This prompt deals with a kind of poetry that we first explored on the blog seven years ago, in May of 2010. The form is called the Cento, a term that derives from the Latin word for patchwork (as in patchwork quilt). In poetry, a cento is a kind of collage poem 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. Though some poets adapt this form to include borrowed lines from other poets’ work along with lines of their own, a true Cento is composed only of lines from other sources.
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.
Remember, this isn’t a prompt about “grand theft poetry”—it’s a prompt about how other poets’ writing can inspire your own.
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 Poem Hunter).
2. Read the example poem below.
3. Next, read some poems by other poets (time-honored or more contemporary).
4. Let yourself be inspired gently—take whatever suggestions the poems you read might have to offer, but don’t be locked into anything.
5. Spend a lot of time, playing” with the ideas you gathered from other people’s poems. Where do they lead you? What moments of inspiration do they bring? How can you “piggy back” from these ideas into something spectacular of your own?
6. Be sure to reject anything that doesn’t fit the poem you begin to write and make sure that each line you use is taken from a different poem.
7. Remember that, although you’re assembling a selection of lines from various poems, your poem must makes sense. This is important!
8. Keep your poem short, don’t ramble.
9. After you’ve written a draft, look for “lifeless” parts of the poem and delete or rework them.
10. In the end, your new poem should bear little or no resemblance to any of the poems from which you’ve borrowed lines.
11. At the end, list each poet’s full name. Include (in quotation marks) the name of the poem from which you’ve borrowed.
1. Think of poetry at the line level.
2. Work on associative thinking and making connections among various poems.
3. Pay attention to tone, syntax, and mood.
4. Think about context, arrangement, and form in writing.
5. Examine how art can be disassembled and reassembled to create new works of art.
That Was by Adele Kenny
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, “Lines Written 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”)
Copyright © 2017 by Adele Kenny. All rights reserved.