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December 05, 2022

Poetry for Pikers 02

By Cheryl Haimann

Amazingly, there are ways to write poems without writing a single original word, or at least very few of them.

Found poetry encourages the poet to be alert for the poetry lurking in everyday speech and writing. Just take a piece of prose and insert line and stanza breaks until it feels like a poem. Do not add or omit words.

The hard part is finding some prose that is worthy of your time. Mundane sources such as news articles, overheard conversations, and letters actually work better than more obviously artistic words.

A recent book of found poems, "Pieces of Intelligence : The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld" by Hart Seely, inspired the following poetic reclamation. In his recent press conference, George W. Bush came within a Texas rattler's breath of forming three perfect 5/7/5 haikus:

I hope I -- I don't
want to sound like I've made no
mistakes. I'm confident

I have. I just haven't --
you just put me under the
spot here, and maybe

I'm not as quick on
my feet as I should be in
coming up with one.


Cento is a poem made up of lines from other poems. Cento means patchwork in Latin, and indeed the poem is stitched together much like a patchwork quilt.

As you read poetry, jot down lines that you find interesting. (Remember to include an attribution, in case you want or need to refer back to the original poems.) When you have a lot of lines, string them together and rearrange them until they please you.

An even easier way to collect lines is to refer to the "Index of first lines" in many poetry collections. This cento was collected from "Poems to Read", edited by Robert Pinsky.

My father use to say
Sight is my birthright
Call the roller of big cigars
There are no stars to-night

We cannot know his legendary head
We were supposed to do a job in Italy
When we lit our torches
September rain falls on the house

Most of my kind believe that Earth
The Heart asks Pleasure - first -
No, not under the vault of alien skies
Human reason is beautiful and invincible

Imitation poems are translations, after a fashion. They start out being regular translations, but somewhere along the way, the translator takes liberties with the words while still imitating the style. Perhaps a word has been forgotten, or mistranslated. The French word maîtresse , for example, may make the poet think of "mattress" rather than the correct translation "mistress." Mère (mother) may be confused with mer (sea).

While a smattering of foreign language skills is useful for tackling this sort of poem, it is not absolutely necessary. Just take your foreign language poem to a translator site on the web, such as Babelfish and let it do the hard work. The translators never get it exactly right, and that is where you can exercise your own creative skills.

Here are two stanzas of "Le Balcon" by Charles Baudelaire, in the original French:

Mère des souvenirs maîtresse des maîtresses
O toi, tous mes plaisirs! O, toi, tous mes devoirs!
Tu te rappelleras la beauté des caresses,
La douceur du foyer et le charme des soirs,
Mère des souvenirs maîtresse des maîtresses,

Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon,
Et les soirs au balcon, voiles de vapeurs roses.
Que ton sein m'était doux! Que ton coeur m'était bon!
Nous avons dit souvent d'impérissables choses
Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon

Here are the same two stanzas after Bablefish has had its way with them:

Mother of the memories, mistress of the mistresses,
O you, all my pleasures! o you, all my duties!
You will remember the beauty of the caresses,
the softness of the hearth and the charm of the evenings, Mère of the memories, mistress of the mistresses!

Evenings illuminated by l ardor of coal,
And evenings with the balcony, veiled pink vapors.
-- That your centre m'était soft! that your heart m'était good! We said often d'impérissables things
the evenings illuminated by l ardor of coal.

And after some human intervention:

The sea has memories, like a mistress on a mattress,
You know my pleasures! You know my duties!
You will remember the beauty of my caresses,
sweet, in the foyer; enchanting, in the evening,
The sea has memories, like a mistress on a mattress!

Evenings illuminated by embers,
And evenings on the balcony, veiled in pink mist.
Soft at your core, and your heart was good!
We said unchangeable things
the evenings illuminated by embers.

Part one of this series appeared in the April 10 issue.

Article © Cheryl Haimann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-04-17
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