Go back to school by completing this creativity exercise.

Classical musicians have mined the form of themes and variations to create enduring works of imagination. As a listener, think of Beethoven’s 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120 or Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

But riffing on a theme holds meaning for many musical styles as well as for the performing arts, literature, scientific research and daily life (as in recipes). Anthony Brandt has found that students respond to the idea of variations on a theme as a creative exercise. By using poems (instead of musical notes) as the source material, Brandt opens up the exercise to students of any major.

We invite our readers to be students again by participating in the “Variations on a Theme” exercise.

Here’s how it works. 

Begin with a poem. We’ve reprinted “The Soul selects her own Society” by Emily Dickinson. Use this poem (or another of your choosing) as the source. Create four variations on the poem, with each one getting further and further way from the source.

Variation I. Employ your creative license to vary the language and meaning of the poem.

Variation II. Make your changes vary even more from the original.

Variation III. This variation may barely resemble the original.

Variation IV. This variation should break the mold of the original poem in some way.

Your variations are not limited to words, but can involve multimedia such as images and video.

The Soul selects her own Society (303)
by Emily Dickinson, 1830–1886

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —
Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —
I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

c. 1862

Send your completed homework to ricemagazine@rice.edu, and we’ll select some to print or link to in a future issue. 

Looking for inspiration? Here’s what a few students in “Creativity Up Close” came up with for this assignment.


Senior Allison Rozich took as her subject a popular Tumblr meme and turned it into a spoken word poem. First, she recorded a lively reading of the original text.

“Gosh, but like we spent hundreds of years looking up at the stars and wondering ‘Is there anybody out there?’ and hoping and guessing and imagining … .”

Because her text was long, each of her variations was dedicated to a segment of the original. The addition of archival imagery and sound effects helped to move each variation further and further from the original. Her fifth and final variation breaks the mold with a transcription of the piece’s final 20 words in atomic notation.


Connie Do ’17 chose a one-sentence poem by Joseph Legaspi called “Your Mother Wears a House Dress” as her original text. It begins in a whimsical way:

If your house
is a dress
it’ll fit like
Los Angeles

Do created a video with hand-made drawings of a house followed by increasingly distorted voice and computer-generated images. Finally, there is just code for drawing a house and the word.


In our final example, Michael Galko, a student at the Glasscock School for Continuing Studies, uses a poem by Lawrence Durrell (1912–1990) as the base for variations on a theme. Here’s the original.

There is a great heart-break in an evening sea;
Remoteness in the sudden naked shafts
Of light that die, tremulous, quivering
Into cool ripples of blue and silver …
So it is with these songs:
the ink has dried,
And found its own perpetual circuit here,
Cast its own net
Of little, formless mimicry around itself.
And you must turn away, smile….
and forget.

Variation 1 transposes the poem from the ocean to a forest.

I.  Fun (g) us

There is a great white cap on an evening forest Floor;
some regret in the sudden waning shafts
Of sun light that shine, tree-piercing,
Into pools rippling with moss and fern…
So it is with that birdsong:
the notes have died,
And found their own palatial surfeit here,
Cast their own spell,
A little, formless wizardry around hyphae.
And you must fold into yourself, shroom….
and sleep.

Variation 2 rearranges the words to deliver the same message.

Flat (ter) is
Forget the dried ink here.
An evening heart-break, silver shafts…
Cool blue songs, tremulous naked light
that has a sudden remoteness,
these ripples of great formless sea;
so it is in perpetual mimicry:
Found there is its own circuit, quivering
into and with it’s own little net
cast around and in the die of
of itself.
And smile you must,
and turn away…

Variation 3 rearranges the letters of each line to create a different poem.

Ferrous: A miner’s drunk evening
Hearth breaks even- eeeasing in a Terra giant
light that dies, quiver fool mute ruing,
slivers into bland ice fool ore pulp…
this white soot singes:
thee drink is had,
down its circuit perpetual an found here,
static’s went on,
self around it of little formless mi mi cry,
and you a musty, smite ur lawn….
forge an dts.

Variation 4 translates the poem into emojis.