Today, I’d like to challenge you to write a cento. This is a poem that is made up of lines taken from other poems. If you’d like to dig into an in-depth example, here’s John Ashbery’s cento “The Dong with the Luminous Nose,” and here it is again, fully annotated to show where every line originated. A cento might seem like a complex undertaking – and one that requires you to have umpteen poetry books at your fingertips for reference – but you don’t have to write a long one. And a good way to jump-start the process is to find an online curation of poems about a particular topic (or in a particular style), and then mine the poems for good lines to string together. You might look at the Poetry Foundation’s collection of love poems, or its collection of poems by British romantic poets, or even its surprisingly expansive collection of poems about (American) football.
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began…
You begin this way:
this is your hand,
this is your eye,
this is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
These are the words we dimly hear:
You’re sad because you’re sad.
It’s psychic. It’s the age. It’s chemical.
Go see a shrink or take a pill,
or hug your sadness like an eyeless doll
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Count your blessings. Better than that,
buy a hat. Buy a coat or pet.
Take up dancing to forget.
I’m thinking about you. What else can I say?
your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.
This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
which is round but not flat and has more colors
than we can see.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination…
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Well, all children are sad
but some get over it
this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.
Give me your hand.
With gratitude and proper attribution to:
- Mary Oliver
- Margaret Atwood
- Rainer Maria Rilke
- John Donne
Love the Donne references – my favorite poem!!