This place could be beautiful,
right? Fresh-washed and fair,
You could live inside this rose, in
flowering bulbs voluptuous in the spring,
but the garden sprawls and spoils,
worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie,
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 poets.org, 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.