Literary Parodies: Exploring a Writer's Style through Imitation
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The popular saying “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” coined by Charles Caleb Colton, is the basis for this lesson, which asks students to analyze the features of a poet's work then create their own poems based on the original model. Students analyze sample poems and their parodies, focusing on the language and style of the original writer. They then write their own parody of the poem. This lesson uses William Carlos Williams' poem “This is Just to Say,” but a list of alternative poems and their parodies is also included.
Venn Diagram: Students can use this online tool to compare two or three items.
Literary Parodies Assessment: Use this rubric to assess students' literary parodies.
From Theory to Practice
In Accent on Meter: A Handbook for Readers of Poetry, Joseph Powell and Mark Halperin define parody as "The deliberate mocking of a serious composition by imitating its style or tone" (140). Though such mockery can seem made at the expense of the original text, Powell and Halperin remind us that "these parodies often come out of respect for the original" (140). Parody, as Maureen McMahon explains, "involves an in-depth study of a writer's style . . . [thus] it is a useful way to familiarize students with literary devices" (72).
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- "This is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams
- "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" by Kenneth Koch
- Selected Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
- "Breakfast with Gerard Manley Hopkins" by Anthony Brode
- "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" (Sonnet 18) by William Shakespeare
- "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" by Howard Moss
- "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold
- "Dover Bitch" by Anthony Hecht
- "Cuckoo Song" (traditional)
- "Ancient Music" by Ezra Pound
- "Baccalaureate" by David McCord
- Choose a set of poems from the list above to explore with your class, checking the poems to ensure that they are appropriate for your students. Additional literary parodies are available in Poetry for Cats: The Definitive Anthology of Distinguished Feline Verse by Howard Beard (Villard, 1994), and in Pitiless Parodies and Other Outrageous Verse by Frank Jacobs (Dover Books, 1994).
- Make copies or overhead transparencies of the poems that you have chosen so that students will be able to see the text of the poems as you discuss them.
- If desired, make copies of the transcript of the Guy Noir Episode from November 30, 2002.
- Make copies or an overhead transparency of the "This Is Just To Say" Parody form, or create a form for the poem that you have chosen.
- Make copies or an overhead transparency of the Literary Parodies Assessment checklists. Alternately, you might copy the checklists to chart paper, or design your own checklists based on criteria that the class identifies during the sessions.
- Test the Venn Diagram interactive on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tools and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.
- read and analyze poems and their parodies.
- explore the techniques of parodies.
- imitate a published poem to write their own parodies.
- reflect on the connections between original poems and their parodies.
- Pass out or display "This is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams or the first of the poems that you have chosen (e.g., the original rather than the parody).
- Read the poem aloud to the class.
- Ask students what stands out to them about the poem. Ask them what they remember, feel, question, and see when they read and hear the poem. Stress that there are no wrong answers.
- Ask students to share personal experiences, emotions, and beliefs that influenced their reaction. Ask students if the poem recalls memories and how it connects to their own attitudes or perceptions.
- Note the key ideas that students share on the board or on chart paper.
- Ask students to point to specific words and lines in the poem that triggered their reactions. Work to shift students' attention to the details and features of the poem by asking them what word, phrase, image, or idea was important to their reactions.
- Continue to note the key ideas that students share on the board or on chart paper.
- If students have not mentioned any of the poetic elements of the poem as they have responded, turn their attention to these features now. Ask students to point out the features that they notice.
- Once students have identified the key characteristics of the poem, pass out or display "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" by Kenneth Koch or the parody for the poem that you've chosen.
- Explain that the second poem is a parody: a text that deliberately mocks (or makes fun of) a serious composition by imitating its style or tone.
- If students are familiar with the literary genre, explain that parody is a technique of satire.
- Read the poem aloud to the class, and invite students to respond freely for a few minutes.
- Ask students how the parody compares to the original poem, noting their comments on the board or on chart paper.
- Ask students to point to specific words and lines in the poem that support their comparisons.
- Once you have compiled a list of features for the parody, display the Two-Circle Venn Diagram interactive (or the Three-Circle Venn Diagram interactive if you are comparing 3 poems), labeling one circle for William Carlos Williams and the other for Kenneth Koch (or for the poets you have chosen).
