The word “cento” means “patchwork” in Latin, and refers to a poem pieced together from lines taken from other poems — in other words, a collage poem. From the very beginning, poets have quoted other poets, stolen phrases and lines and reworked them into their own poems. A cento makes this process formally explicit, line by line
It is perhaps worth remembering T.S. Eliot’s famous statement about literary “theft” in this context:
“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.”
Some poets make small changes in the lines they appropriate for a cento; others adopt the lines without amendment. Usually a cento will use no more than one line from each source poem; the sources may be poems of a single poet, or many poets, or even many different languages. In any case, the art of creating a cento is in the combination of a sequence of lines rather than in the construction of the lines themselves.
A single cento (actually half-cento) is in our library here at About Poetry:
- “SemiCento” by Bob Holman