Collage poem

This place could be beautiful,
right? Fresh-washed and fair,

a green that will never
again be so green.

You could live inside this rose, in
flowering bulbs voluptuous in the spring,

but the garden sprawls and spoils,
worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie,

and all winds go sighing
for sweet things dying.

The coming night
will not lift. I am exhausted,

a bleached shirt flapping alone
on a laundry line, arms pointed down.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,
but I’m singing your name now.


This poem is a copyright violation, perhaps–a multitude of them–but I’m sharing in the spirit of fair use, primarily because I know this won’t impact anyone’s financial bottom line, my purpose in sharing is primarily educational, and I’ve worked not to steal the heart of anyone else’s work.

Still, almost every word of it is lifted from another writer. You might have guessed, as some of the lines are from well-known poems. I tried not to change any of the original wording, but I added an occasional conjunction or preposition and changed a few punctuation marks. Below, you can see links to all of the original works the words come from (though not quite in the same order as the poem above).

I call it a collage poem, only the gathered bits are lines and phrases of language rather than images. I don’t know if this is an exercise others have used or written about; I made it up for myself years ago, when I was teaching a poetry unit to high school freshmen. It was a low-risk entry into writing poems, and it got them to read poems, which has always acted as pump-priming for me and most writers I’ve ever talked with about process.

I haven’t written a poem in a long time, but this was a week in which prose wasn’t working for me. What I like about this exercise is the layers of meaning that might come, not just from the collage poem (or maybe call it a remix, if that term makes more sense), but from reading all of the original works as a collection. I also found immersion in poetry to be a healing thing.

How to start one of your own? I began this one by revisiting poems and poets I know from long ago, as I have been dwelling in the past in recent days, and thinking about time and wrestling with questions of hope and purpose.

As I started to play with the language of those old favorites (most of which fell away as I tinkered), there were two sites that I found particularly useful for this exercise: Poetry Foundation, which has thematic collections that are a great starting point if you have a particular topic you’d like to write on, and, from the Academy of American Poets, which also has collections. I visited collections on summer and illness.

(A note: These sites are not very diverse in their representation of poets; the poetry establishment favors white, male academics (see recent news of Poetry Foundation’s leadership resigning recently over their bungling of a Black Lives Matter statement). Given issues of appropriation and my own identity as a white European-American, I wouldn’t feel comfortable using the work of BIPOC poets in this way, though this collage poem does contain a phrase—“you could live inside this rose”—from a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, an Arab-American poet and one of my favorite contemporary writers. Perhaps I should cut it, but it seems fitting that the collage poem hinges on these words from a writer whose work examines what it means to be both of and apart from a place.)

If you decide to try one, I’d encourage you to make up some rules for yourself. My best creative works come when I have limitations, not complete freedom. If it’s helpful, these were mine:

  • No more than one poem per poet. (But I broke this rule.)
  • No more than two lines per poem, not divided.
  • You have to like the original poem. (Loving it is even better.)
  • It’s OK to add conjunctions, prepositions, and joining punctuation to the beginning or end of the borrowed language.
  • You can’t change pronouns or verb tenses.

It can be a tricky line to walk, the one between honoring the integrity of the original work and building it into the one you’re creating–but isn’t that the task of all creation, really, when you think about it? Because we never create anything all by ourselves; we are always building upon the work of others who have come before us.

Links to original poems:

fresh-washed and fair,

The green will never
again be so green

The garden sprawls and spoils,
worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie

all winds go sighing
For sweet things dying.

the coming night
will not lift. I am exhausted,

a bleached shirt flapping alone
on a laundry line, arms pointed down.

This place could be beautiful,
you could live inside this rose

I wish I could see only the flowering
bulbs voluptuous in the spring.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,
but I’m singing your name now

10 thoughts on “Collage poem

    • Rita says:

      How have I been living (and reading and writing) for so long and am only now learning this? Thank you! Not just for the useful information, but also for the reminder that there are always new things to discover.

      • Dave Bonta says:

        You’re not alone. As much as I’m into found poetry, I only heard about the cento within the last five years. I think it’s one of those formerly pretty obscure words, like ekphrastic, that suddenly seem to be everywhere in academic poetry circles, probably because the MFA teaching community is pretty tight-knit, and then there’s a lag before it filters out to the rest of us. OTOH I am continually annoyed that the term persona poem has become widely used instead of the perfectly good, and awesomely pretentious, prosopopoeia.

        • Rita says:

          Well, I am not a member of academic poetry circles, so there you go. 🙂 But I do love a perfectly good and awesomely pretentious word every now and again, and my new goal for the coming week is to figure out how I can casually drop prosopopoeia into a conversation. Right after I figure out how to pronounce it.

          Somehow, knowing that there is such a thing as a cento and that it’s considered legit (as opposed to lazy or unethical or fraudulent or mere exercise) is opening something up for me. Thank you for that.

    • Rita says:

      I saw your comment after waking up from a migraine nap–what a gift on such a hot afternoon!

      As a librarian, I have been trained to revere copyright. There was such a vigorous discussion in my professional circles this spring when schools closed and teachers and librarians wanted to create read-aloud videos of picture books. Were these a copyright violation? Did they fall into fair use? We seemed to collectively agree that we could make such videos, under prescribed conditions, and so I supported our library staff in doing that. Most simply filmed themselves reading the story aloud and found some way to show the book’s illustrations. One, though, went far beyond that, incorporating music, props, costumes, and her own interpretation of the books. They were marvelous, and although I am sure they would be considered derivative rather than transformative–because her videos used the original works in their entirety–I felt they were transformative, creative works in their own right.

      But I’m digressing some. The thing I wanted to say is: I appreciate this essay for making me question things I’d accepted unquestioningly (a theme of recent years, with respect to all kinds of things). I’d been taught that copyright was all about protecting the rights of the creator–something I favored, as a creator myself–and this essay turns that idea on its head. It helps me see yet another way in which capitalistic values are embedded into something that seems the antithesis of commerce (Art!), but, of course, art/Art isn’t the antithesis of capitalism in a capitalistic society. It can’t be. (Nothing can be, as I’m understanding more and more.)

      It is also helping me understand in a different way why I’ve spurned the business of publishing and give my stuff away for free. Lots of food for thought here. Thank you.

  1. Kate says:

    I like this exercise a lot and the poem you created. I also appreciated the links to find poetry as I’m looking for ways to incorporate some with both V and A this year (they’ll be doing virtual, but I hope to add some stuff too!!)

    • Rita says:

      Here are another couple of sites you might like:
      Poetry Out Loud: Which is the site for a national poetry recitation contest. Even if you’re not interested in the contest, they have a large anthology that students draw from for the competition.
      Poetry 180: This is a little old now, but it’s a collection of poems (1 per school day) for high school students. They are more accessible than some you’d find on the sites I linked to in the post.

      I also created a list in the spring of novels in verse for a mature middle schooler. I highly recommend Kwame Alexander for your son (if he hasn’t discovered him yet). You can get to it here.

      I haven’t tried these ideas out myself, but I love all of them, and could see how you might be able to use/adapt them.

      These are some pretty good ideas, too. (And it includes reference to Love That Dog and Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech, two others your son might like.)

      Have fun! I loved teaching poetry. 🙂

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