I can be such a snob sometimes. I’ve had this attitude about books on “how to be creative” for most of my writing life. You know the ones: They give you exercises, “tricks” like pretending you’re someone else, eavesdropping on conversations, writing backwards (What? I think I just made that one up . . . Better give it a try!). My reaction? If you have to read a book to be creative . . . Come on, please. Leave it to the people who do it naturally, who can’t live without doing it, who’d be doing it even if there wasn’t a word for it. Don’t clog up our precious atmosphere with forced poetry or songs or other miscellaneous “creative” output.
My devoted inner snob kept me away from the “writing” section of Amazon for a while, yanking me by the arm: “We don’t need this. I’m outta here.” But then I was given an exercise by a trusted friend to write something called a “cento poem” (i.e., “patchwork poem”), an ancient practice of creating a poem from lines of other poems. Inner snob scoffed immediately: “I don’t have to use other people’s words. I use my own. I write original song lyrics for God’s sake, heralded by no less than The New York Times. I’m not going to paste together the lines of existing work like a decoupage heart-shaped box made in Girl Scouts. I’m all about creating something new. After all, my business card says ‘Creator,’ and rightfully so. Who needs this silly exercise? I’m not stooping to your cento.”
But something about this idea wouldn’t let go of me. I sat down with inner snob and, together, we decided we could try this in the privacy of our own home. “No one has to know. It might be kind of fun. And we’re not at all busy (ha!), so let’s have at it.”
I followed the book’s instructions (obviously written with amateurs in mind):
Read some poems. Take time to look through a few poetry books or explore some poetry online. Enjoy the poems. Anthologies, which contain many poems, make the search easier.
Get started. Find a line you especially like and make that the first line of your patchwork poem. Write the poet’s last name in parentheses at the end of the line.
Add more lines. Select lines 2, 3, and 4 in the same way. Choose your lines carefully—your poem must make sense.
Take the challenge!
Can you make your poem rhyme? It’s not necessary, but it can be a fun challenge.
Try to make the beats sound right.
Tenses should agree.
Person should agree. In other words, pick lines that have been written either all in first person or all in third person.
Give credit. At the end, list each poet’s full name. Include the name of the poem in quotes.
What happened is that I started to have fun. It gave me an excuse to revisit a book from my college days called An Anthology of Literature, which had some old poems I’d always loved. I pulled out my copy of Poems, an aptly titled book of Adrienne Rich poetry. I got to re-reading one of my favorite poems of all time (“Gift” by W.S. Merwin). All those poets’ words sparked my own passion for wordplay (a la fallowing) and I suddenly felt I’d been let loose in a verbal sandbox. My snob-self went off on a fancy vacation somewhere while I got my hands nice and dirty (literally, those books are old!).
So here it is, in time for the back-to-school season, my patchwork poem. Credit reel at the end. (I cheated slightly and wrote one line myself. I needed the rhyme.) I invite you to write one too. All snobs allowed.
I leave the book open upon a pillowed chair (Adrienne Rich)
Enough to lead men not to share (Adrienne Rich)
In the room the women come and go (T.S. Eliot)
What are the roots that clutch what branches grow (T.S. Eliot)
There are so many roots to the tree of anger (Audre Lorde)
The gropings of veins the learning of plants (W.S. Merwin)
I finally gave her enough rope to hang her (Buck Owens)
Then was left with the echo of her chants (Mary Lee Kortes)
The one-eyed undertaker he blows a futile horn (Bob Dylan)
Get up, get up for shame, the blooming morn (Robert Herrick)
But lived where motley is worn (William Butler Yeats)
All changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born (William Butler Yeats)
With the evening stretched out against the sky (T.S. Eliot)
What does it not hope knowing itself no child of time (W.S Merwin)
Then while time serves and we are but decaying
Come, my Corinna come, let’s go a-Maying (Herrick)
Adrienne Rich “Storm Warnings”
Adrienne Rich “Boundary”
T.S. Eliot “The Waste Land”
T.S. Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Audre Lorde “Who Said It Was Simple”
W.S. Merwin “Gift”
Buck Owens “I Finally Gave Her Enough Rope To Hang” song lyric
Mary Lee Kortes, one line written just for this
Bob Dylan “Shelter from the Storm” song lyric
Robert Herrick “Corinna’s Going A-Maying”
William Butler Yeats “Easter 1916”
PS: Inner snob is still off on a break—so extended that I’ve launched full force into The Artist’s Way, another book I dismissed without reading. Lovin’ it! But don’t tell anyone.