“I helped him to find his own words by starting with some of mine.”

– William Forrester of Jamal Wallace
(“Finding Forrester”)

What is “Theme and Variations”? It is a completely original invention of mine designed to allow me to learn from the “Masters” of poetry. While most of them are dead and gone, what remains are their masterful works. Is there a way to somehow be “apprenticed” by those works if not by the poets themselves?

In music, there is a technique called “Theme and Variations”. A composer begins with a musical theme–often a memorable melody–and repeats it but with subtle variations. Sometimes this can be applied to another composer’s work, whereby one composer can pull out a theme from another person’s work and create his own, unique, variant musical piece based upon it.

In my literary “Theme and Variations”, I take an existing poem’s “structure” and use it to create an original work of my own. First, I choose a famous poem, then I determine its meter and rhyme scheme. Next, I copy word for word the first line of that poem from each of its distinct sections (or the first only if it is a shorter poem like a sonnet).

Finally, I attempt to create an entirely new poem with a new theme, telling a new story that’s all my own, all while working within the structure of the original work. Not at all an easy thing to do. But that was the point: to push myself to learn under the tutelage of the Great Ones.

Let me clear that the following are NOT the reasons for creating such works using such a method:

(1) To improve upon the original. All of my works are far inferior to the original. Only conceit would boast of any attempt at equality much less superiority. My goal is to humble myself and learn from the Masters by “borrowing” their structure and inhabiting it.

(2) To transform or redeem the original. Nor do I see these works as in need of transformation from their lesser original form to my superior work. The originals are the best. I am simply trying to learn from them.

(3) To criticize the original. Nor am I trying to make a grand statement regarding any potential disagreements with the original’s content or message. True, as poets and readers of poetry we are entitled to our opinion and respectful critique any any work’s form and content. But again my goal here is to learn from the best of the best.

My foremost concern is: did I create a coherent piece that works completely in and of itself? In other words, if the reader didn’t know it was based on another work, could (s)he tell?