- Using the characteristics gathered as the class talked about the two poems, fill out the Venn Diagram. This process will quickly demonstrate how the parody relates to the original poem and help students identify what makes the parody successful.
- With the Venn complete, ask students to draw conclusions about how the poem imitates and makes fun of the original poem. Encourage the class to work toward their own definition of parody.
- For homework, ask students to read or play the archived Guy Noir Episode from November 30, 2002, which parodies Williams' poetry.
- If desired, play the audio version of the Guy Noir Episode for the class.
- Ask students to discuss how the episode parodies Williams' poetry-as well as the film noir genre.
- Compare the observations to the lists of characteristics for the poems considered during the previous session. Ask students to explore how the Prairie Home Companion parody different from Koch's parody.
- Once you're certain that students understand the technique of parody, ask them to write their own parodies of Williams' poem.
- Pass out copies of the "This Is Just To Say" Parody form or a form for the poems you've chosen for the class.
- Explain that students can change the verb and other words as necessary to match the meaning of their poem (e.g., changing "which" to "that").
- Pass out copies of the Parody Poem Writing Checklist from Literary Parodies Assessment reproducible, or display the checklist using an overhead projector. Alternately, you can point to the criteria that students identified in the previous session.
- Discuss the criteria for the parody poems.
- As a class, brainstorm sample first lines.
- Choose one of the lines, and as a class, compose a parody, to demonstrate the process.
- Once you're sure that students understand the activity, give students 5 to 10 minutes to write a first draft of their own parody poems.
- Circulate among students as they work, providing support and feedback.
- Arrange students in small groups, and have students exchange poems so that every group member has a parody other than their own.
- Have students read through the parodies silently, to prepare to read the poems aloud to the group.
- Once all group members are ready, have students read the parodies, one by one, to the group. After each reading, ask students to pause and compare the parody to the criteria on the checklist. Encourage students to offer constructive feedback for each writer.
- Once students have worked through the poems of all group members, have them work on revisions and creating a final draft of their poems. Encourage group members to share changes and ask questions as they work.
- With 5-10 minutes left in class, ask student volunteers to share their parodies with the whole class.
- Collect the parody poems for evaluation based on Parody Poem Writing Checklist. Alternatively, if students need additional time to create their polished poems, allow them to work on their parodies for homework and prepare a draft to submit at the beginning of the next class.
- Apply similar analysis and parody to fiction writing as well. Raymond Chandler's Hamlet provides a great starting place for explorations of the genre.
- Extend your explorations of writing style with the ReadWriteThink lessons Style: Defining and Exploring an Author's Stylistic Choices and Style: Translating Stylistic Choices from Hawthorne to Hemingway and Back Again.
- To explore additional satirical techniques, try the activities in the ReadWriteThink lessons Exploring Satire with Shrek and Exploring Satire with The Simpsons.
- Access additional resources on Williams and his poetry from this ReadWriteThink William Carlos Williams birthday Calendar Entry.
- Extend the analysis of poetry to longer poetic works by reading Grendel's Dog: A Fragment from Beocat, a parody of the English epic poem Beowulf.
Student Assessment / Reflections
As students discuss poems and their parodies, listen for comments that indicate that students understand the style and other characteristics of the poet who is being parodied. Provide supportive feedback for observations that show students are making connections between the poet’s style and their own writing. If desired, use the Discussion Checklist from the Literary Parodies Assessment reproducible for more structured feedback on class discussion.
Informal feedback from student groups, as they read one another’s parodies, provides students with the reactions of an audience of readers. For formal assessment and peer review, use the Parody Poem Writing Checklist from Literary Parodies Assessment reproducible.
After writing and class discussion about the poet’s style, ask students to reflect on their exploration in their journals. To help students get started, ask them to write on the following questions:
- What did you notice about the way that the poet (William Carlos Williams, or the poet whom you chose for the lesson) uses language and the reasons for the poet’s choices?
- How did the parody’s style relate to the style of the original poem?
- What surprised you the most about the poet’s and the parodist’s language choices, and why?
Read the pieces and comment on the self-reflections, noting important observations that students make and asking provoking questions where they need to think more deeply.