This writing exercise gives you license to be completely unoriginal.

If you think about it, unoriginality is everywhere. A fair chunk of some pretty great poetry is simply a “version” of an earlier work. Think of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, John Gardner’s Grendel or Caroline Bergvall’s “The Canterbury Tales.” Think of Carol-Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, where she blatantly versions every myth and fairy-tale from King Midas to Beauty and the Beast. All of these writers make it new by making it again.

 In this exercise, I encourage you to choose a clutch of poems by another writer to “version”, or re-write. The older, the better. Antiquity is a good place to start. The Roman poet Catullus wrote lots of poems that are just the right length (short) for this exercise. Sappho’s fragments work well, too, as do some of Ezra Pound’s shorter Cathay poems, which “version” (some say translate) poems of ancient China.

First, read the poems. You will have to read them in translation, in English, unless you can understand Latin, ancient Greek, or Chinese, in which case I am jealous. The trick is to spend a bit of time with each poem first. Read it once, twice, thrice. Sit with it for a while. Let it sink in, let it enter your bloodstream. You are not doing a translation. Do not transcribe the poem line-for-line. Let the poem make a home in you. Let it start seeding new images, before you pick up a pen.

Now, close the book of poems, and write your “version”. It doesn’t matter how faithful your poem is to the “original.” The less faithful, the better. So, poem 78b by Catullus, which in James Michie’s translation reads thus:

…What pains me most is that your spittle-slime

Has fouled my sweet girl’s sweet lips. But the crime

Is one you’ll have to pay for, for your shame

Shall echo down the centuries, and Fame

Grow old and ugly muttering your name.


might turn into something like this:


Into the pearl-cave of her girl’s mouth

you bloomed your black tongue.

Time’s square will blink your image

on its screens for decades to come.


Or poem 87 by Catullus (James Michie’s translation again), which goes like this:


No woman can

Truthfully aver

That any man

Ever loved her

As I loved you.

No lover bound

By pledge of heart

Was ever found

True on his part

As I was true.


might become this:


No one can say

I didn’t smother you

with the blood

of my heart

I did




Anne Carson in Men in the Off Hours achieves some wonderfully deviant and spooky versions of Catullus, so I recommend checking those out for inspiration.

Here’s one last re-write, versioning a poem from Pound’s Cathay:


The Jewel Stair’s Greivance

The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,

It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,

And I let down the crystal curtain

And watch the moon through the clear autumn.


And here’s my “version”, which is, again, quite far from the “original” version by Pound (which was already many steps removed from the “original” ancient Chinese):

Don’t slip, don’t soak,

don’t watch the moon.

Diamonds on the soles

of nothing.

Pound’s version of this poem has a lengthy footnote explaining the poem’s imagery. The footnote is almost as long as the poem itself! It might be fun to try “versioning” the footnote, too.

Joan Fleming’s début book of poetry The Same As Yes was published last year by VUP.  She won the Biggs Poetry Prize in 2007, and her work has appeared in Landfall, the ListenerSport, and The Best of Best New Zealand Poems. She is currently studying towards an MA in iterative poetics at Otago University.

You can catch her at next week’s Writers On Mondays with Lynn Davidson, Harry Ricketts and Helen Heath when they talk about The Graft of Poetry on July 16th. Full WOM programme details here.

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