Hi Everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve posted regularly. An aged iMac (15 years old) has had a lot to do with that. Happily, I’m now working on a refurbished iMac that belonged to a former college professor and friend. When he and his wife got new computers, he had this one fixed up for me, and it’s a joy to work on. Of course, there are things I still have to learn, and I don’t have Office on this machine. As you will note, I'm still not completely adept at formatting yet. I’ve been plodding along but figuring things out at the same time.
Sadly, two very dear poet friends, Vincent Tripi and Laura Boss, passed away recently. Neither had Covid, but the losses, coming during the pandemic, have been disturbing. I haven't written much in the last few months, and I just happened to remember a form called the Cento. We’ve worked with it before on the blog, and just “playing” with a few cento poems helped me to recharge enough to write a couple of new (not cento) poems.
Sometimes, it’s fun to revisit an old post and try it out in a new year. This year, with Covid’s specter looming over all of us, has been both challenging and frightening. Finding inspiration isn’t always easy but, often, another poet’s words can be a rich source of inspiration. Cento derives from the Latin word for patchwork (as in a 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 lined, prose poems, or any form that strikes your fancy. 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.
One of the things that appeals to me about the form is that reading poetry by other poets is part of the process, we read and write all within the space of a poem.
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 reasonably easy to “put together.” For this prompt activity, create a cento based on a particular idea or theme (don’t simply collage randomly—start with a subject idea in mind). Using a poetry anthology is one way to get started. Read some poems and write down any lines that particularly strike you (be sure to include the poets’ names and the titles of the poems in your notes so you’ll know the poems and poets from which the lines you use in your cento originated). Alternatively, the Internet offers many poetry sites at which you can look for poems by poets or by titles and themes. Another place to look for inspiration might be in any copies of poetry journals that you have handy.
2. At some point, 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, (http://dougkirshen.com/dong/start.html), and "Ode: Salute to the New York School 1950-1970" by Peter Gizzi, http://www.jstor.org/pss/20132337).
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 make 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. Be sure to list each poet’s full name and the name of the poem from which you’ve borrowed. this can be done at then end of your cento (see the example below for one way to do this).
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”)
Perfect (a cento)
By Wendy Rosenberg
I put you into my memories on purpose –
a balm for the nerves –
the notion of some infinitely gentle thing.
You do not have to walk on your knees
like a willow swept by rain.
Beauty is momentary in the mind,
conceived in a wordless encounter
by means of a searching pause.
We all have reasons for moving –
I never knew survival was like that.
I would like to be the air –
more like a memory of heaven
and certain certainties.
Your face sounds like that.
Let me hear every perfect note.
Line 1: Julia Cohen “In the Dark We Crush”
Line 2: Alberto Rios “Coffee in the Afternoon”
Line 3: T. S. Eliot “Preludes”
Line 4: Mary Oliver “Wild Geese”
Line 5: Wallace Stevens “Peter Quince at the Clavier”
Line 6: Wallace Stevens “Peter Quince at the Clavier”
Line 7: Naomi Mulvihill “Poetry”
Line 8: Naomi Mulvihill “Poetry”
Line 9: Mark Strand “Keeping things Whole”
Line 10: Ada Limón, “Before”
Line 11: Margaret Atwood: “Variation on the Word Sleep”
Line 12: Li-Young Lee “Discrepancies, Happy and Sad”
Line 13: T. S. Eliot “Preludes”
Line 14: Julia Cohen “In the Dark We Crush”
Line 15: Jonathan Wells “Love’s Body”
From Whatever Happens (Tiferet, 2016). Reprinted by permission. Copyright © 2016. All rights reserved.