This writing exercise will encourage students to pay attention to how poems work at a line-by-line level. Students will mine many source poems for individual lines and create their own poem by collaging these lines into a unique sequence.
The cento is an ancient form that can be traced back more than two thousand years; the word “cento” is Latin for “patchwork”. A cento is essentially a collage made from language, with lines from great poems repurposed to create entirely new texts. Modernist poets like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound used similar strategies in some of their best-known work (“The Waste Land” and The Cantos, respectively) and New York School poets like Ted Berrigan and John Ashbery also played with this form with notable results. Contemporary poets such as Simone Muench, Peter Gizzi, and Mary Dalton have all published recent examples.
The pleasure of creating a contemporary cento is in the almost magical way lines from different sources bump up against each other and open up new narrative possibilities. Because this exercise forces students to focus closely on their favourite lines from various poems, it helps them understand how the individual parts relate to the whole. For a cento to be successful, the student needs to pay attention to tone and syntax and mood, and by working through the exercise, they will gain greater insight into the choices poets make when moving from one line to the next.
In this lesson, students will have opportunities to:
- Focus on language skills at the line level.
- Focus on associative thinking and making connections among various texts.
- Focus on the importance of context, arrangement, and form in writing.
- Examine the ways poems often echo other poems, how poems “talk to each other.”
- Examine how art can be disassembled and reassembled to create new works of art.
To teach this lesson, you will need:
resources for examples of published centos and useful reading to prep the class. There are currently no centos in the Poetry In Voice anthology, but we will be adding one soon. In the meantime, we recommend these resources:
- Wolf Centos by Simone Muench (Sarabande Books) Some of the individual poems from this book, made up entirely of centos, are available online
- The Cento: A Collection of Collage Poems, edited by Theresa Malphrus Welford and with an introduction by David Lehman
- This interview with Newfoundland-based poet Mary Dalton about her use of the cento at the Malahat Review (with interior links to examples of Dalton’s centos)
- “To a Waterfowl” by John Ashbery:
- This piece by poet and critic David Lehman from the New York Times about John Ashbery's cento “To A
- Materials for writing centos in the classroom. There are many different approaches to creating a cento, but for all of them, students will need to have access to a variety of source texts. Teachers might offer a large number of individual books in the classroom for students to mine for material, or, if students have access to the internet in class, they should direct students to the Poetry In Voice anthology.