by Sarah Carson

For as long as I can remember, there have been two places I’ve turned when things get challenging: 1) to my faith, 2) to poetry.

As someone who grew up in church, I’ve learned prayer can be powerful when I have questions, doubts, and even anger. It can be a way to find calm when things get messy and to put words to what I’m going through.

Poetry, too, has served that purpose for me. Even one of my favorite poems as a child, Shel Silverstein’s “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout,” was a way of finding words for one of the frustrations I already felt at six years old—the primal, ageless desire to stay home from school.

There have certainly been times when prayer and writing have been challenging. Especially during the worst moments—the loss of loved ones, the big life transitions, all those times when words fail—it can be hard to want to sit quietly and face complicated feelings or truths.

But in finding words to express what I’ve gone through, I’ve found a path through those moments and a way to (eventually) get going again.

As a writing teacher, I know poetry doesn’t appeal to everybody. But I truly believe everyone can benefit from a creative outlet. Whether it’s painting, poetry, or banging on a drum, there’s something about bringing our whole selves to the task of creation that can be truly transformative.

And if you want to try poetry, I promise you, there really is a type of poem for everyone. Poetry has a reputation for being abstract or difficult, but it’s a lot like music. There are myriad styles, topics, and subcultures in the poetry world–from Instagram poets to slam poets, lyric poets and even visual poets.

One of my favorite poems to teach new poets is the cento, a form in which a poem is created from lines of already-written work, including poetry, song lyrics, or fiction.

It’s a fun way to dive into reading poetry and see how other poets use lines, images, metaphors, and wordplay to convey a theme.

This cento, for example, by the poet Kathleen Kirk, uses lines from the work of Ann Patchett, Paul Murray, Joshua Ferris, Anne Enright, Jenny Offill, and John Williams to create a meditation on grief:

Grief Cento

suffering exists beside wet grass

a new chill edge to the rain

a periphery of noise surrounding a nucleus of grief

moving through a delicacy of stars

a light coming greenly through the leaves

lightly upon the grass, hardly touching it, leaving no trace

The cento’s power comes from combining words that have already spoken to us in new ways—letting the meaning accumulate.

My challenge to you is to write your own cento. Think of the words that most speak to you when you need encouragement or comfort. Perhaps they are lines from hymns or songs. Perhaps they are lines from your own journal or another writer you love.

Arrange the lines together and see what happens. Maybe you’ll come up with a poem you can return to when you need those words. But even if you don’t, engaging in the process of reading carefully and arranging words can be a kind of meditation—a way to sort through your own inarticulable inner workings and bring something new into the world.

Discussion questions:

Do you have any creative practices you use to express yourself? If not, are there any you’ve wanted to try?
Try writing a cento. Do you see any themes in the songs, prayers, or Bible verses that speak to you? What might happen if you bring those scraps of language together?

Sarah Carson is a former managing editor of Gather magazine. Her book How to Baptize a Child in Flint, Michigan is available where all books are sold. Read more of her work at


Read, Perfect Imperfections: How words can fail and hold us at the same time,” by Sarah Carson.