Saturday, May 22, 2010

Poetry Prompt #6 - Quotable Quotes: The Cento

Cento is the Latin word for patchwork (as in patchwork quilt). In poetry, a cento is made entirely of lines taken from poems by other authors. The rules are simple: no more than one line may be taken from any one poem; any number of quotes is acceptable; and centos may be rhymed or unrhymed. Remember that “borrowing” other poets’ words is typically regarded as an honorific practice when the work is well-done and sources are properly credited. Be sure to provide credits (usually at the end of your poem).

Historically, the cento is ancient. Early Greeks built poems from such works as The Iliad and The Odyssey. Roman poets composed centos taken from the works of Virgil, and Renaissance poets worked with lines from Petrarch and Cicero. Modern cento forms include variations (i.e., a single borrowed line that’s echoed throughout a poem), and today’s centos are often witty or ironic. 

Be sure to read “The Dong with the Luminous Nose” (a cento by John Ashbury that takes its title from Edward Lear and includes lines from poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and Lord Byron, (, and "Ode: Salute to the New York School 1950-1970 " by Peter Gizzi,

1. Centos are fun to experiment with and are reasonably easy to “put together.” For this prompt activity, create a cento based on a particular idea or theme (don’t simply collage randomly). Use a poetry anthology if you have one handy. Alternatively, the Internet offers many poetry sites at which you can look for poems by poets or by titles and themes (you might want to try

Example: Here’s a cento example on the theme of “goodbye” that I “put together” yesterday:

That Was
That was the real world (I have touched it once),
which, though silent to the ear,
licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
where wings have memory of wings…

Ah, sweet! Even now in that bird’s song,
even now I may confess,
we are what life made us, and shall be –
more glory and more grief than I can tell.

All pleasures and all pains, remembering –
(I learnt the verbs of will, and had my secret).
These are the years and the walls and the door.
Now, whether it were by peculiar grace,

(long after the days and the seasons) –
better by far that you should forget and smile.
I lift my eyes in a light-headed credo,
then let you reach your hat and go.

Line 1: (Edwin Muir, “The Labyrinth”)
Line 2: (Percy Busshe Shelley, “LinesWritten in the Bay of Lerici”)
Line 3: (T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)
Line 4: (William Butler Yeats, “Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation")

Line 5: (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “The Blessed Damozel”)
Line 6: (Alexander Pushkin, “I Loved You”)
Line 7: (Algernon Charles Swinburne, “At a Month’s End”)
Line 8: (Emily Bronte, “Stanzas”)

Line 9: (Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”)
Line 10: (Dylan Thomas, “From Love’s First Fever To Her Plague”)
Line 11: (Elizabeth Bishop, “Visit to St Elizabeths”)
Line 12: (William Wordsworth, “Resolution and Independence”)

Line 13: (Arthur Rimbaud, “”Barbarian”)
Line 14: (Christina Rossetti, “Remember”)
Line 15: (Seamus Heaney, “ Remembered Columns”)
Line 16: (Hart Crane, “The Bridge”)

2. After creating a cento, you may want to try working on something more original: write a poem that is uniquely your own but begins with a quotation/epigraph by a famous poet (be sure to credit the poet). Your poem should relate to the quotation, carry its idea into your experience, and express the quote’s meaning through images that are new-struck and resonant.

No comments:

Post a Comment