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The Art of Cento Poetry: Composing Patchwork Poems
  • Feb 2022
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The Art of Cento Poetry: Composing Patchwork Poems

24th February 2022

A cento can be described as a ‘collage poem’, concocted of various lines drawn from distinguished sources- more often, though not always, from the great poets of antiquity. The term ‘cento’ is derived from Latin, and refers to an exceptional way of creative writing, which has been existing in the literary community sometime since the third or fourth century.

In this art form, the poets craft a fresh poem structured on the words borrowed from others. The term cento actually means patchwork in Latin. A cento that has been appropriately cited, can be a fun exercise for the poetry aficionados, or a great and innovative way to showcase the works of many renowned published poets.  

Origins of Classical Cento

The term cento in Latin denotes a cloak designed out of patches. The word also finds its origins in the Greek Language. It is known that the Roman soldiers yielded ‘centones’ which were essentially old clothing patched over each other, to shield themselves from the strikes of their enemies. In Roman culture, the word cento also finds its meaning as the patch of material (like leather) which was used to cover the window screens or the porticos of a building.

In the literary world, the cento is said to have been conceived sometime between the third or fourth century. The first known cento is the ‘Medea’ written by Hosidius Geta. According to the renowned Latin Christian author Tertullian, the piece Medea was compiled out of Virgilian works.

The first known rules for creating centos were ordained by the Roman poet and the teacher of rhetoric from Burdigala- Decimius Mangus Ausonius. He states that the sections for the centos may be abstracted either from the same poet, or from several others. He also states that the cantos from the poems may be either taken in their entirety, or split into two; and that the one part should link to another that is placed somewhere else. The poets should refrain from using two verses successively, and should not take less than half of a verse for the centos. It was in harmony with the rules laid by Ausonius that the Cento Nuptialis was crafted out of the Roman poet Virgil’s finest works.

What is a Cento Poem?

To put it simply, a cento poem is a work of literary art that is constituted out of several poetry lines, or verses obtained from different poems. With these patchwork or collage poetries, a poet can pay reverence to, or eulogise the work of another poet, or use the verses from other work and add a satirical flair to their creations. Contemporary poets exercise cento as a dedicated form of the art of collage making, and often refer to it as- an assorted collection of anthology poems from various sources.

What makes Cento so appealing?

Writing a cento can be regarded as a kind of extension of the act of reading, a method to lengthen the pleasance of reading. The reason behind the increase in the appeal and popularity of cento poems is that, writing a cento provides an opportunity to wallow in quotes and strategically twine them for an assortment of effects, that commence with surprise and humour, and sometimes wind-up with a clear vision. As a poet, one feels inescapably drawn to the idea of shaping a cento from his favourite classics, creating a souvenir to cherish for lifetime, and honouring the poets he admires.

How to Write a Cento Poem

The essence of writing a cento poem is that as a poet, you remodel the stances of available, already published poems, to create a new-fangled poetic form cited as a ‘found poetry’. The verses can be procured from a single poet’s work, or various others.

The following steps can come in handy for the writers looking to dip their pens in the art of cento writing-

1. Read plenty of poetry - The more poems one retains in their memory, the more poetry they have at hand to acquire the verses from. Reading up on a generous amount of authors and poets can aid a writer to access a bigger pool of content to choose from, when constructing a cento. One can also look for some inspirational poetry pieces online. The key is to enjoy the poetry. Searching for anthologies that contain many poems from same, or different poets, make this search easier.

2. Make a start - A writer can start their cento or patchwork poem with a line, or a verse that they particularly like in a poem. Always end the line or verses in a cento with the poet’s last name in parentheses.

3. Maintain a balance within derived text - One should usually choose one or two lines of the poetry from every selected poem. Choosing more than two lines from every poem should be avoided. This can be achieved by arbitrary picking of texts from the literary work, or by hauling one’s favourite portion from the classical texts. Once the text is chosen, the writer has a liberty to reconfigure, remix and restructure the order of chosen lines. A cento poem does not need a rhyming scheme, but one can repurpose the patchwork to rhyme.

4. Add more lines to follow - After starting a cento, select the following verses in a similar fashion as the first, and keep the poem going. The lines however, must be chosen carefully- a cento poem should make sense on completion.  

5. Be sure to match the point-of-view (POV) and the tenses - Adopting lines in a patchwork poetry isn’t a cakewalk for all. The perspective should be kept the same throughout a cento. If the cento starts with a first-person perspective, it should be maintained such, all the way till the end. Similar rule applies to tenses in a cento. If the patchwork started in the past tense, the rest of cento needs to be phrased in the same tense.

6. Take a creative challenge - To make the creative process of writing cento poems more fun, one can take up several challenges to see if they can make the poems rhyme. Rhyming is not always necessary, but it can make the creative journey more fun. Other challenges a writer can take up while working on a patchwork poem are making the beats of verses sound right, making the person and tenses agree, etc.

7. Include Citations - While composing a cento, it is imperative to make a note of whose poetry one chose to include in their work. Passing off the published work as one’s novel craft cannot be implied when doing a patchwork, even if it involves rephrasing some of the verses. The cited section of a cento conveys to the reader that the poet is crediting the original works of the authors. The section also allows the readers to engage with, and explore the classic poetry they might be unaware of.


The Do’s and Don’ts While Writing Cento

While writing a cento poem, one is allowed to make the following changes in the borrowed lines from original works-

1. One may play with the lineation or enjambment such that the chosen lines or verses are not always one complete stanza. To put it simply, one can mix the lines taken from different sources as long as their placement makes sense.

2. One can decide whether they wish to add conjunctions or prepositions in the patchwork or not, to give a meaning to the verse.

3. One is at the liberty to use the traditional punctuations wherever needed, or is allowed to use none at all if they please.

4. The word ‘centos’ also roughly translates into ‘a hundred’. Hence, the usual limit of lines in a cento poem extends to a hundred or more.

5. If a verse is chosen where some lines do not fit well with the theme of cento, a writer is at liberty to discard a few lines from such verse.

However, the writer must NOT include words of their own while phrasing lines from a published source.


Modern Centos

The attraction of modern poets towards a cento was drawn ever since T.S. Eliot decided to raid the 17th century poetry collections and the Elizabethan Drama to compose his creation “The Waste Land”.

More often than not, modern centos are regarded as witty. They are structured to create satire, humour, or irony through the juxtaposition of ideas and images.


7 Great Cento Poems to Read for Inspiration

There are many great examples of cento poems that one must read to derive inspiration. Modern centos differ from contemporary centos as these use contrasting ideas to create new imagery from diverse sources. The early examples of centos can be found in Virgilian works.

Some examples of modern centos worth quoting are-

1. “The Dong with the Luminous Nose” – A contemporary cento by John Ashbery, that harvests lines from some of the famous poems, including those of Lord Byron and T.S. Eliot.

2. “To a Waterfowl” is another one of Ashbery’s works, composed using verses from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, among others.

3. “Wolf Centos”- A poem by American poet Simone Muench, cites from 187 different authors, collecting no more than a couplet-per-borrowed text.

4. “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot is a prominent illustration of a cento, spreading over 400 lines and borrowing texts from poets like Homer, Virgil, Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare and Bram Stoker.

5. “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You’”- composed by Nicole Sealey uses verses from a variety of poets such as, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Path, and Pablo Neruda.

6. “Oxford Cento” was composed by David Lehman, taking verses from The Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006). In this poem, he cites renowned poets like Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

7. “Ode: Salute to the New York School1950-1970(a libretto)”- by Peter Gizzi is a 43 pages long abecedarian cento from the New York School poems. 



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