I’ve always felt that reading poetry can go a long way toward generating poetry. We’re often inspired by what we read, we discover new forms and styles, and we find interesting examples of how language can be used in different and engaging ways.
Inspiration comes in many forms. Often, when we read another poet’s poem, we feel inspired, encouraged, and perhaps even compelled to write something of our own. In general, derivative works are frowned upon, but finding bits of stimulation here can be a very good thing. It's how we use what inspires us that makes the difference.
This week, to encourage poetry reading and to explore some ways in which other poets’ words can motivate us, we’re going to begin with poems that other poets have written.
1. The first thing I’d like you to do is select five short poems from books you have or from the Internet. Try to use poems that are under 40 lines each. The poems may be old favorites or new discoveries—you decide.
2. Read all five poems carefully.
3. Jot down 5 interesting things about each of the poems you selected.
- Write down one stunning, startling, or otherwise noteworthy image from the poem.
- How does the poet invite you into the poem? Is there a “hook” in the first line?
- How does the last line, the dismount, bring the poem to closure?
- What’s unique about the last line?
- What has the poet written that resonates for you?
- Make a note of anything else that stands out in the poems you’ve selected.
4. Now, in the spirit of writing a cento, borrow a meaning, metaphor, simile, line, phrase, image, or word from each of the five poems you chose. Altogether, that’s only five things—only one from each of the poems you chose to read.
Note: Cento is the Latin word for patchwork (as in patchwork quilt). In poetry, a cento is made entirely of lines taken from poems by other authors. The rules are simple: no more than one line may be taken from any one poem; any number of quotes is acceptable; and centos may be rhymed or unrhymed. Remember that “borrowing” other poets’ words is typically regarded as an honorific practice when the work is well-done and sources are properly credited. Be sure to provide credits (usually at the end of your poem).
5. Reflect on your five “borrowed” items. What do they suggest to you? Do they, in any way, lead you to a subject for a poem of your own? Establish the subject for a poem.
6. At this point, begin to write a poem in which you incorporate all five of the “borrowed” items; but, here’s the challenge: unlike writing a cento, you can’t quote anything directly. In other words, the things you chose for the poems you read are purely for inspiration. All the words in your poem must be completely your own.
1. Let yourself be inspired gently, take whatever suggestions the poems you read might have to offer, but don’t be locked into anything.
2. Spend a lot of time, playing” with the ideas you gathered from other people’s poems. Where do they lead you? What moments of inspiration do they bring? How can you “piggy back” from these ideas into something spectacular of your own?
3. Be sure to reject anything that doesn’t fit the poem you begin to write.
4. Keep your poem short, don’t ramble.
5. After you’ve written a draft, look for “lifeless” parts of the poem and delete or rework them.
6. In the end, your new poem should bear little or no resemblance to any of the poems you read.
7. Remember, this isn’t a prompt about “grand theft poetry”—it’s a prompt about how other people’s writing can inspire your own!