A Collage Poem: The Cento

April 18th, 2012

Author and poet Shirley McPhillips continues our Poetry Month series this week with a post about collage poems. Make sure to check out her previous posts on bringing students into the world of poetry and blogging about poetry. Share your own cento in the comments section!

A Collage Poem: The Cento

Recently I started a collage notebook. Each page has an arrangement of shapes, colors, and textures suggesting a theme, an idea. Keeping this notebook, I find myself being attracted to materials for making collages. I collect papers of all sorts. I save art magazines. I dismantle packaged products. The expectation of creating something keeps me looking for possibly useful and surprising materials.

After Hurricane Irene, for example, I tore pieces from an old watercolor painting and cut shapes from an art magazine to make an abstract design suggesting the ferocity of that storm. Plants spiking, twisting, wrenching. Light shafting, cutting. Water curling, grasping, overlapping. Ever after I will think of the storm with my new image in mind.

A poem form called the cento can be thought of as a collage poem. Cento means “patchwork” in Latin. It is a type of writing, especially a poem, composed wholly of quotations from the works of other authors. A whole new poem, a new meaning, is made from choosing and assembling lines from other poems.

Poets can make small changes in the lines they choose for a cento, or use lines exactly as they appear. Usually a cento will include no more than one line from each poem, and the lines may represent one poet or several poets.

Lest we get excited that this may be “stealing” lines, we can remember T. S. Eliot’s statement: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” It seems respectful practice, in any case, to cite one’s sources. (My opinion.)

On the Academy of American Poets Web site, the staff show how they composed a cento using lines from Marie Ponsot, Emily Dickinson, Charles Wright, Sylvia Plath, and Samuel Beckett.

More contemporary centos, such as John Ashbery’s “The Dong with the Luminous Nose,” are often witty and play with ideas and images. See also “Wolf Cento” by Simone Muench.

Finally, creating a cento is not about constructing but rather arranging lines in a particular sequence. That arrangement can delight and inspire and move us for the same reasons that any other kind of poem can.

Cady (grade six) wrote a cento after looking through his favorite collection called ’Til All the Stars Have Fallen, poems selected by David Booth. He used sources from James Reaney, Myra Stillborn, Jane Wadley, Joanne Lysyk, Ken Stange, Robert Heidbreder, Dorothy Livesay, Chief Dan George, and Anne Corkett.

The wind was a tall sweet woman

circling the shadow of every tree
tramping the grass so that it lay flat
cackling with laughter—

speaks to me
now raise your arms and fly, fly, fly.

This night I rise and scream
Till I’ve cried the rivers full.

O where have you gone?

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Poem Talk - The Stenhouse&hellip  |  April 25th, 2012 at 9:22 am

    […] to check out Shirley’s book A Note Slipped Under the Door, as well as her previous Poetry Month […]

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