Developing a Poetic Voice Part 1: The Cento

Yes, this is still a fiction blog. Don’t panic. Everyone just take a deep breath, and calm down! (On that note—try to avoid using exclamation points whenever possible).

Before we begin, I need to let you know a little bit about my background in writing. Though I’ve spent the majority of my life writing fiction (both short stories and novels), I’ve occasionally dabbled in poetry. It was a phase I went through in college. Admittedly, I was in a pretty rad rock and roll band at the time, and I wrote most of the lyrics. That’s my cover story.

Why am I so defensive about writing poetry, you ask? A few reasons; first, I was never truly great at it. Sure, I had a few killer poems, but for the most part, I floundered. I did get one nod from an old poetry professor. He mentioned I was, “The most improved student he’d ever had.” All that means is that I sucked more than anyone else he’d ever had (if you’ll pardon my informality). The second reason I’m defensive about it is that I’ve noticed a trend among writers. We’re all (for the most part) genreists. I hear things like, “Poetry is what you write if you can’t write fiction,” and “Fiction writers can’t find the right words, so they have to throw them all down on the page.” It seems the only time the two find any common ground is when they chose to snub those who write non-fiction. “That’s not real writing anyway. Isn’t Creative Non-Fiction an oxymoron?” Then we all cover our mouths and giggle like school girls.

So I’m a man with a foot in poetry (pardon the pun) and one in fiction. I’m bi-genre, if you will. And the most profound thing I’ve discovered in this straddling of the fence is that each form can influence the other. Believe me when I say that, if you can write poetry, your fiction will dramatically improve. Conversely, if you can write fiction, your poetry will improve. You just have to find your voice in each, and realize when it’s appropriate to use it.

Since most of my readers are fiction writers, I’ll mention very quickly how they can help to develop their poetic voice (for use in their fiction) with very little fear. The first step is to read poetry. I know, that’s quite a feat in itself. If you don’t know where to start, let me recommend a few of my favorites: Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and Adrienne Rich. Better yet, go to poets.org and you can search for poems by form or by poet or by subject matter. Find a few poems that talk about whatever your current project is about. Read a few of these poems and copy down your favorite lines from each. Then, assemble these lines (exactly as they are, no editing) into a poem of your own. This is called a cento.

I think what you’ll find is that “borrowing” the voice of other poets can help you find your own. You’ll use their words in your voice, like singing a song someone else wrote. If you’re worried about plagiarism, just don’t publish it. But you can rest easy and know that the Cento is a long-held poetic tradition. They are quite common, in fact. The poem you come up with might even help strengthen your current project.

Be sure to let me know how that goes. I’d love to hear back from you.

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