage me to fly by my own instincts and intuition. This means that I do not have any detailed intentions that I can share (and any I provide should be read by a salt mine), although the real work was analysing what I had written in class discussion or by myself after. My imitations of Conrad and Rushdie were flawed, but I could clearly see intangible traces of my voice in its ruptures of digressions and syntax. By way of introduction, my parody was more concerned with Rushdie’s habit of weaving the supernatural and myth into his characters and the excessive bombast of his syntax. I found it hard to parody Heart of Darkness due to its demoralising subject matter and the racism of its perspective (simply put, it is hard to imitate and further stylise a narrative voice so replete with racial slurs). I somewhat found a way that addressed my own qualms through a Rushdian maximalism that, if not sanitises, then subverts and makes absurd the colonial project and philosophy Conrad’s story depicts. I felt this approach somewhat mirrored Rushdie’s own approach to decolonisation in India and Pakistan in Midnight’s Children or the vibrant vignettes that populate The Satanic Verses:


Heart of Darkness Parody in the style of Salman Rushdie

From his very birth, Christophé Kurtz was impossibly white. Obstetricians, midwives, and wet nurses marvelled at the blinding pallor of his skin, still sight-scarring and flashing-corneal-dot imparting despite the Vicks-thick skein of plasma, mucous, and afterbirth. Although dazzling to all those he grew up with, Kurtz had no impairment to his own vision; instead, his path was always illuminated. He simply knew where to go, the world’s whiteness beaconing out to him like a coastal lighthouse. It was whiteness that saw him don the bleached garments of an Abir Company pilgrim, his unblemished wan-ness that saw him venture deep into the virgin Congo, and his blaring melanin-deficiency that saw him stand as candida to various tribes and eventually reign as abrasive diplomat and seer. All of this was in pursuit of a whiteness so solid it could match his flesh – ivory. Kurtz sensed its presence and wandered as Christ had, forty days on forty days on forty days until it had become seven months, where the material of his teeth and toenails became the making of him among the men of King Leopold’s company. Although it was with his quarry, which had seemingly come to him by profound magnetic force – his idle steps seemed tugged to local reserves and stores of the stuff, his own orient and polarity shifting to lead him to evermore supplies – that Kurtz saw the truth behind his whiteness. After time, it became apparent to Christo that it was no kind of dermal phenomena but something more profound – that he, himself, was in actuality made of ivory.

It had made sense now, that force of attraction that pulled him through jungle thicket without compass, map, or machete; that the influence of his words, filtered through the ivory maw of his teeth, had in turn been enriched with the pull of his porcelain magnetism. However, at the close of this opulent jaunt, the polarity shuddered and ivory now rejected he from it and himself. Like the similarly charged ends of magnets pushed together, Kurtz became repelled from that whiteness that had drawn him here. He began to wither, convinced the ivory of himself was melting like ice. Eventually parts fell off in chunks – his rectum clattered on the floor of his chambers and stared up at Kurtz like the severed top of a peach. Next, his penis, and eventually his rib, for as his torso thinned, they needled through and could be retrieved like feathers from an over-used pillow. This repulsion became so great that he began to be detached from the earth, mentally viewing the planet and its horror as if from the clouds or atop Atlas’s head, and he prepared for this repulsion to eventually manifest itself physically.

On one of his ambles, where he walked on all fours to better focus on the extent to which he was still connected to the earth, Marlow Mephistophelleluia ambushed him. Bowler-hatted, bilious, and prone to pose like Gautama, this brahmin had come to return him to the company, to Belgium, to some sort of death. Barefoot despite the spare pairs of shoes in his trunk, Marlow sidled up to Christo in the dust. Kurtz had little ivory left of himself, having torn some off to ease local tensions and Belgians, and stood to show what bare remains were there. So small, his name meaning ‘short’, he was a sliver stretched to human form, resembling more a wendigo than a renowned, beloved, and despotic trader. As well as this, his standing upright further revealed to Marlow that his feet no longer touched the ground.

Kurtz’s tongue still possessed some warmth, and what he spoke next was weak but bore some fire. Marlow, still grounded, heard the pronouncements as Kurtz’s voice sparked in embers before he fully ascended up and off and gone for good. Marlow too felt in his mouth a flame, belching smoke after swallowing some river water later.

While I had fun mythologising Conrad’s Kurtz into a man so white he believed he was made of ivory, when it came to imitating his style I produced what you would call ‘propulsive word salad’, as so clearly seen below:

From his very birth, Christophé Kurtz was impossibly white. Obstetricians, midwives, and wet nurses marvelled at the blinding pallor of his skin, still sight-scarring and flashing-corneal-dot imparting despite the Vicks-thick skein of plasma, mucous, and afterbirth. Although dazzling to all those he grew up with, Kurtz had no impairment to his own vision; instead, his path was always illuminated.

There are flickers of Rushdie – ‘obstetricians, midwives, and wet nurses’ seems suitably Salman-esque – although my take on his excess is simply too much; ‘flashing-corneal-dot imparting’ shouldn’t survive any later edit. However, it is still so fun and freeing to write with such largesse: I even feel the tone of this article start to loosen as I write this (why would I ever write ‘Salman-esque’ otherwise?). My own brand of maximalism is perhaps most distracting in its whiplash of sounds – how with the clause beginning ‘Vicks-thick…’, the sharp double ‘ick’ transitions to the soft round vowels of ‘plasma’ and ‘mucous’ to end on the jutting, unsettling ‘er’ sounds of ‘afterbirth’. While it may be fun to write, it is simply too poetic an approach for prose. Whatever force those turns of phrase may have is undermined by how generally loose and digressive the piece is as a whole.

