Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

I have been thinking a lot about Wallace Stevens for the past few days. As one does. His poem “The Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” has been on my mind. Today, I think I’ll write an imitation. Or a parody. Or, well, a poem like his.

First, here’s his poem:

The Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.


Now mine:

The Disillusionment of the Day Before Spring Break

The classrooms are haunted

By lecturing teachers.
None are laughing,
Or talking with laughing students,
Or laughing with crying students,
Or crying with writing students.
None of them are strange,
With hats of feathers
And rainbow waistcoats.
Teachers are not going
To speak of Uranus and bubbles.
Only, here and there, an old writer,
Daring and aware that the principal is gone,
Teaches Writers
In red weather.

Taking a page from Alice Nine, I want to think for a minute about what I did here, especially because I sometimes ask my students to play with poem imitation.

I knew I wanted to write about school on Friday right before the break. I had been struck by how empty the hallways were in our normally busy school. Many of our students and teachers are on various March Break trips, and it was snowing, so we had some serious attrition as the day went on. By 3:30, our lively school was a ghost town. Nevertheless, when I thought about how to write this as a slice of life, I came up blank: yup, the school was quiet the day before a long break. Nothing to see here, move along. It was so mundane as to be unremarkable – yet it seemed remarkable to me.

Wallace Stevens really has been on my mind for a few weeks, so the idea that the school was just a ghost of all its possibility easily brought this poem to mind. (Note to self: you can’t be inspired by what you haven’t read.) Also, the teachers have been preparing a silly surprise for our principal (who has a good sense of humour and who went on one of the school trips), so I was thinking about our really goofy sides. (I can’t post the pictures in case someone from my school stumbles across this & somehow the principal sees – suffice it to say that we’ve been having fun.)

Stevens sees what happens when we let the mundane take over all the wild possibilities. What are the wild possibilities in the classroom? At first, I had the teachers “droning” and the list of things the teachers weren’t doing was more realistic, but then I took a second look and noticed that “white nightgowns” are unremarkable and, more importantly, non-judgmental… that is, until you read the rest of the poem. Teachers lecturing probably won’t catch anyone’s attention in an early line – it’s what we assume high school teachers do – but the wilder possibilities in the next three lines should change that.

In the next three lines Stevens has a careful pattern – pulling a colour from one line into the next – and all these colours exist very firmly in the realm of possibility. It took me several tries to find a way to make my phrases do the same thing. In fact, only at the last minute did I realize that I could replace the “rings” in his poem with “students” in mine. That opened things up for me.

I love the lines about the “socks of lace” and the “beaded ceintures” because “socks of lace” pulls my attention when “lace socks” might not. And I imagine that Stevens originally wrote “beaded belts” (nice alliteration, Wallace!) and then revised it to something more unusual and evocative. (“Damn the alliteration, I’ll use ‘ceintures!’ That’ll get ’em!”) I actually started my line writing “Fascinators of feathers” then realized that “socks” are mundane and switched to “hats.” I couldn’t quite find an equivalent for “ceintures” but I decided “waistcoat” was near enough and I like the assonance that came from rainbow.

Uranus and bubbles just came to me. Probably because another blogger I read recently (can’t remember which one – sorry!) wrote about talking with her nephew and Uranus came up.

Finally, who might replace the old drunk sailor? Who in our school was dreaming big dreams on Friday afternoon? Well, a writing teacher, obviously. Someone who has journeyed and knows about possibilities. (Yes, yes, I’m biased.) And a reference to our absent principal, who allows us to play, followed by the red weather line because a) I didn’t know what else to write and b) I like a nod to the original when I write imitations.

I’m not sure I knew how much went into this until I wrote it down. Well, no wonder it’s hard for my students.¬†WHEW!