Word! The Language Column
On Imitation

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Learning through imitation: This route, according to Nora Gomringer, also leads directly to language. She describes how we can fall madly in love and sings the praises of the act of imitatio.

By Nora Gomringer

How we come to language, sense it as a occurrence, the first time it gives us a good laugh or makes us cry, as the utterance of a voice or a silent moment while reading: All this interests me. What are the pivotal points? When are we particularly open to language, when does it “happen”? When does it become life-shaping? How does this shaping work?

The learning process

If we want to learn something well, we seek out training. In training, certain procedures are explained, broken down, expounded and repeated by a knowledgeable person. We are often asked to explain how we ourselves understood this in order that we can reflect on it through the training and learn it ourselves, perhaps even improve on it.

In any case, the material is meant to accompany us for quite a while, surrounding us and becoming second nature over time. Imitation is thus the programme of the learning process. But there is also learning through exploration and entirely independent learning. Both forms can offer rich insights, and one can arouse a longing for the other, for overly rigid learning makes us long for freedom, but great freedom can nourish the desire for guidance and supervision. Either way, learning can make us fall in love.

It’s a falling in love in the moment, whether quietly or like a tectonic shift – that intense. We fall in love with the process, the exercise, the instruction, the words. We grow fond of it, feel comfortable in the familiar and notice that we are beginning to master something; do something with great assurance. We like ourselves like this, we see how we shine and our actions are applauded. We fall in love with ourselves, how we imitate something off the cuff and completely transform it into our own actions.

A form of veneration

In literary history, the act of imitatio or mimesis exists in ancient studies, for example by Cicero on rhetoric. Even today, imitation is famously considered the sincerest form of flattery. If you are good at something, many attempt to imitate you for a variety of reasons; some only because they envy your success or wish to have the same effect. Imitation itself is an excellent teacher. Admittedly, it is an authoritarian teacher who doesn’t tolerate much deviation, but consider how dancers are trained in ballet: Those who can most precisely imitate the classical form are considered outstanding.

In an era when we are questioning the capabilities of artificial intelligence and our consequential uncertainty about identity, imitation has become a matter for machines. We humans choose and desire genius. Goethe brought this ideal of genius back into view with a flickering Prometheus torchlight and it has not faded since. The human, the poet, is regarded as an inventor who leads the way like an explorer; considered not a progeny but a pioneer, who changes the landscape of science, philosophy and the arts. Through and with this person comes the new, and the old is subjected to discourse almost exclusively through criticism. There might be a kind word now and then about the deeds of a forerunner, but actually, our attention and worldly confidence are devoted to the present and even a tad to the future.

Be someone who receives

To me this seems not only questionable, but quite tiring. I like imitating and in doing so I have internalised these rules: Don’t be boring, reveal your sources, don’t even pretend something is original to you when it isn’t. Understand that there’s something good in being a person who sees and recognises the achievements of others and shares them. Be a person who receives, not just constantly transmits.

For my work practice, this meant that for years I transcribed many written works. I did so by hand. Back then I still had nice, solid handwriting. (Today, it’s more like a proverbial doctors’ scribble.) Through the exercise of transcription, what I copied became part of me in form and content. For quite a while, I was able to write letters in the tone of Heinrich Heine, was confident in the most questionable subjunctive phrases. In general, the tone was ultimately what I transferred and what thrilled me as a reader and writer.

In praise of the epigone

In German class I once heard a teacher speak contemptuously of Mörike, and in a notebook I actually noted in the margin, “Epigonal production by Mörike.” The man had the misfortune or the great fortune to be a contemporary of Goethe and even today his writing is interpreted as imitation; he is denied having a dimension of his own, yet it was always there. Depth, breadth, space and time are in Mörike’s work, which gifts its reader philosophically and mystically. Since turning to the practice of transcription, recitation and repetition after school in order to remember things better or to break down sentences in foreign languages in search of comprehension and grammatical form, I’m happy to be an epigone, even an enthusiastic one, and I’m happy to cite my role models. Their work and influence all inform my own.

To those who ask me, I say: do you want to understand poetry as high conversational art? Read Elaine Equi, Richard Brautigan, Volha Hapeyeva. Do you want to be able to form long sentences and understand who you are whilst putting your thoughts into words? Read Eco and Handke, Thomas Mann and a master of short sentences like Joyce Carol Oates to get to know the opposite. Do you want voices to speak in your poetry, base them on their original form: recitals accompanied by the lyre? Then read Walt Whitman, Timo Brunke, Ulrich Koch, Nadja Küchenmeister. Read me, constantly reading and contemplating others, who will in the future build my rhymes based on this as I have done, with success, in the past.


Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.