My wife and I were recently discussing that J.S. Bach would often start off his composing sessions by playing someone else’s work for awhile, then move on to his own composing. I have found this to be an extremely successful technique for writing poetry as well. I recall that Emerson quoted an obscure poet in his famous essay Self Reliance, and explained that it wasn’t so much the literal meaning of the writer’s words but the ideas it sparked in his own inner workings that were of great value. Likewise, I find that reading other people’s poems with pen and paper handy is often a great way to give my own creative process a kick-start. So far I have not found the work I produce as a result of this method to resemble the work I was reading at all.
The notion that many nascent poets have that they might somehow pollute or corrupt their voice through immersion in other poets’ work simply has not proved remotely true in my own experience. Quite the opposite–I find that reading poetry seems to activate my poetic mind, to get me into the music of poetry (even if they are not the rhythms I prefer), and to stimulate more creative and original work than if I were to simply sit down by myself in an empty room and try “to be original.” The notion of being fed artistically is one that is very important to me–in fact central to my current pursuit of writing–and this technique seems to be a kind of filling up to overflowing, so that I can write out of the overflow of creative energy rather than swirling the dregs of deficit.