For all the fun of seeing how far my voice could stretch and mutate, it was those tics and ill-discipline that hampered any enthusiasm. What was further dismaying was that these bad habits emerged so firmly despite my attempts to accurately mimic the syllabus’s authors. While there was a freedom to writing under such disguises, what does it mean when you can so easily recognise yourself behind them?

But imitation is multifaceted. It may liberate and also guide. While initially fazed by my voice’s persistence and fear of being trapped within its tics, I was relieved and comforted to see its estrangement when transformed through the procedures of the /n/oulipo or Harryette Mullen. The Oulipo sought to create literature that bypassed traditional forms of inspiration, devising mathematical formula or alienating prompts to get past any Romantic concepts of artistic composition. The n/oulipo, not so much an organisation of writers than a collective response to the Oulipo, advance that project to incorporate perspectives that lay beyond the generally white and male membership of the original group. Mullen is perhaps the most well-known and read of that aesthetic approach, her collection Sleeping with the Dictionary a popular compendium of fruits borne through Oulipean processes and restrictions. Through following similar strictures, which emphasise depersonalising formula to create a distance between the writer and their writing, I felt a creative sensibility more emblematic of my voice than any emboldened quirk. I was particularly taken with Mullen’s use of found literature in Trimmings, a series of prose poems that recontextualise advertising copy into brief snippets of oblique yet revealing monologues. Following Mullen’s method, I flicked through the Levi’s website, selecting terms whose connotations could be expanded:

Denim makes the man. Rough stuff bearing bevels, barnacles, blue sea boxed in panels. Bought damaged, sanded down sides. Mined for bejewelling, the manufacturer is an anagram of evil.[…] [16]

While far from an exact imitation of Mullen, following the procedures from her writing alongside the rhythms of Trimmings provided my writing with a suitable estrangement that not only expanded but changed what I considered my voice to be. The freedom of a mask is not only the face it can give but the face it can hide. Shorn of my tics, a cool austerity emerged that felt suitably distant yet also true, and allowed my voice to be far more in control of its lyric effects. Whatever my voice is, and however it can change, imitating Mullen’s woke up the sensibility behind my poetry. Mullen’s voice shaped mine into a minimalism which felt apt and saved it from the excesses to which it can be prone. Viewing my voice at both ends of a spectrum allowed me to see exactly what it was – genuinely witness its tangibility, textures, and moods – as well as how it could be played with and transformed.

Imitation codified my poetic voice, as a sports union decides upon a game’s rules, but also gave it ways to be mutable. I once griped about the restrictions poetic voice could saddle me with. But my own scepticism was defeated by the creativity that a ‘voice’ can allow. I saw the worth of having one’s own mark to blend and clash with others. Imitation makes poetic voice another form for the poet to play with, another straitjacket from which your Houdini-self can make a spectacle of escaping from (to adapt a saying of Paul Muldoon’s). [17]

To finish a thought begun at this essay’s start, I find imitation to be a process of great decontextualization. It is not merely mimicry, but a deliberate act of relativity, making known and transforming style and voice. It is generative and informs new ways, like a melody shifted in octave or key. To quote my earlier self, imitation is at its best when it’s off. ‘Off’ implies both a dormancy (‘turned off’) as well as a sally away from the recognised way – off-road, off-piste, off-kilter. When considering creativity, imitation sits in that state of either a non-start or atypical process. It can be something that is merely an exercise (as Lowell’s own Imitations were at first) or an endeavour in itself. The metaphor I returned to throughout the writing of this piece was of lifting an entire reservoir’s water up into the air as if by magic and landing it someplace far away. Either the torrent will fall, be absorbed, and replenish the grass, changing nothing, or else that water may carve a new river into the landscape that can flow, widen, and meander to sea. I think of imitation as being like that sorcerer’s trick, an exercise that triggers renewal or new starts through its potential for the wayward path or journey off-base.

[1] Robert Lowell, Collected Poems, ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 195.
[2] Ian Hamilton, Robert Lowell: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 289.
[3] Hamilton, 292.
[4] Hamilton, 293.
[5] Lowell, Collected Poems, 195.
[6] Jeff Dolven, ‘Critique and Imitation’, English Language Notes 51, no. 2 (1 September 2013): 123,
[7] Lowell, Collected Poems, 195.
[8] Lowell, 195.
[9] Lowell, 264.
[10] Lowell, 377.
[11] From ‘Poetry (Longer version)’, as published in Marianne Moore, Complete Poems (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1994), 266–67.
[12] From ‘The Student’, as published in Moore, 101–2.
[13] Quoted in Frederick Seidel, ‘Robert Lowell, The Art of Poetry No. 3’, The Paris Review, 1961,
[14] Lowell, Collected Poems, 196.
[15] Terrance Hayes, To Float in the Space between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight (Seattle: Wave Books, 2018), 81.
[16] This excerpt is from a draft that would later become the poem ‘Jean’, now published in Bi+ Lines: An Anthology of Contemporary Bi+ Poems, ed. by Helen Bowell (London: fourteen publishing, 2023):
[17] The original quote was found by the author in Tom Chivers, Adventures in Form: A Compendium of New Poetic Forms, Rules & Constraints (London: Penned in the Margins, 2012), 10. It reads ‘Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini’.